FT. LAUDERDALE’S WET AND WILD SIDE

Day Trips Provide Opportunities to Explore Nature…

By Karen Rubin

During our visits to Grandma’s in Florida, we typically pack up everyone for a two or three-day getaway-to Orlando, to Cape Canaveral, to Naples. This adds interest to our trip as well as seems to extend the time, provides for activities that we can do together and memories that we will share forever.

This year, we opted for day-trips from our home base in Boynton Beach, in Palm Beach County. For the most part, our visits were focused on a theme: nature. It was frankly amazing how much we could experience within an hour or two of our home base to Greater Fort Lauderdale.

Billie Swamp Safari

Billie Swamp Safari-at two hours from our home base in Boynton Beach, the furthest point this trip-lies 19 miles north of what is known as Alligator Alley (I-75), a highway that cuts across Florida through mostly undeveloped land (a fence actually prevents alligators from coming up to the highway). During that 25-minute drive up the narrow road north of Exit 49, traveling alongside a canal passed ranch land and empty space, I saw more alligators than I have ever seen in my entire life.

Billie Swamp Safari is after all, set in the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, and one of the most intriguing aspects of seeing this preserve, is getting a sense of Seminole life today, and how it was at the time of colonization and the wars to remove the Indians. A giant sign on a local school reminds us all, “Home of the Unconquered Seminoles.” The Americans-led by Andrew Jackson-never defeated the Seminoles and this extraordinary place, the Everglades, proved one of the Seminoles’ most potent weapons.

It is no wonder why the Everglades inspire such intrigue. It is a world-an ecosystem-unlike any other. Even today, with urbanization choking off much of the Everglades and destroying 65 percent of the habitat, there is still more variety of animal and plant life here than any other place in the United States. Billie Swamp Safari opens up 2,200 acres of this lush landscape, where you can truly get a sense of the habitat.

Chickee huts are available for overnights at the Billie Swamp Safari (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Billie Swamp bills itself as an “eco-heritage” attraction, and it surprisingly lives up to the lofty title without becoming “hokey.” There are several places in South Florida to experience airboat ride through the Everglades-which is typically less about seeing alligators and wildlife than it is about the considerable thrill of skimming at a fairly good speed on the surface of the water, through the high sawgrass and reeds of this extraordinary ecosystem.

But at Billie Swamp, not only is the scenery stunning because it is so remote from “civilization”, but you do get to see wildlife during the 20-30 minute ride. Your guide will likely stop in a small cove where hungry alligators are already waiting, as are wild pigs on the shore. Sure enough, we had thrilling sightings of alligators (you have a really good chance of spotting alligators: there are 1.7 million of them in Everglades).

You come to learn of the importance of alligators to preserving this ecosystem-how they burrow into the ground, making new channels to trap water. Otherwise the Everglades would have already dried up, rather than being this eternal floating sea of grass.

Billie Swamp Safari's airboat ride brings you into the Everglades for a close-encounter with alligators and wildlife (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

The airboat ride is thrilling-there are bursts of good speed, especially as you go around turns, no doubt to intentionally add to the thrill–and we did get incredibly close to alligators.

But the swamp-buggy ride is less of a ride and more an absolutely fascinating close-encounter with the Everglades as a habitat for wildlife and people, and you should do both (if time and money permit).

The swamp buggy trip, about an hour-long tour, is a truly fascinating visit into the swamp ecosystem that the Seminole Indians depended upon for survival. You go from land, through the water and back onto land and into the swamp in this odd-looking military-style vehicle.

The guide offered insights into the Seminoles’ perspective of the Europeans-Spanish, then British, then Americans–and how were able to outfox them all because of their understanding of surviving in such a treacherous environment (such as the quicksand), and the medicinal qualities of the various plants that grew. What looks to us as a mass of ferns is a “Medicinal garden” to Seminoles like the bark of white willow which they would take to cure aches and pains.

A hungry alligator approaches the airboat, mouth open (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Here you get to see native as well as “exotic” animals like Asian water buffalo, eland from Africa, a herd of American bison. Ostrich-as tall as the swamp buggy-come close to the vehicle (keep your hands in; they will steal the ring off your finger).

There are also animal shows: the Reptile show was really interesting (displaying which snakes you have to fear, and how to avoid getting bitten, and how a rattlesnake’s rattle works) as well as a Swamp Critter show.

In addition, there are animal displays and a storytelling chickee (like a thatched hut), and a nature walk along a boardwalk.

Billie Swamp's swamp buggy ride brings you close to wildlife, such as this herd of American bison (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

(Swamp buggy tour is $25/adult, $23/senior, $15/child; airboat ride is $15/person; shows are $8/adult, $4/child; combination airboat & show is $20.70/adult, $17.10/child; buggy & show is $29.70/adult, $27.90/senior, $17.10 child and a day package which is the buggy, boat, and one show, is $43.20/adult, $41.40/senior, $30.60/child).

For even more adventure, stay overnight in one of the native-style chickee huts right on the swamp (I dare you).

Overnighters can reserve a package that includes accommodations, day and evening swamp tours, and campfire stories about the history and legends of the unconquered Seminoles (a small one, sleeping two with room for a cot, is $35).

The visit to Billie Swamp Safari will take the better part of the day (there is a pleasant, moderately priced café to get food, including alligator tail nuggets, frog legs, Indian burgers, frybread and Indian tacos, plus popular American fare).

Try to make time to visit the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki (Seminole for “a place to learn”) Museum, considered one of the finest American Indian museums in the United States.

The exhibits depict the lives of the Seminoles in south Florida during the late 1800s. Hunting, cooking, travel, marriage, folklore and spiritual beliefs are portrayed. Rare artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian include moccasins and leggings, turtle shell rattles, bracelets and beaded sashes, and medicine baskets. The museum also features exhibits of its own holdings, including Seminole war-period swords and firearms, beaded shoulder bags, and Seminole patchwork. The Legends Theater portrays how legends were passed down from generation to generation.

A new Seminole photo exhibition, dating from 1898 through 1960, evokes a time many years ago when life was still a struggle for survival for Seminoles.

Along a nature trail is a re-created Seminole village, where Tribal members demonstrate traditional arts and crafts. Beside the village are re-created ceremonial grounds.

Sea Experience Glassbottom boat takes you offshore from Ft. Lauderdale to snorkel (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

The grounds include various chickee dwellings and an area for playing the traditional stick ball game. During special events, storytelling takes place in the amphitheater along the trail. The trails are accessible to the physically challenged, and wheelchairs are provided to those in need.

Things seem to have really improved for the Seminoles, since opening the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, and Seminole Paradise, an entertainment district with 12 themed food and dining areas, 11 nightclub and entertainment venues and 24 shops (there is also a branch of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Here at the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, you see newly built schools, houses, community center.

Day and overnight packages including the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and Billie Swamp Safari are available online atwww.seminoletours.com ; or contact Billie Swamp Safari at 800-949-6101, 863-983-6101,www.seminoletribe.com/safari; or the museum at 863-902-1113, www.seminoletribe.com/museum .

We capped our visit off with dinner at the Rainforest Café, one of several dining venues at Sawgrass Mills, a phenomenal shopping mecca purportedly of outlet stores (really, they are regular stores which offer some special deals).

Rainforest Caf� is more than a meal-it is entertainment, with animatronic creatures, massive aquariums with tropical fish, periodic “rainstorms.” The food is wonderful-an eclectic menu that appeals equally to kids as adults, the prices fairly moderate.

Flamingo Gardens

Just a couple of miles south of Sawgrass Mills, Flamingo Gardens is distinguished for two key reasons: it is a wildlife sanctuary for animals which have been rescued, and for its connection to one of the “Men who Made Florida,” Floyd Wray, the man who brought the citrus industry to South Florida, and then established a Botanical Collection to preserve native species.

At Flamingo Gardens, you can see, close hand, flamingos! (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

This place is a real surprise. You basically walk a trail that takes you to small sections-the best part being where a variety of birds of prey are kept. You learn about them during daily “Wildlife Encounter” shows. You can walk through a giant aviary. As you walk more, you come upon a flock of flamingos, a playful river otter (he has his own house), alligators, a giant iguana, peacocks and scores of other creatures.

You walk through specialty gardens and Florida’s largest collection of Champion trees set amid 200-year old Live Oaks.

At one end of the park is the Historic Wray Home Museum-actually a modest 1930s country house. But you get insight into Floyd Wray and what life in this part of Florida was like in the 1930s to 1960s.

Allocate about 2 1/2 hours to visit (Open 9:30-5:30 p.m. daily; $15/adults, $8/child 4-11; 3750 South Flamingo Road, 954-473-2955, www.flamingogardens.org).

Snorkeling

For a different perspective, we embarked on the 2 1/2-hour Sea Experience Glassbottom Boat & Snorkeling Tour, that leaves from the Bahia Mar Resort each day at 10:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m.

There is a brief cruise on the Intercoastal, past some mansions, and out to the ocean side of Ft. Lauderdale. You realize when the boat anchors that you are just on the other side of this spit of land from where you started-there are the hotels and beach you see across the street from the Bahia Mar-but somewhat further out than you could swim yourself, to a ledge that is about 15 to 20 feet deep, so you don’t have to go down deep to see lots of fish.

The schools of fish are lured by the boat-and by the pieces of bread that are thrown over the side.

Children delight in seeing butterflies at Butterfly World (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

The snorkeling was tremendous fun–we spent about an hour in the water and it didn’t seem that long at all-literally swimming amid schools of fish.

Even in December, the water temperature was about 76 degrees (86 is more typical)-fairly comfortable. The morning is the calmest-our afternoon trip would have been too rocky for anyone prone to seasickness to stay on board. It is recommended that you only take this if you intend to snorkel. You can stay on the boat, which is fairly small, with small rectangular cuts in the bottom where there is glass to see the fish. You won’t see much. ($30 if you are snorkeling, $23 for the boatride alone; equipment provided; 954-467-6000, www.seaxp.com ).

During our visit, we only got a small sampling of what is a vast coral reef system, just 15 feet below sea-level, that is home to thousands of species of marine life. The salt-water environment of the sub-tropical Atlantic hosts live herds of staghorn coral, swaying stands of gorgonia, shy angel fish, steel-eyed barracuda, leatherback turtles, green moray eels and spiny lobsters. (Apparently, a barracuda the skipper has named “Bart” is a frequent visitor for snorkelers).

Fort Lauderdale is also a prime destination for scuba diving, with a three-tiered natural reef system offering in many locations quick access from various beaches. There are also more than 80 artificial reefs created through a carefully developed program to enhance the growth of marine animal and plant life in the region. In recent years, artificial reefs have been developed by sinking everything from a 435-foot freighter 200 feet beneath the surface to a 94-foot DC-4 airplane.

Jungle Queen Riverboat

From the very same dock, we enjoyed a delightful dinner cruise on the Jungle Queen Riverboat-a perfect way to end our day in Fort Lauderdale.

The Jungle Queen Riverboat dinner cruise begins with a 45-minute cruise of New River with very humorous narration about the incredible mansions of the rich and famous that line “Millionaires’ Row”.

You arrive at this tiny private island where you feast on all-you-can-eat barbecue ribs, chicken, shrimp, steak fries, chocolate cake and coffee (soda is $1, beer $3.75). Then there is a show-a little hokey but great fun, and appealing to all ages: a “rock n roll” bit with audience participation; a ventriloquist and a magician (really more of a comedian), then you are back on the boat for the ride back.

This is a 67-year old family business that has retained its charm.

Other Ways to Experience Nature

Other attractions we have enjoyed in Greater Fort Lauderdale in the past which bring us closer to nature and appreciation of environment in a way that is appealing to children as well as adults:

Butterfly World, an unusual “zoo” dedicated to understanding and appreciating butterflies from around the globe, as well as hummingbirds (we actually enjoy these two sections devoted to hummingbirds the most). You get to walk through a tropical rain forest where butterflies fly freely (and are very apt to land on you); hanging gardens, a museum, an English Rose Garden, and a Secret Garden. Located inside the Trade Winds Park ($17.95/adults, $12.95/child 4-12, 954-977-4400, www.butterflyworld.com).

Anne Kolb Nature Center, West Lake Park, lets you explore 1,500 acres of wilderness and mangrove wetlands. Here we enjoyed canoeing and nature trails (just a short distance from marvelous Hollywood’s beach and boardwalk). Also, the John U. Lloyd State Park and Hollywood’s North Beach Park are where you can see sea turtles come to shore and lay their eggs (954-926-2410, www.broward-org/parks).

Contact the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, 100 East Broward Blvd., Ste. 200, Fort Lauderdale, FL 3301, 800-22-SUNNY, www.sunny.org 
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© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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