advertisement

Airboat Tours -- Shallow-draft, fan-powered airboats were invented in the Everglades by frog hunters who were tired of poling through the brushes. Airboats cut through the saw grass and are sort of like hydraulic boats; at high-enough speeds, a boat actually rises above the saw grass and into the air. Even though airboats are the most efficient (not to mention fast and fun!) way to get around, they are not permitted in the park -- these shallow-bottom runabouts tend to inflict severe damage on animals and plants. Just outside the boundaries of the Everglades, however, you'll find a number of outfitters offering rides. Tip: Consider bringing earplugs, as these high-speed boats are loud. Sometimes they give you plugs, but bring a pair just in case.

One of the best airboat outfitters is Gator Park, 12 miles west of the Florida Turnpike at 24050 SW Eighth St. (tel. 305/559-2255; www.gatorpark.com), which, despite its touristy name, happens to be one of the most informative and entertaining airboat-tour operators around, not to mention the only one to give out free earplugs. Some of the guides deserve a medal for getting into the water and poking around a massive alligator, even though they're not really supposed to. After the boat ride, there's a free interactive wildlife show that features alligator wrestling and several other frightening acts involving scorpions. Take note of the gorgeous peacocks that live in the trees here. Admission for the boat ride and show is $21 for adults, $11 for children 6 to 11; prices are cheaper if you purchase tickets online. Airboats depart every 20 minutes. Gator Park is open daily from 9am to 5pm.

Another outfitter I recommend is Coopertown Airboat Tours (tel. 305/226-6048; www.coopertownairboats.com), located about 11 miles west of the Florida Turnpike on the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), in a town that boasts a total population of eight humans! The super friendly staff has helped the company garner the title of "Florida's Best" by the Miami Herald for 40 years in a row. You never know what you're going to see, but with great guides, you're sure to see something of interest on the 40-minute, 8-mile round-trip tours. There's also a restaurant and a small gator farm on the premises. Airboat rides cost $22 for adults, $11 for children 7 to 11. Private airboat tours are $50 per hour, per person. The company is open daily from 8am to 6pm; tours leave frequently.

Thirty-minute airboat rides are also offered at the Miccosukee Indian Village, just west of the Shark Valley entrance on U.S. 41/Tamiami Trail and MM 70 (tel. 305/223-8380; www.miccosukeetours.com). The price is $10 per person, with cheaper rates online. However, be warned and advised: I am not recommending this particular outfit over others -- it's merely the one closest to the Shark Valley entrance. As always, the quality of your tour is only as good as the quality of your tour guide, and, unfortunately, I've gotten some complaints about the Miccosukee tours.

The Everglades Alligator Farm, 4 miles south of Palm Drive on SW 192nd Avenue (tel. 305/247-2628; www.everglades.com), offers half-hour guided airboat tours daily from 9am until 6pm. The price, which includes admission to the park, is $23 for adults and $16 for children 4 to 11.

Another reputable company is Captain Doug's, located 35 miles south of Naples and 1 mile past the bridge in Everglades City (tel. 800/282-9194).

Canoe Tours -- A fabulous way to explore the Everglades backcountry is via canoe. Slink through the mangroves, slide across saw-grass prairies, and even walk the sands of the unfettered Ten Thousand Islands. Expert guides will lead you in the right direction. Contact Everglades Adventures (tel. 877/567-0679; www.evergladesadventures.com) at the Ivey House B&B.

Eco-Tours -- Although it's fascinating to explore on your own, it would be a shame for you to tour the Everglades without a clue about what you're seeing. It's a lot more than saw grass and alligators in the backcountry, which is why Everglades Adventures (tel. 877/567-0679; www.evergladesadventures.com), located within the Ivey House B&B, is there to guide and entertain you, as well as explain such key issues as the differences between alligators and crocodiles, or between swamps and the Everglades.

Motorboat Tours -- Both Florida Bay and backcountry tours are offered Thursday to Monday at the Flamingo Marina. Florida Bay tours cruise nearby estuaries and sandbars, while six-passenger backcountry boats visit smaller sloughs. Passengers can expect to see birds and a variety of other animals (I once saw a raccoon and some wild pigs). Both cost $27 for adults, $13 for children 5 to 12. Tours depart throughout the day; reservations are recommended. Charter-fishing and sightseeing boats can also be booked through the resort's main reservation number (tel. 239/695-3101). If you're on the Gulf Coast side of things, the naturalist-guided Gulf Coast boat tour of the Ten Thousand Islands departs from the Gulf Coast Marina (located in the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, 5 miles south of U.S. 41 [Tamiami Trail] on S.R. 29, in Everglades City; tel. 239/695-2591) area and lasts an hour and a half. There's also a mangrove wilderness tour through the swampier part of the park. Tour prices are the same as the tours at the Flamingo Marina.

Tram Tours -- At the park's Shark Valley entrance, open-air tram buses take visitors on 2-hour naturalist-led tours that delve 7 1/2 miles into the wilderness and are the best quick introduction you can get to the Everglades. At the trail's midsection, passengers can disembark and climb a 65-foot observation tower with good views of the 'Glades (though the tower on the Pa-hay-okee Trail is better). Visitors will see plenty of wildlife and endless acres of saw grass. Tours run December through April, daily on the hour between 9am and 4pm, and May through November at 9:30am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. They're sometimes stalled by flooding or particularly heavy mosquito infestation. Reservations are recommended from December to March. The cost is $17 for adults and seniors, and $11 for children 12 and under. For further information, contact Shark Valley Tram Tours (tel. 305/221-8455; www.sharkvalleytramtours.com).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.