Known for its flashy nightclubs and colourful mix of cultures, Miami has a glitzy reputation. But there’s a rustic side to this world-class city, with plenty of opportunities for travellers who want to mix some natural adventures in with their exotic dining and luxury experiences.
Humberto Torres, owner of tour company Miami Sunshine Group, says exploring the Everglades is the only way to witness the real Miami — an unmissable experience for anybody visiting South Florida. “It’s just an amazing ecosystem,” he explains. “It’s unique. You cannot find it anywhere else. Just 20 minutes away from Miami… you [begin to see] a completely different world.”
Nicknamed the River of Grass, the Everglades truly is the only wetland system of its kind on the planet — a flat, marshy landscape packed to the brim with plant and animal life, with plenty of ways to explore it. One of the most popular ways, and one that’s largely unique to South Florida, is touring its marshes by airboat. Most first-time visitors to Florida have never seen such a craft, with its characteristic giant fan propelling it forwards across the water.
“It’s unique. You cannot find it anywhere else. Just 20 minutes away from Miami… you [begin to see] a completely different world.”
“People want to understand what makes the Everglades so special,” Torres says of his airboat rides through the marshes, leveraging his relationships with local experts to expose visitors to unique corners of the ecosystem. “[And] how there is amazing grass all over the place. How the alligators move through the Everglades. How there are birds, snakes and a whole culture of Indians surviving there for 200 years.”
Miami Sunshine Tours is just one of many companies with expertise in the Everglades. Miami Tour Company, for instance, also offers a one-hour airboat tour with professional guide, paired with an alligator rescue show.
Other Everglades explorers travel to Shark Valley, a wide walking and biking path populated by wild alligators. At nearby alligator farms, like Everglades Alligator Farm, audiences can watch live shows, looking on in awe as trainers perform thrilling feats like sticking their heads into the gators’ mouths.
Exploring native culture might not be at the top of eco-adventurers’ plans when they book an Everglades jaunt. But Torres says it’s impossible to separate the nature from its history. “It’s not just the weather and the water; people want to understand how man went into the Everglades looking for a place to live and the whole culture that came from that,” he says.
One of Torres’ favourite places in the Everglades is Ten Thousand Islands, a chain of tiny islands and islets comprising a maze of mangroves and waterways. It’s an ideal place for travellers to paddle through the park in canoes and kayaks. Led by an Everglades Area Tours nature expert, visitors can launch from Chokoloskee Island and wander routes populated by exotic birds, manatees, dolphins and other exciting wildlife.
“It’s not just the weather and the water; people want to understand how man went into the Everglades looking for a place to live and the whole culture that came from that.”
These islands sit roughly an hour and a half from Miami proper. But Torres says it’s worth the commute.
“It’s an amazing experience for people who really want to understand the difference between salt water and fresh water,” he says. “There you get to see both at the same time and experience two different ecosystems.”
But you don’t have to travel for hours from Miami to splash down into some fascinating nature — particularly not if you know your way around scuba tanks or snorkelling masks. There’s another national park lurking just south of the city, but in order to visit it, you’re going to have to get wet.
Biscayne National Park spans 172,924 acres, 95 percent of which is comprised of the clear blue waters that have made South Florida famous. Yes, there are a few beaches and camping sites, but the real draw to Biscayne is getting up close and personal with all that lies beneath the waves. Snorkelling is the most popular activity in the park. On tours led by the Biscayne National Park Institute, anybody — from beginners to experienced snorkellers — can expect to encounter dolphins, sea turtles, rays and dozens of species of colourful tropical fish populating its reefs, wrecks and shores.
Shielded from high winds as a part of Biscayne Bay, the park waters are usually calm enough for stand-up paddleboarding, with tours either self-guided or led by a guide to interesting spots like Adams Key. The island was once home to a popular luxury retreat called the Cocolobo Club, which was frequented by former presidents — including Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon — as well as Carl Fisher. The club has vanished, but Adams Key still boasts hiking trails, a picnic pavilion and small dock to explore once you’ve docked your paddleboard.
The most visited key in Biscayne National Park these days, however, is Boca Chita Key, known for its historic lighthouse. Built in the 1930s, the Boca Chita Lighthouse offers spectacular views of the Miami skyline, as well as other nearby islands, the surrounding bay and the vast blue ocean beyond. Guided tours led by the Biscayne National Park Institute include a climb to the top of the lighthouse as well as trail hiking and time for relaxation on its beach.
Soaking Up History
For those wanting to dive deep into history a little closer to Miami proper, you can visit the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County: the historic lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne. Visitors here also enjoy swimming, picnicking, shoreline fishing and sunbathing on the more than one mile of Atlantic beachfront. If you prefer to keep dry, biking and kayaking are also big here.
A former rock quarry turned public pool offers a taste of Mediterranean oasis. Venetian Pool is a unique part of Miami’s history and a great place for a dip. Known as the only swimming pool on the National Register of Historic Places, it is large enough to hold 820,000 gallons of fresh water, making it the largest freshwater pool in the United States.
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Author: Ciara Ebanks