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From Everglades to Keys: Florida by houseboat

There is a stretch of Florida that is way off the beaten path, custom made for families with youngsters or people who are looking for something novel. It features alligators, panthers, snakes, manatees, sharks, all manner of beautiful birds – and houseboats. And another plus — it is wonderfully on the budget side.

Last year, my husband Jay and I decided to spend the few days between Christmas and New Year’s in this area, which stretches from the Everglades on Florida’s Gulf coast to Islamorada in its Keys. Our plan was to do a little wildlife sighting in the Everglades and then drive to Islamorada where we intended to rent a houseboat. We flew to Fort Myers, rented a car, and made our way directly to Everglades City, really a city in name only. It’s actually more a cozy village on the edge of the Everglades that today is the best place to rent kayaks and canoes to explore the adjacent Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. We stayed at the “world famous” Rod & Gun Club, founded in 1864 whose history includes visits by a number of luminaries including Mick Jagger and presidents Roosevelt and Truman. The hotel, which does not accept credit cards, is like a relic out of the past, and therein lies much of its charm.

“Alligator Alley”

The next morning on our way to Islamorada we made a side trip that turned out to be one of the highpoints of our visit. Based on a tip from one of the locals, we learned of a road with a canal running along its side that few visitors hear about, a road that is a favored spot for viewing alligators in their native habitat. From Everglades City, we took Route 29 north to Route 41, the old Tamiami Trail. On Route 41, we turned east for about 8 miles until we came to the junction of Country Road 839, also known as Turner River Road. Keep your eyes open because it’s easy to miss. We made a left and found ourselves on an unpaved dusty road, bordered on the right by the canal. The locals had told us to pull up to any cleared area or behind cars that were already parked, because those parked generally had already found a trove of alligators and would save us from doing the work ourselves. But we decided to go it alone and had no difficulty finding our own private viewing area, chock full of alligators. It is mesmerizing, watching these prehistoric creatures. They snooze in the sun, swim unfazed up the river, and seem utterly uninterested in the human creatures ogling them. The alligators coexist peacefully with large turtles and beautiful birds like egrets, herons, pelicans, and ospreys. The whole scene is truly is a marvel to behold!

The Houseboat Experience

It was hard to tear ourselves away but we had 140 miles to go before reaching Islamorada and our houseboat, so we took Route 29 north to Interstate 75 and drove east. Much of 75 is nearly empty of traffic except for Indian reservations and airboat ride establishments. We continued on 75, skirting Miami, and on to Route 1 toward Islamorada Key and our destination at Robbie’s Marina where Island Hoppers Houseboats is located.

Houseboats are clunky things, manatees as opposed to sharks. Dan from Island Hoppers walked Jay through the safety features of our boat, including how to use the radio and read charts while I headed back a couple of miles to the Trading Post Grocery Store to pick up provisions for the next two days. The Trading Post is pricey, but has a fabulous meat market. We hoped to catch fish but barring that we wanted some steak on board. Dan supplied us with ice and a huge chest in which we dumped our perishables, therefore avoiding the need for a noisy generator to cool the refrigerator.

When I returned from shopping, he ferried us through the narrow channel into Florida Bay, then hopped into a motorized dinghy to go back to Islamorada. And we were on our way!

Heaven on Florida Bay

The sun was warm, the water crystalline, and it felt like heaven. Our boat had two bedrooms and two sleeping sofas – altogether capable of sleeping eight – plus two baths, one equipped with a shower. It boasted a kitchen, cozy seating area, a front deck with a grill and a roof deck, plus a TV/DVD, and CD player. With a kayak and fishing poles aboard, we were set.

We chugged along until we found a beautiful spot over sand, perfect for swimming. The water in this part of Florida Bay is identical to that in the Bahamas, pure turquoise perfection. We threw down the anchor and while Jay fished, I paddled around. Mindful of the fact that these waters harbored a variety of creatures, friendly and not, I asked Jay to keep watch. He was pulling out tiny fish by the dozens and tossing them back overboard when he called out, “Maybe you’d like to come back on the boat for a bit.” He didn’t speak loudly but I knew what he meant and tore back to the boat. Sure enough, a small shark was circling, clearly attracted to the baitfish Jay was catching. It was a lesson well and quickly learned. No swimming and fishing at the same time in Florida Bay.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon taking turns at the helm and seeing virtually no other boats. Late in the afternoon, we anchored off a small, uninhabited key, climbed up to our deck with a nice bottle of wine, and watched a spectacular sunset. Jay grilled our steak and with some cole slaw and potato salad, we had a dinner that tasted as fine as if we were in a four-star restaurant. With the muffled sounds of water slapping against our boat we toasted our good luck.

The following day, New Year’s Eve, dawned with a gossamer quality, calm and clear. Our morning started with scrambled eggs, coffee, fresh fruit, and croissants on the deck. The only sounds were small fish jumping out of the water and birds chirping and diving for food. After breakfast, Jay pulled up the anchor and we were off, tooling around small keys and watching the occasional manta ray scoot under our boat churning up the sand. The air was a scented mix of salt water and breezes, and we were dazed with pleasure. Around noon we dropped the anchor and had lunch. That afternoon we lowered our kayak and paddled through some small mangrove islands. The quiet was pervasive, broken only occasionally by branches cracking as unseen animals scurried or jumped into the mangroves or a large turtle slipped from the bank into the water. Later we snorkeled over sea grass flats, home to dozens of small colorful fish that streaked below us.

The Keys are a bunch of islands, most of which are uninhabited, which is one of the reasons it is such a lovely place to cruise around in by boat. But anyone who rents a houseboat here needs a basic knowledge of chart reading – first to be able to get back to your starting point, and second to avoid getting stuck on a sand flat. The water can go from deep to shallow very quickly, and a houseboat is not easily maneuvered. Your houseboat operator will give you the basics and can be easily reached by radio or phone if a problem occurs.

Welcoming the New Year!

But Jay and I were seasoned houseboaters and knew what to be on guard for. Late in the afternoon we pulled up the anchor and headed for a spot we knew would give us a good look at the fireworks scheduled to go off at midnight from several of the larger keys. Following another beautiful sunset and another tasty steak dinner we turned on the lights for a bit of reading. Nearing midnight we opened a bottle of champagne as the first fireworks tooted and between midnight and 12:30 we were treated to displays from three separate keys with a spectacular finale that all participated in. We couldn’t imagine a nicer way to welcome in the New Year.

Sad to say, it was our last night onboard. We had planes to catch, work to do, and our busy urban lives to return to. The next morning we made our way back to Islamorada, taking care to avoid the flats, marveling at how private our time on the houseboat had seemed, when in fact, we were so close to the mainland. Times Square may be the very definition of a good time for some on New Year’s Eve, but it it’s not for you and your family, consider the Florida Keys on a houseboat this year.

Further Information:

Rod & Gun Club
200 Riverside Drive, Everglades City, FL 34139; 239-474-3436

Houseboat Rental at Robbie’s Marina
Islamorada Key, MM (mile marker) 77.5; 531-371-4247 (Dan)

Trading Post Grocery Store
Islamorada Key, MM 81.5

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