Everglades Island Airboat Tours
Lots of airboat companies offer competent tours with nature-focused narration, but the most historically significant is Everglades Island Airboat Tours (929 Dupont St., just before the Everglades City Bridge, 239/695-2333, 30-minute, 1-hour, and 1.5-hour tours, $20-40).
Loren “Totch” Brown, author of Totch: A Life in the Everglades (a must-read if you are interested in the crusty, taciturn folks who’ve eked a living out of the Everglades over the past 100 years), grew up on an island near Chokoloskee during the Depression. As a young man he fought in World War II before going home to work variously as a pompano fisherman and stone crabber (legally) and an alligator poacher and marijuana smuggler (illegally). You can see a picture of the local legend in Smallwood’s Store, a tiny museum on Chokoloskee Island (150 acres made entirely of shells by the Seminoles), or catch a glimpse of him in the 1955 film Wind Across the Everglades with Christopher Plummer.
Totch died in 1996, but his tour company consists of his family members and a number of fourth- and fifth-generation Everglades residents. They’ll take you out either in backcountry or open water to Totch’s Island to see his rustic family cottage on a tiny mangrove island. Along the way, you’ll be trailed by pelicans, catch glimpses of manatees lumbering along the brackish shallows beneath you, and see alligators (big ones), wild pigs, ospreys, and incredible plant life.
Other Boat Tours
You’ve seen them. They’re the embodiment of Newton’s Third Law: Those tall boats propelled by air whooshing through their giant fans—with no outboard motor and rudder for propulsion and control, these boats can scoot through extreme shallows on their flat bottoms, perfect for swamp exploration. It’s an Everglades cliché, and a loud one, but fun (although they’re not allowed in Everglades National Park proper, they scoot around the edges in the Ten Thousand Islands).
One successful airboat company is Everglades City Airboat Tours (907 Dupont St., 239/695-2400, $39.62 adults, $20.75 children 10 and under). The airboat tour groups are small, and the tour is one hour of meandering through the mangrove forest backcountry and a sawgrass wetland.
My favorite place to take a thrilling airboat ride is definitely Wooten’s Airboat Tours, Swamp Buggy Rides and Animal Sanctuary (32330 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee, 5 miles south of Everglades City, 239/695-2781, 9am-4:15pm daily, $25.44 adults for either tour, $21.20 children, $8 for the farm). It’s a little farther afield but very famous in these parts, and their airboat rides explore a diverse section of wetland while their narrators and captains deliver an overview of the history of the Everglades with an overtly environmental and libertarian message. You may also want to take one of the 30-minute swamp tours on the swamp buggy. You’ll travel through spooky cypress swamp and spot alligators (as well as North American crocodiles—the Everglades being the only area you’ll find these guys in the United States), deer, snakes, and tons of birds. Wooten’s small zoo with native Florida wildlife (Florida panthers, bobcats) gives you an opportunity to get as close to a Florida panther as you will ever want to be.
A quieter ride can be found on the Everglades National Park Boat Tour (at the ranger station on the causeway between Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island, 239/695-2591, every 30 minutes 9:30am-4:30pm, $31.80 adults, $15.90 children), a wonderful 1.5-hour motorboat tour departing from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. The cruise is slower, following a loop through a dizzying number of the Ten Thousand Islands. Along the way, tour-goers are likely to see manatees, frisky bottle-nosed dolphins, bald eagles, and loads of smirking alligators.
Everglades Area Tours (238 Mamie St., Chokoloskee Island, 239/695-3633, $99 and up) provides year-round, half-day, guided kayak ecotours assisted by a motorboat shuttle that carries kayaks and up to six passengers. Aptly named the Yak Attack, the tour strategy allows you to quickly get to the most remote and beautiful paddling areas. All tours are guided by experienced naturalists. Motorboat ecotours, sea kayaking and camping trips, backcountry charter boat and kayak fishing trips, bicycle tours, and aerial tours in the winter season are also offered.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Florida Gulf Coast.