Everglades City Is the Gateway to Spectacular Outdoor Adventure
Head to heart of the Everglades for a tough-to-beat experience
John Wayne, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ernest Hemingway didn’t have much in common beyond their statuses as very specific sorts of 20th-century American icons — but they did all make it to Everglades City, and more specifically, to The Rod & Gun Club Resort, where presidents, potentates and adventurers of all ilks have gone to explore a largely untamed world with little more than a fishing pole or a kayak paddle.
Now, visitors will find a small-town vibe in the midst of the Everglades. Everglades National Park encompasses 1.5 million acres of South Florida, with Everglades City boasting one of only four entrances to the park. Here, you’ll enter via the Gulf Coast Visitors Center, which leads to the Ten Thousand Islands, a mangrove estuary only accessed by boat. It’s hard to believe you’re only about 90 minutes west of Miami when you’re here, for on this island that fewer than 400 people call home, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time to the early days of the 20th century.
Staying at a place called The Rod & Gun Club has its inherent challenges. You could spend your whole visit on its homey porch, reading your favorite Carl Hiaasen novel, but it’s the jumping-off place for proving just how tough your outdoor game really is. The resort has been a fixture here since the 1920s when Barron Collier (a wealthy banker and landowner, and the namesake of Collier County) transformed a family home into the club, drawing high-profile adventurers and many others (eventually encompassing both male and female guests) with a yen for the wilderness. Back then, the draw was mostly hunting and fishing; these days, you can hunt nearby in Big Cypress National Preserve for white-tailed deer, turkey and hogs in season. But most people making the trek to Everglades City want to fish offshore for big tarpon and snook and in the backwaters of the Everglades for trout, redfish and more.
And then there’s the hiking, biking and paddling — Everglades City is designated as an official “trail town” by Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails. That means kayaking or canoeing on water trails out to Sandfly Island on a five-mile loop, tackling a section of the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway Trail or heading from here to the Keys and camping along the way. The reward for your efforts might include skimming along next to a gator, seeing a multitude of birds winging by or even spotting chattering dolphins if you venture into the Gulf.
Biking in the Everglades takes stamina and some strong bug spray, so bring both to experience the numerous trails. The best hiking trails here (think the Collier-Seminole Trail or the Bamboo Mound via the Florida Trail) can be seriously challenging as they wend through the Everglades landscape. But the payoff is amazing for nature lovers, with hundreds of birds, reptiles, amphibians and other creatures in this ecological wonderland.
The Softer Side
Once you’ve proved your mettle (or finished that book from the porch), the inside of the Gun & Rod Club is quite the discovery. Sleep in one of the cottages right on the Barron River, but be sure to see the interior of the main lodge, as it is an eye-popping mix of antiques and quirks. The great room, bar and fine dining restaurants are all throwbacks, complete with Tiffany lamps, Victorian furniture, crystal chandeliers and a huge fireplace. Naturally, a big marlin hangs on the wall beside the massive burnished-wood bar.
Speaking of fish, you can bring your catch home and the chefs at the resort are happy to cook it to order for you; in fact, most restaurants in town are also willing to do this. Plan your trip for February, and you’ll be just in time for the city’s annual Everglades Seafood Festival, where stone crab is king. Find them from October to May in all the restaurants, too.
With its real small-town feel, a sufficient number of outdoor activities to keep even the most active people busy and a collection of tasty seafood shacks and white-tablecloth restaurants, Everglades City is a getaway spot that may just keep you coming back for more. There’s a reason this part of Florida is called the Paradise Coast — one visit will probably convince you that it actually is a little slice of old-school heaven.
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