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Miami’s Wild Side
Thomas R. Fletcher
Miami–it’s hot. It’s hip. It’s wild. It’s not the first destination that comes to mind when one thinks "eco-tourism," but that is one way the city is being marketed these days. With two major national parks in her backyard, and a growing list of nature encounters available closer to the city, it makes sense. Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park offer diverse ecosystems worthy of exploration. Biscayne National Park protects a segment of Biscayne Bay, an undersea coral reef, and the tropical hardwood hammocks of more than 40 of the northernmost of the Florida Keys. Biscayne National Park is best explored via boat, since most of the park is accessible via water only. Glass-bottomed boat tours are available as are snorkeling and diving trips. Each option offers a different perspective of this living coral reef.
Everglades National Park presents the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere. Established in 1947, the park is a unique ecosystem that protects many rare and endangered species, including the Florida panther, American crocodile, Florida manatee, and the Snail kite. A mix of saw grass prairie, open waterways, hardwood hammocks, pine lands, and mangrove forest, Everglades National Park is a 1.5 million-acre treasure of protected bio-diversity. About a ninety-minute ride from Miami International Airport, Flamingo Lodge, Marina and Outpost Resort has the only game going for lodging within park boundaries. The lodge offers a variety of guest packages centering around fishing, bird watching, or wildlife observation activities. Thirty-eight miles past the park entry gate, the lodge has 103 motel rooms, 24 cottages with kitchens, a 300-site visitor campground, restaurant, gas, convenience store, rentals of bicycles, houseboats, fishing skiffs, canoes and kayaks–everything one could possibly need to fully enjoy the Everglades. A good way to get acquainted with the glades is to take a back country cruise aboard the Pelican. The two-hour tour is led by a naturalist who explains a bit about the Everglades ecosystem and provides information on specific species encountered along the way. The cruise follows a segment of the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile waterway that connects Flamingo in the south with Everglades City in the north (a 7-9 day canoe paddle for those into it). The Pelican cruises up Buttonwood Canal, across Coot Bay, along the twisting Tarpon Creek onto the expansive, shallow Whitewater Bay where it makes a loop and backtracks along the same route. Along the way we observed hawks, alligators, a crocodile, a kingfisher and a flock of brown pelicans flew by as the cruise drew to a close.
Florida Bay makes up a full 30 percent of Everglades National Park. The shallow bay has an average depth of only four to five feet and is a haven for wading birds and other wildlife. The birds love to work the mud flats that appear when the tide recedes. I took a canoe onto the bay for a morning paddle. As I glided along on a leisurely paddle, the birds paid little attention. To my left I observed a Green heron and an egret working the shoreline waters. As I turned to my right, I saw I was being observed. An alligator was alongside my canoe, a few yards separating us, eyes only, above the waterline. Silently it submerged, disappearing from view as it swam off. An acquaintance on a fishing trip that same morning told of witnessing something much more dramatic. He and his boat mates witnessed a gator leap from the water snatching an egret from its perch on a low-hanging branch. Always remain at least 15 feet from all wildlife.
Key Biscayne, a convenient location from which to explore the Miami area, sits just over Biscayne Bay from the city, only twenty minutes from the airport or South Beach, and ten minutes from downtown. With a wealth of outdoor activity possibilities, including miles of beaches, Crandon Park, The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area, Key Biscayne is a getaway for tourists and locals alike. Golfing, tennis, sunbathing, fishing, bicycling, windsurfing, and kayaking are all available, making the island a local playground.
The Miami-Dade Park and Recreation Department has started a series of eco-adventure tours. There are canoe and kayak trips, wading tours, wildlife encounters, and bird watching tours being offered. Crandon Park Visitors and Nature Center on Key Biscayne is the site where many of the trips originate. Take the Fossilized Reef Kayak and Reef Tour, a guided trip along the shores of Key Biscayne to examine an ancient, fossilized mangrove reef (carbon-dated to 64 A.D.). The three-hour trip costs $25 per person. How about the Key Biscayne Canoe Trip by the tangled mangrove thickets, observing several bird species that make their home in the thickets ($20 per person)?
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, located within Crandon Park, is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the natural environment. The organization’s hands-on nature programs are naturalist-led trips exploring the marine and dune ecosystems of Key Biscayne. I joined a hiking/wading trip exploring the fossilized mangrove reef, the Fossil Reef Tidal Pool tour, a 2.5 mile round-trip hike. We walked along the beach to the fossilized reef, into the mangrove forest, then back to the center through the dunes. Along the reef, participants waded in, using glass-bottomed buckets to observe the undersea world in the sea grasses. Using nets we scooped creatures from the shallow shoreline waters. From shrimp to snails, seahorses to spider crabs, the naturalist explained how the creatures fit into South Florida’s fragile ecology ($10 per person).
It simply wouldn’t be right to discuss the wild side of Miami and not touch on South Beach, the Art Deco District, and the unique club scene. South Beach is located on the southern end of the barrier island that is Miami Beach. In the 1930's and 1940's more than 800 Art Deco structures were constructed along the southern tip of Miami Beach. The preservation and restoration taking place in the Art Deco Historic District has been a wildly successful move in restoring the buildings and bringing revitalization to the city. The one square-mile historic district represents the greatest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world.
Waiting on a "walk" signal to cross the street while taking a morning walking tour of the Art Deco District, I peered into the car stopped directly in from of me. Two stunningly beautiful women, either of which could grace the cover of any magazine, returned my gaze. The driver gave a mischievous look, reached across and kissed her passenger fully, deeply on the lips. She moved down kissing her passenger’s neck and unbuttoning her blouse two buttons.
"A well known hot spot for gay and lesbian travel," says a press release from the Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. I believe it–especially if that is any representation of what takes place at stop lights. I knew I had entered the land of the beautiful, bronzed, and brazen.
Lincoln Road, in South Beach, was referred to as "the Fifth Avenue of the South," in the 1950's when it was Miami’s well-known shopping area. Lincoln Road Mall today is a pedestrian-only area filled with approximately 175 stores and shops including art galleries, boutiques, outdoor cafes, and dinner clubs.
A Saturday evening in South Beach included a stop in Touch, a trendy restaurant/lounge on Lincoln Road where the entertainment was distracting, especially for a hillbilly boy who thought he wanted his thoughts to remain pure. One woman, complete with headdress, heels, and a good three to four inches of butt-flesh hanging out of what quite possibly were the most revealing pair of hot pants I’ve ever seen–the thin film of material covered the essentials, but clearly delineated everything beneath. Without an ounce of fat anywhere, the shapely woman did a flame dance with a baton-like object, flames flaring from both ends. Another stage was mounted by a stunning platinum blonde and equally stunning brunette with shimmering blue/black hair, wearing the same style hot pants as previously described, with only pasties at top. Never touching, they do a bob and weave like nothing I’ve ever seen. At times, barely an inch from one another, intertwined, the body heat radiating between them as beads of sweat glisten on their flesh, their sensual, snake-like movements mirroring one another. Meanwhile, the clientele dined and drank as though it were the televised replay of last week’s ball game–and everyone knew the score. Yes, Miami definitely has a wild side.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS