Natural escapes to ecological preserves minutes away by bike in Hollywood, Florida. A vast sawgrass and gator-inhabited wilderness, including the Everglades National Park, found less than an hour’s drive from the Miami skyline. What surprised my family and me the most on our recent ecotourism adventure in the Miami or Fort Lauderdale areas were their accessibility – and beauty.
While Part 1 in this series of blog posts covers what’s possible just off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, for this blog we stayed closer to shore.
Our guide, Jorge Posada, makes it seem too easy.
“First, kneel on the paddeboard until you’re comfortable and can maintain your balance,” he coaches, just as the early morning light cuts across Dania Beach, with its popular pier for fishing and stretch of sand most popular among high school-aged locals and skim boarders. “Once you have your balance, with one leg first, stand up on your paddleboard.” Within minutes, my son and I were upright and calmly paddling up Whisky Creek, named as such after being used to smuggle booze during prohibition. Today, the pristine mangrove-lined waterways are protected as the John U. Lloyd State Park, just north of Hollywood and south of Fort Lauderdale, sandwiched between the Intercoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean.
Gliding across the calm surface of the water on our stand up paddleboard, or SUP for short, we spotted pufferfish darting about and surprised a crab scampering for cover. Being atop the paddleboard, peering down into the water, provides a clear perspective of the aquatic life beneath the waters. Besides offering private paddleboard lessons and tours to Whisky Creek and nearby at the 1,501-acre coastal mangrove wetland area that includes the Anne Kolb Nature Center and West Lake Park, Posada coaches clients on personal fitness and nutrition as a part of his company, FocusFitt. By the end of the hour-long paddle, we felt as nearly at ease on our paddleboard as our guide.
“Inches deep, but nearly fifty miles wide, the Everglades is America’s slowest moving river,” says Steve Caves, our guide for Airboat in Everglades who coasted to a stop within a couple feet of an 9-foot-plus-long American alligator. “He’s usually here. It’s his beachfront property,” he jokes. As the only ecosystem of its kind on the planet, the Everglades, dubbed “river of grass,” stretches for miles in all directions, interrupted only by a few drainage canals. “Back in the 1940s, they tried to drain it,” explains Caves, a billowing man who could probably wrestle an alligator and come out on top. “Low and behold, it turned out to be a river,” he says with a laugh. “Water overflows Lake Okeechobee and creeps southward to the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of only 2,000 feet per day.”
After spending a few minutes going over the differences between crocodiles and alligators (the Everglades is the only place where both co-exist), our guide fires up the twin prop, 496-horsepower engine and we speed off over the grass, swishing past blue herons, great egrets and an ibis. Wind in our faces and earmuffs over our ears, protecting them from the thundering engine powering our boat, our group of eight sit back for our intimate backcountry tour. By the end of the trip, we saw eight gators and numerous bird species, including the colorful Purple Gallinule.
To continue the adventure on foot or bike inside the 2,357-square-mile Everglades National Park, head to the Bobcat Boardwalk Trail, with its half-mile boardwalk over the water. Pick up the trail behind the Shark Valley Visitor Center. Have a bike? Shark Valley offers avid bicyclists to loop through the sawgrass wilderness on a 15-mile blacktop road with plentiful alligators and crocodiles reminding you to stay on the road. For an extra fee, you can also hop a tram, fueled with biodiesel, for a two-hour guided tour. More than thirty-six species of endangered animals thrive within the park, including the elusive Florida panther.
We biked everywhere in Hollywood, saving a bundle by not having to rent a car, acquiring plenty of exercise, and getting around without needing a drop of gasoline. We traveled from our apartment in Hollywood’s North Beach neighborhood to the sandy spot where we put in our paddleboards. And we pedaled to the Yellow Green Market where we picked up local, fresh, and sometimes organic, fruits, vegetables and herbs. But most of all, we coasted along the two-and-a-half-mile-long, brick-lined Hollywood Broadwalk, heralded as one of the most scenic in the United States. We’d nominate it as one of the best on the planet, which may be why so many people from around the world meander along the family-friendly, car-free promenade.
Lined by palm trees and beach on one side and Floridian-style homes and classic 1920s boutique hotels on the other, the terra-cotta-colored pathway seems to connect and celebrate everything that makes Florida such an alluring place to be: sun, sand, surf and active people, out for a stroll, bike or roller-blade. The Donald hasn’t bulldozed paradise for another one of his high-rises here. It’s a place where beach cruisers prevail.
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.