Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve
Walking (partway) down the Shark Valley trail*: Totalling 15 miles (24 kilometres), this is a very long hike – especially on a hot day. There is no shade, only a couple of benches, and no drinkable water to be found (gotta haul around your own). We walked about halfway before we decided it was time to head back. We saw many alligators (and tiny alligator babies), storks, anhingas, herons, turtles, and many beautiful flowers in the first few miles. The only thing we really missed was the observation tower at the end (which we hear was “okay”).
Sure, you can buy a ticket for the tram, but that’s $25 a person and you can’t get off, except at the observation tower (where you are hurried right back on again), so it’s hard to stop and really admire the wildlife. You can also rent (creaky) bikes, but at $9 an hour per bike, you’ll end up spending $25 a person anyway. We opted to walk as far as we could and have no regrets. It’s amazing how close you can get to alligators, especially in the heat of the day.
*It’s a wide, paved asphalt path the entire way, so not really a trail in our books. Also, there are no sharks. It’s named Shark Valley because it empties into the Shark River … which empties into the ocean … which has sharks.
Canoeing in the west Everglades: For $24 total we rented a canoe in the west Everglades (near Everglades City) and spent several hours canoeing around the bay and out to the nearby islands. It was a gorgeous day for a paddle and, although we didn’t see any manatees, we really enjoyed ourselves. After starting a hike on one of the islands, we encountered our first real mosquito colony, so we promptly and strategically retreated back to the open water. Hint: Don’t paddle against the tide, it’s impossible.
Bonus: Alligator and bird spotting at any of the Everglades or Big Cypress visitor centres or just on the side of the road while you’re driving, awesome camp neighbours who leave you their extra fuel, the shells of some strange alien creatures (or of some sort of Ray).
Florida’s South-West coast
The “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge: It poured rain for several days after we emerged from the Everglades, but luckily we were able to spend a couple of lovely nights with Amalia’s aunt and cousin (and little cousins Emmanuel and Andreas – hi!!) just outside of Naples. After a day of taking it easy (see the bonus section), we headed north to the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. While there were a few places to visit, this seemed like a good choice on a rainy day as it has a wildness drive where we could pick and choose when to get out of our cars. We saw a lot more wildlife here including pelicans, sandpipers, an osprey, and some really cool tree crabs.
The Dali Museum: After seeing a whole bunch of manatees (see bonus section) we drove around Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg where, after eating in the farmer’s market, we ventured to the Dali Museum. Recommended by some friends, it was totally worth the cost of admission. A guided audio tour provided background on many of the pieces. There was also a special exhibition on Dali and Walt Disney who followed similar paths to fame at around the same time and kind of sort of worked together. It became pretty obvious that Disney was a bit of a jerk and, when it came to working together, he just kept leading Dali on before shutting him down over and over again. In the end, Dali was a more fascinating, interesting, and less profit-driven artist.
Bonus: Swimming in a (really) warm salt-water pool, watching three movies in 24 hours (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Hotel Transylvania 2, & Goosebumps), my step-dad’s cousin’s uranium glassware and her fruit salad garden (she has cherry, lychee, mango, and jack fruit trees as well some pineapple plants), walking along South Lido Beach, Perq coffee bar, spending time and having great conversations in Venice with our new friends Jane-Ann and Ian (who also generously put us up for two nights), seeing more manatees than we could count at the Manatee Viewing Centre, the greek tourist haven of Tarpon Springs.