It was high time for a girlfriend getaway. My friend Corrie and I had been working hard behind our desks at our “real” jobs – mine in DC and hers in Charlotte – and a road trip through the Florida Keys seemed like just the thing to do to get us out of our ruts.
After flying into Fort Lauderdale, we knew we couldn’t head south without first seeing at least the smallest corner of the Everglades. So we booked our first night at Beach Garden Hotel (around $150) in Fort Lauderdale to keep within our semi-low budget. After all, we were splurging on some other things – can you really take a road trip through the Florida Keys in anything but a convertible? – so we wanted to keep relatively cheap on whatever else we could.
That left us the rest of the day (we arrived around lunchtime), a night, and another half-day in Ft. Lauderdale before our drive to Key Largo. So, first things first…
Grab rental car, find beach bar, have drink!
I like to indulge immediately after arriving somewhere (no, it doesn’t always have to involve alcohol – indulging can be as simple as sticking my toes in the sand…but today, it was both!). Hotel check-in’s, logistics, etc., can wait… even if only for just a few minutes. After leaving somewhere cold (DC in February) and arriving in a warm coastal town, my first stop has to involve stepping out onto the beach, feeling the sun on my face and breathing some salt air.
A quick Google search for something near our hotel, and we drove to Sandbar Grill, a beachfront restaurant and bar at the Sun Tower Hotel and Suites. It was straight to the terrace for some piña coladas and fish tacos (probably the best lunch we had that week), then some play time by the ocean!
We checked into the hotel afterwards and, with several hours to kill before dinner (all my plans are made around eating, FYI), made our way to the International Game Fish Association‘s Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum. In my work in fisheries conservation and policy, I’d worked on several of the same issues as the folks at IGFA, so was eager to visit the museum.
Holy giant Marlin! This place holds some impressive mounts of world-record catches. In a nutshell, the Hall of Fame exhibits include aquariums, interactive displays, and the evolution of fishing gear through the years, just to name a few. It recognizes important contributions to recreational fishing, both nationally and internationally, by anglers, fisheries scientists, policy-makers and the sportfishing industry.
It’s a good time… if you’re into that kinda thing.
Back to the hotel, and hungry again, we took a recommendation from hotel staff to walk down the street to Plaza Bistro for some alfresco dining. We enjoyed fresh seafood while a pianist serenaded us under the stars and a slight ocean breeze cooled the air.
Ugh. If only Corrie were a dude…
Nah, I had a lotta fun with my girl! But let’s be honest… I couldn’t help thinking that the atmosphere was pretty damn romantic. Not that there was a hint of a date in my near future… Ugh, again. Any-hoo, the bistro had a high-end feel, while being laid-back and well-priced, and we really enjoyed ourselves.
The next morning, what I’d been waiting for… a tour of the Everglades! Based on their great reviews (Corrie’s a Yelper), we did an hour airboat tour with Everglades the River of Grass Adventures. They were also one of the closer tour operators south of Ft. Lauderdale, so we could have a leisurely morning before the short drive there, then still have plenty of daylight left to continue south to Key Largo and catch a nice waterfront sunset.
After less than an hour drive, we arrived at the Pilot station on SW 8th St. in Miami and waited for them to pick us up to take us to the boat (weird, but just go with it… there’s limited parking at the launch site).
Up pulled the shuttle, we hopped in, and two minutes later we hopped back out and piled into the boat.
A quick safety brief, ear protection on, and off we went, skimming along the top of the water… over lily pads, wet prairie and sawgrass marshes. Airboating is considered fairly eco-friendly, since there’s no submerged propeller to damage underwater flora and fauna (that gets an extra thumbs-up from this biologist). It was loud, it was windy, it was a ton o’ fun.
We stopped a few times to hear our guide talk about the ecology of the area and its wildlife, some of which we had close encounters with along the way.
First, a male boat-tailed grackle (I’m pretty sure) flew in and perched on the side of the boat. Then, a pair of purple gallinules emerged from the grass, also hopping on the boat to give us a closer look.
After that, an American alligator came over to check us out, circling slowly from a distance before inching a little closer, then a little closer, then even closer still. When we returned to the launch site, we came across a couple more alligators, juveniles peering out at the activity from the water’s edge.
Though it was just the tiniest taste of the several million acre Everglades ecosystem – over 1.5 million acres of which is Everglades National Park (other designations include International Biosphere Reserve, Wetland of International Importance, and World Heritage Site… this place is special, y’all) – it was worth every bit of the $50 we spent. I will be going back at some point for a longer, more thorough visit. It was a great end to our short stop in Ft. Lauderdale, and an excellent start to our Keys road trip!
If you go
Everglades the River of Grass Adventures offers tours 7 days a week (except Christmas) during daylight hours. We lucked out with a next-day reservation, but to be on the safe side, you should call ahead (305-788-2418) with slightly more notice than that. They offer several tour lengths, either private or shared with other randos (we shared with a sweet family of three, and it was great). Enjoy!
(Update: Plaza Bistro has since closed and IGFA’s museum has since moved. Makes for a kinda lame travel post, huh? Sorry…)