Friday, April 12, 2013

Marco Island and Everglades City, FL

February 22-25, 2013

When we were finally able to get reservations for Key West, we took a look at the charts and talked with some other cruisers to decide how we were going to get there and what stops we would make along the way. The issue is that it’s a long cruise across Florida Bay and there are few places to stop.  Some Loopers anchor in the Little Shark River in the Everglades, but that wasn’t going to work for us. There is no land there, just mangrove islands and alligators.  Not a good place to take the dogs to shore for potty time. We finally decided that we would hop down from Ft. Myers to Marco Island, then go to Everglades City for two nights before heading across Florida Bay directly to Key West, about 100 nautical miles.

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway disappears south of Ft. Myers for all but smaller boats. So once again we traveled outside in the Gulf and enjoyed pleasant cruising conditions, with waves 2 feet or less. We pulled into the Marina at Factory Bay in Marco in mid-afternoon. There wasn’t much to do within walking distance of the marina, but the dockmaster was nice enough to drive Craig to a West Marine and Publix for a few items. Other than that, a few loads of laundry and a very nice dinner at a tiny Italian restaurant near the marina were the extent of our activities in Marco. We had a treat in the morning, though, as we watched dozens of Magnificent Frigatebirds circling high over the harbor. It was fun to see so many of the huge birds.

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The trip to Everglades City, although only 40 miles, took 3 hours, because while some of the trip was in open water, the last part was through the very shallow channel through Indian Key Pass and the Ten Thousand Islands and finally up the narrow Barron River to Everglades City. The Ten Thousands Islands are a vast area of mangrove jungles where it’s best not to stray off the marked channel unless you’re willing to risk running aground or becoming hopelessly lost or both. The area was favored as a hideaway for rum runners dating back to Prohibition and drug runners in more recent decades. Who knows what goes on deep in the mangroves nowadays.  We saw mostly fishermen and tourists on airboats – and an Everglades tour boat.

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We docked at the Rod and Gun Club, a famous old place in Everglades City. Other than a couple of boats that came in for lunch at the Club’s restaurant, we were the only boat on their 1,000 foot dock. The restaurant was packed with people when we arrived.  Although we felt like we had cruised a long way through the jungle by boat, it’s a relatively short drive by car from Naples, and the Rod and Gun Club is a popular day trip destination.

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The Club is housed in a late 19th century home that long ago was converted to a sportsman’s club. Over the years the Club has been visited by an eclectic assortment of guests including five U.S. presidents, many Hollywood stars, Ernest Hemingway and Mick Jagger. It is slightly shabby, but in a kind of charming, Old Florida way. The dark wood interior is adorned with stuffed animals of many varieties. It’s an unusual off-the-beaten-path place that we are glad to have visited.

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It had been recommended that we visit the Collier Museum of the Everglades, and since it wasn’t going to be open on Sunday (the next day), we hurried over to see a bit of it before it closed. It was an interesting small museum that told the story of Barron Collier, the 1920s visionary and entrepreneur who was the driving force – and major funder – behind the building of the Tamiami Trail highway across Florida. He was the largest landowner in Florida and he had visions of developing Florida's west coast and rivaling Henry Flagler’s accomplishments on the east coast.  He believed the Tamiami Trail would be the key to development. In the 1920s, Everglades City was the hub of Collier’s business activities in southwest Florida.  Today it is a quiet community of under 500 people tucked up against Everglades National Park.

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For our first night in Everglades City we opted to eat on board. Some other boaters had told us about Grimm’s Stone Crab, a locally owned seafood retailer that is famous for its stone crab claws. Craig called them and convinced them to deliver crab claws, shrimp and a couple of key lime tarts directly to our boat. After a really enjoyable wine time on our sundeck, we had big stone crab claws, salad and redskin potatoes for dinner.  Wonderful!

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The next morning Craig had an early breakfast on the porch of the Rod and Gun Club before we were picked up by an airboat driver (such personal service!) to drive us to Wooten’s Everglades Airboat Tours, where we would take an airboat ride into the Big Cypress National Preserve. It was a fun and fast ride through the river of grass.  I would have preferred to go a bit slower, as there were lots of interesting birds that were impossible to get a good look at as we went by so fast.

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They also had a sizable alligator park that held a huge number of alligators and other local wildlife, large and small.

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They encourage you not to stick your fingers through the fence!

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After the airboat ride, they took us on a “swamp buggy” through the drier lands across the Tamiami Trail.  It was an interesting change of landscape.  We saw several small deer.

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This is the famous Tamiami Trail. Not too busy at that moment.

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After lunch we decided to take a swim in the beautiful old stone-lined pool at the Rod and Gun Club. We had the pool to ourselves. A relaxing afternoon!

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We enjoyed sitting on our boat and watching the infrequent comings and goings on the river. When the fishing boats came in at the end of the day, the pelicans gathered to gobble up the throw-away bits as the fish were cleaned at the docks. Joey was happy watching the activity.

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On one of our walks around the grounds we saw THREE pileated woodpeckers in one tree! We never could catch a picture of all three of them at once, but here are two of them.


After another peaceful wine time on the back of the boat, we had dinner on the porch of the Club, looking out at Blue Heron. A big full moon rose over the palm trees.

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What an unusual and thoroughly enjoyable stop! Add Everglades City to the long list of memorable places we probably never would have visited if we weren’t doing the Loop!

Next:  Key West

(Real-time update: On April 12, we are in Beaufort, SC. We will head to Charleston tomorrow.)

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