Kayaking the Everglades
An hour into the two-mile boardwalk, your companions are a solitary woodpecker and the fuzzy caterpillar inching its way along the guardrail. The short afternoon rainstorm has left only the soothing sound of water drops falling from tree leaves into pristine Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
, creating what can only be described as a meditative calm. The only thing strong enough to break the transcendental moment – the thought of another fine dining experience in downtown Naples.
If you're like most semi-adventurous travelers, you're not one to shy away from a good hike or snorkeling trip, but navigating the Amazon with a compass or clapping rocks together to start a fire has never carried much appeal. You probably love nature a hair more than the average person, but the lure of clean sheets and a hot shower always proves irresistible.
That's the beauty of the Paradise Coast. The natural splendor of Southwest Florida is yours to behold, and there are infinite ways to take in the sights. Boardwalks and nature centers offer quick and easy access to the wild, while canoe trails, boat rentals and swamp hikes present opportunities for self-styled exploration. Whether you're an insect-fearing city slicker, a gung-ho nature nut or something in between, you're free to create your own adventure.Day 1
The weekend adventure begins in Everglades City, where it's only a two-minute stroll from the cozy confines of the Ivey House Bed & Breakfast
to Speedy Johnson's
airboat tours. As the big block Chevy roars to life, the six-passenger fan boat departs on the placid waterways for a tour of the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands.
From atop the fan boat, two 300-pound wild boars, along with their surprisingly adorable pint-sized offspring, can be seen wallowing on the muddy bank. A patient alligator takes his gaze off the potential ham dinner long enough to glide effortlessly up to the boat and pose for a picture. After zooming through winding mangroves at ridiculously exciting speeds, an expansive grassy marsh emerges, while overhead, a flock of vultures and a lone hawk share the endless sky.
Just an hour long, the airboat tour offers a great overview of the area's ecological diversity, as does the Everglades National Park Boat Tour
that departs from the park's Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. More intrepid explorers could opt for a backcountry canoe or kayak trip along the famed Wilderness Waterway. Ivey House also offers guided expeditions during the winter months, as does Big Cypress National Preserve
, and you can bring or rent a canoe or kayak and chart your own course. Fishing enthusiasts can head into the backcountry in search of prized snook, tarpon and redfish.
More casual vacationers may get a glimpse of charming Everglades City and the surrounding waterways by renting a bike. Cyclists have the option of heading all the way down to the rustic outpost of Chokoloskee or taking a relaxing ride along the town's old fishing docks and historic streets.Day 2
The 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve
offers cyclists and hikers numerous opportunities to explore, including new boardwalks (one stretches 1,500 feet into the preserve), the Oasis Visitor Center, two driving and cycling loops, and guided hikes and canoe paddles. The entire preserve is an angler's paradise, evidenced by the number
Big Cypress National Preserve
of people standing alongside the roads and trails, reels in hand. The adventurous, or quasi-adventurous, however, can opt to go a little deeper. Literally.
Adventurers can join the sanctuary's Outreach/Education Specialist Lisa Andrews for what one would assume to be a death-defying swamp hike. Once the expedition party realizes there is nothing to fear – Andrews regularly takes groups of 45 children on the same walk – the wonders of the swamp begin to show themselves. Andrews introduces the group to orchids, dwarf cypress, pond apple trees and the colorful, carnivorous bladderwort that feeds on mosquito larvae.
As Andrews explains, a few inches in altitude makes a world of difference in the swamp. Troughs through the ancient limestone of South Florida create strands where deeper water collects. The soil accumulates, and larger trees take root. Life flocks to these shady, well-watered areas.
Near Immokalee at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
, the 2.5-mile boardwalk winds through another strand consisting of five distinct habitats. Ferns and twisted roots envelop the towering old growth cypress, the trees' colossal branches extending like giant arms over the swamp. Large, spiral-shaped epiphytes, or air plants, grow magically off the side of every stationary object – even the boardwalk.
Corkscrew is home to an annual wood stork migration and boasts the largest mating population of these endangered birds in the country, not to forget the sanctuary's countless other feathered residents. It comes as little surprise that Corkscrew is a prominent stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.Day 3
Feeling "one with the swamp" after two days of education and exploration, it's off to the Gulf, where a rumbling WaveRunner®
awaits at Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa
. Enjoying the beauty of local waters and opulent Gulf-front homes is as easy as boarding a luxurious daytime or sunset cruise on the Naples Princess
or Marco Princess
yachts, but for wet-and-wild excitement it's tough to beat the WaveRunner®
Windsurfers, personal watercraft, boats, parasails and every imaginable water-based activity can be had in Naples and Marco Island, and while visitors can enjoy the freedom of playing in the warm water on their own, guided excursions through the Ten Thousand Islands offer a way to enjoy the water and learn something along the way. When the "watercade" of WaveRunners®
came to a halt in a shallow bay enclosed by mangrove islands, the organized tour quickly proves to be a fabulous choice. Within seconds an endangered manatee greets the group, the portly, pleasant-natured sea cow sliding effortlessly beneath the line of watercraft before poking its snout out of the water for a quick breath.
Entering the open Gulf and zooming past isolated spits of sand, boaters take a break from sunning themselves and casting lines into the blue waters to wave to the passing visitors. Heading back toward Marco Island's resort skyline, the tour re-enters the mangroves, catching a quick glimpse of an osprey perched regally on a branch.
Clambering off the single-seat tour boat and strolling the soft sands of Marco Island, it becomes clear that you've just scratched the surface of all there is to do wild and waterside along the Paradise Coast. It's time to start planning the next eco-itinerary, one heavy on adventure and peril – right after a hot shower and gourmet meal.