Let's be honest: Everglades City isn't about to win any awards for luxury travel. It's not the place to pamper yourself with shopping sprees and spas. It's not going to seduce you with glamour and glitz. This is where you go to hold a baby alligator, then eat his older cousin. Or to live out your pioneer fantasies to face the great wild, or to simply sit and stare out over the quiet inlets of the Gulf of Mexico. Sure, Everglades City -- with its mom-and-pop shops and nonexistent nightlife -- feels provincial, if not altogether trapped in the past, but it's all part of the charm. Today, this hideaway's traditional fishing communities and rich Native American heritage have undergone full kitsch-ification. Still, for all its hokeyness, Everglades City is a real pleasure. Here's how to experience it:
The start of the Everglades' dry season is December and it's one of the best times of the year to go. With low humidity, mild temperatures, and clear skies, visitors can enjoy the array of outdoor attractions the Glades has to offer without getting mosquito-bitten to a pulp. On the lovely 80-mile drive west from Miami to Everglades City, along the Tamiami Trail (alternatively known as US-41 or SR-90), you'll be greeted by a whole host of activities, from hiking and biking to birding and boating. Stop at the Shark Valley Visitor Center to get up close and personal with the resident alligators. Bikers can circle the 15-mile loop on their own (rentals are $9 per hour), while those seeking a narrated experience can hop on a tram tour with a guide more than happy to assure you that only one person has ever been attacked here ($23). At the halfway mark, make sure to rest at the 45-foot-high observation deck for a panoramic birds-eye view of the Glades.
Less than a mile west of Shark Valley, take a stroll through the Miccosukee Indian Village to pay homage to the region's Native American history ($12). The crafty can observe basketweaving, woodcarving, beading, and patchwork, while the foodies can sample traditional Indian fry bread. For all those aspiring daredevils, there is an alligator show featuring one intrepid trainer and a half a dozen snapping jaws. About 35 miles from the village, hike the Big Cypress National Preserve for a couple hours (free) or pitch a tent and stay the evening (from $10 per night). The massive 720,000 acre preserve, with its nearly 200 avian species, also boasts excellent birding opportunities. From the sky to the sea, take to the winding waters for a high-speed fanboat ride. Fanboat, or airboat, tours abound along the Tamiami Trail and in Everglades City, but for the most memorable experience, opt for an operator like Captain Jack's that takes you through the magical mangrove tunnels ($38.65).
Food & Drink
Everglades City isn't exactly known for fine dining, but its comforting, homey fare is sure to satisfy. And its fresh gator, in particular, is a Florida must-eat. The rustic City Seafood restaurant, overlooking the Barron River, is a town favorite. Order from the walk-up window -- deep-fried crab and ice-cold beer are a winning combination -- and take a seat on the open-air patio, where you might spot a fisherman at work. Down the way, also along the Barron, is the Camellia Street Grill, great for catfish and grouper. Or, if a fried-platter smorgasbord is what you crave, head to the Oyster House Restaurant at the south end of the city. Its Captain Platter -- a welcome onslaught of shrimp, oysters, clams, scallops, crab cake, and tilapia -- is the ultimate indulgence, and the establishment's full bar is appreciated, too.
Museums & Tours
History buffs and architecture admirers can go on a self-guided walking tour of the city's historical sites. The Old Collier County Courthouse and the Bank of Everglades Building, constructed in the classical revival style and framed by palm trees, are pretty pictures. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the old Everglades Laundry Building, today the home of the free Museum of the Everglades highlighting the area's Calusa and Seminole heritage and the region's most famous developer, Collier County's namesake Barron Collier. A few miles south of Everglades City in Chokoloskee is the Historic Smallwood Store Museum ($5), where you can step back in time and experience a frontier era trading post.
Everglades City feels more like a village than a city where you'll find a handful of eclectic lodges, inns, and motels. The Rod & Gun Club, with its dark wood and stuffed trophies, drips with early 20th century charm, and after a whiskey soda or two, it's easy to imagine the lodge in all its original glory. In the 1920s and '30s, the Club played host to Collier's posse of privileged pals, and later attracted the distinguished likes of Ernest Hemingway and Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. Today, it offers simple cottage-style lodgings -- with rooms starting from $110 per night before Christmas and $140 after -- as well as a lounge and restaurant featuring a screened veranda and an outdoor pool. Another well-reviewed sleeping option is the Everglades City Motel, which is basic but wallet-friendly and clean. Rooms start from $99 per night.
Fly into Miami International Airport, take the Dolphin Expressway (SR-836 W), and get on the Tamiami Trail (US-41 W). Drive 80 miles to reach Everglades City. Turn left on CR-29 S, which becomes Collier Avenue and leads you into the heart of town.