Ten Thousand Islands a great place to see Florida in its natural state

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A dolphin wake-riding a tour boat in the Ten Thousand Island area of Everglades National Park.
A dolphin wake-riding a tour boat in the Ten Thousand Island area of Everglades National Park. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

Florida's remote Ten Thousand Islands area in the far southwest sector of the state is relatively inaccessible, and that is both an obstacle to seeing it and an asset that keeps it worth seeing.

I took a day tour recently, something I had never done in my 35 years in Florida.

To get there, visitors must either drive east from Miami along the Tamiami Trail or south from Naples along the same highway. Closer to Naples than Miami there's a turnoff for State Road 29, and before long you're in Everglades City, a quaint piece of history where you'll find the Gulf Coast Visitor Center of Everglades National Park.

The park offers a one-hour boat tour that is the easiest way to get a taste of Ten Thousand Islands.  I went with my family and a friend's family, and as the boat pulled away from the dock we already were able to spot a roseate spoonbill, a sort of cousin to the flamingo that isn't a common sight even in the Everglades.

The boat was a pontoon-style vessel with a canopy and a capacity of about 40. In addition to a captain and mate, we had aboard a park ranger to talk about the islands and the wildlife.

The islands are formed by mangroves, which are salt-tolerant shore shrubs, and there are so many of them that a novice would be quickly lost. Outside the channel the water is shallow, and new clumps of mangrove get started all the time.

But it is the wildlife that really makes the $40 per person tour worth it. There are plenty of seabirds: ospreys, cormorants, herons, egrets and ibises among them. But the most amazing sight was a file of white pelicans moving from one large island to another about 500 yards ahead of us. There must have been 1,000 of them flying more or less in a single line. It took them four or five minutes to cross the horizon and it was by far the largest number of pelicans I'd ever seen in one group.

The other creatures that kept us enthralled were the dolphins. We saw several feeding early in the tour, and then about halfway through we found a pod that wanted to play. The captain coaxed them into wake riding alongside the stern of the boat, and we got a good 20 minutes of close interaction with the dolphins as they crested, swam just beneath the surface and occasionally leaped beside us.

On the way back, nearing the dock, we watched a small plane land at the waterfront Everglades City airport. I asked the mate where we could get a good meal, and he steered us toward the Camellia Street Grill, which has both indoor and outdoor seating on a deck beside the Barron River. We watched airboats power along the water as we munched on fresh seafood washed down with local beer.

A fancier stop is the Rod & Gun Club, an outpost of Old Florida that has served, among others, U.S. presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Our last stop was to pick up some Florida stone crab claws to bring home for supper; Everglades City is one of the best places to get them. The guide recommended City Seafood, but our friends are partial to Grimm's Stonecrab, so we went there.

Two-and-a-half pounds of medium claws, enough to feed three or four people, and 8 ounces of Miss Wanda's Homemade Mustard sauce cost us about $50. There are also scrumptious-looking Key Lime pies in a glass-topped freezer chest; how we resisted that temptation I'll never know.

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