While some visitors to the Miami and Fort Lauderdale area spend much of the time baking in the sun, hitting the clubs or running up credit cards shopping, my family and I discovered that a subtropical ecotravel adventure awaits less than a half hour away in every direction from the big city bustle.
In this series of three posts, I’ll reveal some of the nature-based experiences possible in the “gold coast” stretching north from Miami to Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I’ll share our adventures on land, in the ocean and atop America’s slowest-flowing river in what is famously known as the Everglades.
The stretch of sands connecting the metro areas of Miami and Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t appear to be viable ecotourism destinations – at least not at first glance. But shimmering turquoise waters, powdery soft beaches, large swaths of mangroves preserved in various parks, and miles of bike paths makes it easy to escape the droves of sun-worshipers and traffic-clogged expressways.
With their catamarans docked in both Miami’s Bayside Harbor and Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Tropical Sailing offers both sunset sails and snorkeling trips that make the big city feel miles away while on their “Spirit of Lauderdale” 50-foot catamaran.
Once we hit the open Atlantic about a mile off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Captain Gary pulled the engines out of the water and we soared with the wind. Kicking back on their webbed “trampoline” that stretched between the twin hulls, sails stiff with the steady breeze, we enjoyed a champagne toast as the sun dropped behind the sand-trimmed coast. Not a sound from a motor or drop of fuel being burned.
Less than a twenty minute drive from Miami’s towering financial district, across the other side of the Rickenbacker Causeway, past Hobie Island Beach and the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, emerges Key Biscayne, with it’s pristine, palm-tree-dotted beaches. The mangrove-formed island is book-marked by the 800-acre Crandon State Park to the north and the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park with its stunning Cape Florida Lighthouse to the south.
"I'm a paddling encyclopedia,” jokes Alex Martinez, our guide for our kayaking adventure with Miami-Dade Eco-Adventures. He lives up to the moniker, and then some. Among other things, he managed the reptile collections and animal rehabilitation at the Falcon Bachelor Bird of Prey Center at the Miami Museum of Science before leading sea kayak trips for the past five years. He knows the difference between Vase and Queen Conch and just about everything else we might see. “Everything is so beautiful here. All I do is just give an educational spin on what we’re seeing, or, in some cases, touching,” he says, as my wife and son climb into our sea kayaks and head out into the calm, azure waters.
For our three-hour trip we paddled about fifty yards off shore, down what is one of the final remnants of the South Florida Barrier Islands known as Bear Cut Preserve. Our first objective, besides the possibility of catching a glimpse of the Lesser Electric Ray moving in for a meal in the sea-grass beds during high tide, are the fossilized remains of an underwater mangrove forest. Despite the Miami skyline in the distance, we felt as if our small group of six kayakers, plus a few picnickers on the beach, were the only ones around.
Pulling up to a small stream inlet between mangroves, we hopped out of our kayaks and followed Martinez into the 5,000-year-old fossilized reef on foot. By now, the tide was going out. Part snorkeling, part hiking the reef carefully on seagrass, we discovered an abundance of sea life within reach, including Giant Hermit Crabs, West Indian Sea Eggs, “near threatened” West Indian Cushion Stars and a Florida Spiny Lobster.
While nowhere as abundant with fish as we found in the coral reefs off shore in the Florida Keys, the underwater petrified forest is oddly unique, one of only two in the world. To complete our loop, we pushed further north to a sand bar to stretch our legs before turning back, making sure to wiggle through some mangroves. Looking to extend our trip, we took a stroll through the park’s Crandon Gardens, a former zoo reclaimed by countless (and friendly) bird species and other animals; some, like a Sandhill Crane and some peacocks, even joined us on our walk.
During the warmer spring and summer months, snorkel or dive trips out to the coral reef in Biscayne National Park are also possible. In fact, such trips are the only way to experience it since most of the 172,000-acre park is either underwater or encompassing off-shore islands. For a brief, land-based intro to the park, visit Convoy Point’s Dante Fascell Visitor Center.
With the deep waters less than a mile off shore, we couldn’t pass up a couple fishing trips to either hook our dinner or catch-and-release some of the most spectacular pelagic fish in the world: sailfish and kingfish. These were the ones Hemingway was always after.
Fishing Headquarters out of Fort Lauderdale offered a wide selection of trips, both daytime and at night, appealing to anglers of all skill levels and interests. My son and I first headed out for a nighttime trip on their group party boat, looking to catch our dinner in much the same way we grow it in our gardens back in the Midwest. Our four hour trip netted us enough snapper, porgies and grunts for three meals.
A couple days later, we headed out on a half day sports fishing charter joined by a father and his son from New York, hopeful for a bite from a dolphin fish or kingfish while trolling the waters. We ended up having to “settle” for grey tilefish and a few porgies we snagged when we all bottom fished, catches of which made for a feast for us all.
My next blog explores the natural wonders to be experienced onshore.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.