Posted in North American Travel

How to Have a Romantic and Affordable Weekend in Key West

“Affordable” is not a word that’s usually associated with the Florida star of drunken nights and steamy days (prepare for an endless amount of romance puns in this one). I debated calling this weekend “affordable”, because, compared to my other adventures, this was definitely not on the cheaper end.

One of the most expensive parts of visiting Key West is the steep cost of accommodations. Even during the off-season, a weekend in a hotel within walking distance of Duval Street will run about $300-500 a night. But if you’re willing to accept that most of your expenses will come from where you sleep (or at least rest between bar hopping), then the rest of the weekend can be easy on your wallet without skimping on the romance or experience.

Cheers to going big for the weekend!

So, join me, your self-appointed Romance Connoisseur, on my top tips for How To Have a Romantic and Affordable Weekend in Key West, Florida.

Tip 1: Drive

Nothing says romance more than driving past palm trees and blue water with the windows down, especially when you get to hear that motor purr at 45 mph (the top speed on the US 1 from Key Largo to Key West).

Two lanes, the whole way. Photo credit: hoctcars.com

I currently live in Fort Myers, so driving to Key West is usually the easiest option for me. However, even if you’re visiting from the Great North, flying into Miami or Fort Lauderdale and renting a car is still your best bet. The Florida Keys are scattered with small airports, including a commercial airport located in Key West. While this may seem convenient, a quick Google Flights search shows that not only is Key West airport typically very expensive to fly into, it is also coupled with multiple layovers and connections. (If you’re located near a major airport hub for Frontier, Spirit, or JetBlue, you have much better prices and connections. These airlines provide multiple nonstop services to Key West at a reasonable rate, but are very limited.)

Nonstop flight options for a random weekend in November.

Opting to drive Highway 1 through the Keys comes with additional bonuses. As mentioned above, accommodation in Key West is extremely pricey, regardless of the season. If you’re looking to book an extended weekend with that special someone (or yourself! #treatyoself), renting a car gives you the option of staying in the Upper Keys for some of your stay. While they aren’t cheap, the Upper Keys offer a wider area of hotels, Airbnbs, and campgrounds, bringing costs down to as low at $100 a night, depending on where you stay. The Upper Keys are also less crowded than Key West, granting you a bit more serenity and privacy if you want to take a dip into the ocean with your lady lover under a full moon (just don’t watch Jaws before this trip).

Bahia Honda is a great stop to spend a half a day enjoying the “beach”. Heads up, if you’re looking for the typical white sand beaches, these don’t exist in the Keys. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

The Upper Keys also provide some great stops for sightseeing along the way that shouldn’t be skipped over. Some of my favorites include:

  • Keys Chocolate and Ice Cream on Key Largo- Best stop for key lime pie on a stick, ice cream, and gourmet sweets. If you go at night, you get the added bonus of enjoying their delicacies under a patio of twinkle lights, and what says romance more than twinkle lights? Nothing.
Aw, sweet diabetes.
  • The History of Diving Museum on Islamorada- Okay, so this one may not get you a lot of romance points, but history can be sexy, right? Regardless, this is a great stop for any dive, ocean, or history enthusiasts, and is also a great option to escape the rain. Tickets are $15 a person, but you can easily spend a couple hours here.
Gotta love that 60’s vibe. Photo credit: divingmuseum.org
  • Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key- You can think me later when this stop pays off in your favor (insert winky face). This park is definitely a major reason for driving. Located just under a hour from Key West, this park provides one of the best beaches in the Keys, as well as a great place for snorkeling, boat tours, paddle boarding, and kayaking. The old railroad bridge at the park also offers one of the highest vantage points in this area, so you can get sweeping views of the ocean as a backdrop for the cute couple photo that will be your phone’s background for the next 7-10 months. You can also reserve a campsite here if you want to see the bridge under the Milky Way. Nothing says “eternal love” like 10,000 no-see-ums and 10 billion stars.
Insert cheesy romance line here. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography
  • Florida Keys Cafe on Big Pine Key- If you’re driving into Key West in the morning, this is a definite stop to grab a much needed coffee and delicious breakfast. Not only is the food divine, but this family-owned and operated restaurant is also very affordable (under $15 a plate, which is affordable in this territory). It’s not much to look at on the outside, but the inside is full of charm, sweet servers, and the nice aroma of salty fishermen. No one is feeling very loving when they’re hangry, so be sure to stop in here, pack in some grub, and continue on to the Southern Capitol of Debauchery.
Beauty is on the inside for this one.

Tip 2: Opt for the Nice Hotel

Now that you’ve made it to your destination, picking out the perfect place to call home for the weekend is going to impact the rest of this lovecation. Hotels in Key West are pricey (if I haven’t said this enough), but if you’re smart in your selection, then the cost will be worth the experience. Hotels are the most expensive close to Duval Street; however, if you’re banking on getting your plus one hammered with frozen cocktails, it works in you favor to stay within walking distance of the bars and attractions. Anything over half a mile from Sloppy Joe’s, and you’re officially too far to stumble your way home.

The Old Town Manor. This used to be a doctor’s residence and office. If you stay inside the house, it is supposedly haunted. I did not stay in the house.

We stayed at the Old Town Manor, just around the corner from the main road. At $400 a night, this hotel was one of the most expensive I’ve ever stayed in, but it was more than worth the price (and still on the cheaper end of Key West accommodations). This B&B offered everything required for a weekend of romance, and relaxation. A converted residence from 1886, we had the option to stay inside the main house or in the converted carriage house outside (we chose the carriage house). Because we weren’t right on Duval, we were able to enjoy the party scene, but retreat to the quiet serenity of our own garden. Breakfast included a buffet of salmon, homemade jams, fruits, and a variety of bagels and freshly-pressed orange juice (with the added bonus of baby chicks running around). We stayed in the Jarcada Room, and we had our own patio overlooking the beautiful gardens and breakfast area. The house was also available if we wanted to pop in for some refreshing fruit-infused water, chat with the incredibly helpful staff, or escape the heat in the charming parlor or on the front porch. If you’re trying to convince your significant other that you need a trip here pronto, I will provide some extra photos to seal the deal.

Tip 3: Find Free Activities for the Day Time

Because you might be experiencing sticker shock over the price of your hotel, spend the day enjoying the town without opting for the expensive excursions. Key West has a lot of offer to the hardy traveler who isn’t afraid to brave the heat and put some miles on their shoes. The neighborhoods spanning out from Duval Street are filled with colorful, historic homes and Spanish-moss draped avenues. You can easily spend a lazy morning strolling down the sidewalks and just taking in the sights.

Just don’t check Zillow. It will make you feel poor.

If you’re more of a destination person, check out the West Martello Tower and Garden. This Civil-War era fort turned botanical garden is free to the public (open 9:30am-5:00pm, 7 days a week).

Not featured: the hoards of chickens running around. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

Ferns, trees, flowers, butterflies, chickens, and beautiful views of the ocean make this a great place to spend an hour or two. Most of the paths are shady, so it is also a good place to escape Florida’s oppressive heat. Pack your sunhat, sunscreen, and skip the cute shoes for something more comfortable as this spot is about a 30 minute walk from Duval Street. However, it brings you closer to the Southernmost Point of the US marker, so you can knock off two things on your “must-see” list.

Just a small sample of all the beautiful flowers to see here. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

From here, you can make the short 10-minute walk to the Southernmost Point of the US. This marker is a fan-favorite for all visitors, and your trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick selfie. Try to get here early, as a line does form for pictures and the heat can be rather dreadful. There’s a great little grocery story just across the street where you can pick up some key lime pie on a stick or a cold drink to make up for the long jaunt.

This is not a diet-friendly destination.

At the end of the day, head over to Mallory Square for the daily sunset celebration, courtesy of the more colorful residents of Key West. An hour or so before sunset, this square starts to fill up with visitors, exhibitionists, and the occasional chicken. This is one of the better places on the island to catch the sunset over the ocean, and there’s plenty of places to grab a delicious cocktail to sip on while you wait. (While a lot of people watch the sunset right at Mallory Square, if you walk Harbour Place Condos, you can get a better view and a bit more privacy).

I like pretty views next to boats I can’t afford.

The real attraction though comes from the assortment of freelance performers who put on free shows around the square. You can catch everything from an old guy walking a tightrope to a kid spinning fire– it just depends on the day. Be sure to bring some cash to show your appreciation for your favorite performers.

Be careful. You might be volun-told to join the show.

Tip 4: Splurge on Food and Drinks

If you’re in Key West, chances are very high that you’re here to have a drink or two. Since you’ve opted for a hotel with breakfast and skipped the expensive tours, you have a bit more room in your budget to splurge on some yummy drinks and food. Restaurants can get pricey here, so it helps to do a bit of research if you want to be more strategic in your approach. One of our favorites was Garbo’s Grill at Hank’s Bar. This low-key, outdoor bar offers free, live music and an affordable happy hour ($5 beer in Key West, anyone?).

Nothing like beer in a plastic cup to get the romance flowing.

The best part of this place though is the food truck behind the bar, named Garbo’s Grill. They feature a variety of bar food, including fish tacos, beef tacos, hamburgers, hotdogs, and poke bowls. However, the true winner of the show (and the reason we kept coming back to it the entire weekend) is the Korean Bulgogi Burrito. Unless you’re a monster, you love Korean Bulgogi as much as the rest of the world, and this place does not disappoint. Food costs $10-$15 a plate, which is much cheaper than many of the sit-down restaurants in the area.

Marry me, sweet burrito from heaven.

Spend your evening checking out the colorful and unique bars that fill Duval Street. Like everything else here, drinks aren’t cheap in Key West (most cocktails will cost around $10-$15, depending on how fancy you are), but you’re here for the experience. To save some money, check with your hotel to see if they have coupon cards for some of the bars. We were able to snag a couple Buy One, Get One coupons for some places, which saved us about $10 for each order.

Nighttime, when Duval comes alive. Just remember to hydrate.

Tip 5: Opt for the Off-Season

Key West shines when the rest of the country is buried under ten feet of snow. December through April is peak tourist season for this tiny town, meaning prices for hotels skyrocket and everything gets a bit too crowded for comfort. Remember, there is only one road leading down to the keys, and it can quickly turn into a traffic nightmare on a busy Friday evening.

Starting in May, the tourists start to disappear, as temperatures in the rest of the country start to rise and those poor, pale Northerners get to peak out their front doors and see the sun for the first time in months. While it is hotter and way more humid in the summer, hotels get to be a bit more reasonable and you won’t feel like you’re fighting crowds everywhere you go.

If you are visiting during the summer months, be sure to pack clothes that breathe easily, a good sun hat, and lots of sunscreen. It is also smart to do most of your exploring in the early morning and late afternoon, spending the hottest part of the day by the pool of that adorable hotel you opted for.

I come, I insta, I leave.

Final Thoughts

Key West is definitely one of America’s more unique destinations, but it is also definitely not for everyone. I’m spinning this to be a weekend for couples, because this really isn’t the best destination for kids. Girls weekend, Lonely Boys Days Out, and romantic escapades are all great fits for this colorful destination, but Key West lacks the beaches and kid-friendly attractions that are typical in the rest of Southern Florida. Not to mention the hoards of drunken debauchery that descends upon this town once the sun goes down…

The face of drunken debauchery.

While it doesn’t fit the tune of our normal, budget-friendly destinations, Key West can still be done on a rather affordable budget. It is a great destination for a long weekend with your amore of the hour (or life, whatever floats your boat). Just be smart in your planning, be willing to cough up a bit more for a nice hotel, and most of all, get drunk, make-out in public, and have a great time.

Happy trails, everyone!

Posted in For the Foodies, Restaurant Recommendations

Restaurant Recommendation: Rainbow River’s Swampy’s Bar and Grille

Location: Dunnellon, Florida

Google Pin: Swampy’s Bar and Grille

Menu: Swampy’s Bar and Grille

My mouth is watering just remembering that Bloody Mary.

Rainbow River is a great destination in central Florida for lovers of nature and clear water. A lazy day tubing or boating down the river is a perfect way to spend a Saturday, especially if you catch a glimpse of an otter playing on the banks. If you’re here looking for more information about spending a day on the river, click here for my Rainbow River article.

If you’re here thinking about your stomach, look no further! One of the biggest hurdles of floating Rainbow River can be the very strict rules about plastic waste and alcohol. No alcohol or one-use plastics are allowed on the water, meaning your beer cooler and those zip-locked PB&Js have to stay in the car. This rule in in place to conserve the river, but it makes sipping on a margarita while enjoying some Florida sunshine very difficult.

Enter Swampy’s. Located at the end of the tubing route (hour 4 if you are tubing from KP hole), Swampy’s is on the left of the river just before the tube ramp where the shuttle takes tubers back to their launch point. You can tie up your boats/kayaks/giant swans/tubes at the seawall (bring your own rope), and walk right up to the restaurant.

What makes Swampy’s great? It is easy to access from the river, has lots of seating (indoor, bar, and outdoor picnic tables), and it is very reasonably priced (average $10-$15 per plate). The food was delicious, Cajun-style, and had all the staples of Florida: gator bites, fish tacos, and delicious wraps for us unadventurous food people.

I had the Who Dat wrap- filled with blackened chicken, andouille sausage, beans, rice, cheese, onions, and cilantro. It was perfect after a day on the river, hearty and delicious. My boyfriend had the Gator wrap, which also featured blackened meat (this time gator, of course). Both are served with your choice of sides (although you have to shell out an extra $1.40 for sweet potato fries).

What makes Swampy’s really great? The Bloody Mary. Making Bloody Marys is a fine art, and good ones are hard to find. This is by far the best Bloody Mary I have blissfully chugged in all of Florida. There is nothing better than spending a couple hours on the river and then pulling up here to indulge in some good ol’ tomato juice and vodka.

There is a full-service bar available at this restaurant, and every cocktail looked delectable as it passed my seat. We did also try the margaritas but thought they were a bit too sweet to enjoy.

Pro tip: We went on a Saturday around noon, so the place was packed (45+ minute wait). But we were able to grab a seat at the bar instead, order drinks and food, and had a great time watching tubers float by. If you are kid-free, check out the bar as an option to avoid the wait and have great service.

This restaurant has a great river-vibe, good food, and excellent drinks. There are other places to eat in Dunnellon, but I will definitely be stopping in at Swampy’s on my next float down the Rainbow.

Two very happy (and slightly tipsy) river rats.
Posted in North American Travel

4 Outdoor-Adventure Trips from Fort Myers, Florida

Southwest Florida is not typically considered the go-to location for outdoor enthusiasts. Designated as a beach and retiree destination, many visitors make their way down to Florida’s bottom and never leave the sandy beaches.

If you’re like me, after the third day of laying on the sand like a beached whale, you’re ready to explore something new. Fort Myers sits on the edge of many nature preserves with other great destinations easily reached by car. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite outdoor adventures within 6 hours of Fort Myers. Some could be a day trip from your beachfront condo while others are a fun overnight to break up a long week of surf and sand vacation time.

So pack your sturdy footwear, some bug spray, and your sense of adventure, and follow me on a tour through Florida’s wild places!

Beaches may be fun, but a dive trip into a clear spring? Better. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

Big Cypress National Preserve

Located just over an hour from Fort Myers, Big Cypress is a great day trip for travelers looking to get a taste of the Everglades. I recommend taking Highway 41 (Known as the Tamiami Trail) at least on the way down from Fort Myers. This two-lane highway is a great place to see alligators and some beautiful vistas. Just mind the speed limit as Florida panthers, gators, birds, bears, and many more cross this road (especially at night). Below are some of my top picks for a day near Big Cypress!

Get there early or in the evening to enjoy the golden hour. Photo credit: @nlarghi

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park– (While not technically Big Cypress, this is close and I will count it). Located off highway 29 just north of Everglades City, Fakahatchee offers a great destination for those wanting to explore the swamps and get their feet wet (literally). While you can hike alone, guided hikes are available to book through the park. Click on the link above to contact the park office about times and dates. Bears, panthers, mink, and many more call this park home. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see a rare ghost orchid in bloom. (Check out this hike to a private cabin. One of the few hikes where you keep you shoes dry in this park).

The Fakahatchee Hilton. (Real name)
The elusive ghost orchid in Big Cypress. Photo Credit: @nlarghi

Gator Hook Trail– This 5-mile, out-and-back trail offers a trip to one of the most beautiful cypress domes in Florida. Be warned, this trail will get your feet wet during most of the year and can be hard to navigate. Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes, long pants, and bring plenty of water and a compass (or a GPS). Click here for a more detailed run-down of this great trail!

Time to get your feet wet!

Kirby Storter Roadside Park– This park offers a hike for the whole family. The one-mile boardwalk is stroller-friendly, and provides some of the prettiest swamp views you can get without going fully into the swamp. (And if there are too many mosquitos? You are just a short run away from the car.)

I hear kids in strollers make good skeeter food.

Turner River Paddling Trail– This kayak/canoe trail is a perfect option for water-lovers. About 10 miles long, you can do a portion of it before turning around. You can also continue all the way to the NPS Gulf District Ranger Station and arrange a pick-up to take you back to your car. The trail takes you through narrow mangrove tunnels and out into a sawgrass prairie. Plan to spend a full-day exploring this water trail and plan to bring water and snacks. Check here for a detailed account of this river trail. Don’t have a kayak? No problem, outfitters are in abundance here and offer guided tours. Check out this outfitter for rental and tour rates.

Some of the best mangroves tunnels in Florida. Photo credit: nps.gov

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park is a massive nature area encompassing the bottom part of Florida. It is a great place to go camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, or grab a boat tour. The nearest visitor center to Fort Myers is Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. Here you can rent kayaks or hop on a boat tour to explore Ten Thousand Islands.

Then Thousand Islands…not the dressing. Photo Credit: fws.gov

Two hours from Fort Myers is the Shark Valley Visitor Center. You can bring bikes (or rent them there) to explore the 16-mile loop from the visitor center to a 45-foot observation tower offering 360 views of the everglade landscape. The trail is open 24/7, but the parking lot and center close in the evening (center closes at 5PM and the entrance closes at 6PM). I recommend picking a cooler day for this trip, as there is little shade along the way. (Or do it at night for a bike ride under the stars!)

Nothing like a hot, sweaty ride into the 1960’s. (Bonus points: This photo was taken with a film camera) Photo Credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

Another option is do the full 4-hour drive to Flamingo, the heart of ENP. Check out my article on spending a weekend in Flamingo for great tips and tricks for exploring this area!

Eco-tents in Flamingo. Way better insta photos than those 10,000 beach photos you already have. Photo credit: @nlarghi

Overnight Trip to the Florida Springs

About 4 hours north of Fort Myers is an area full of crystal rivers, cool springs, and sweeping cypress trees. Springs are prevalent throughout most of northern Florida, but some of the closest rivers to Fort Myers are Rainbow River, Weeki-Wachee, and Crystal River. Each offers it’s own unique experience, so I’ve given you a brief outline below. You could easily spend a day exploring each one, so definitely plan on spending the night in the area (camping and airbnbs are available throughout the whole area). Remember to also bring a snorkel mask and fins, as the clarity of these beautiful springs will have you drooling to jump in and explore the world below!

Though the water is 72 degrees, some of us still need wetsuits…

Rainbow River: Spring-fed rivers are always a cool, 72-degrees. This means they are a great option for those sweltering, summer days. Rainbow River is a beautiful, clear river that flows from the spring-head towards Dunnellon. The river is full of otters, turtles, birds, and fish. You can rent tubes from the state park and spend the day floating in the current before boarding the shuttle back up to your launch spot. From the KP Hole launch, it takes 4 hours to float. (Hint: No plastic or alcohol is allowed on this river and is subject to a fine. Drinks and food must be in reusable containers. On the weekends, the park will close if it reaches capacity. If going on a Saturday or Sunday, plan to arrive a little bit before 8am to secure a spot.)

Otter families can be spotted playing along the banks!
Look at that clear water! Photo credit: @nlarghi

Weeki-Wachee: This state park also has a clear, spring-fed river. While tubing is not an easy option, you can rent paddle-boards or kayaks from the state park to enjoy this river. The state park also arranges a shuttle (book rentals and shuttle here). Families with kids can also enjoy daily mermaid shows (yes, that is a real thing), wildlife shows, and boat tours (see here for more info). The best part? In the winter, manatees make their way up this river in search of warmer water and food. Kayaking with one of the world’s gentlest mammals? Priceless.

That water is just begging for you to go for a swim.

Crystal River: Crystal River is famous as the place to go to see manatees in the winter time. This is the place where all the influencers go to post those much-sought after selfies with the cow of the sea. While you can kayak or boat the river, you will have to swim into the spring areas where the manatees hang out the most.  Three Sisters Springs is the most popular and well-known spot to swim with manatees, but it is closed to boats for most of the winter season (manatees head into the bay once warmer weather hits). Be sure to check the Three Sisters Facebook page for daily closures of the springs (if the weather is too cold, the park will close the springs to swimmers because there are too many manatees in the area). There is also a boardwalk there if you don’t feel like getting wet. While this is a great winter activity, the river is also a beautiful kayak trip in the summer, and manatees can still be seen in the bay.

Manatees are super gentle and calm. Please treat them the same way. Photo credit: @nlarghi
Be sure to bring your snorkel gear! Photo credit: @nlarghi

Local Parks and Nature Preserves

For those looking to get their nature fix but wanting to stay close to home, Fort Myers has a great selection of outdoor areas for all skill-levels. All of these trails are within an hour of Fort Myers, so they make for a very easy day trip or evening excursion. Here are some of my favorites:

  • CREW Bird Rookery Swamp: A great location for walkers or bikers (this trail is packed-dirt with a small section of boardwalk), the Bird Rookery Swamp is a go-to for bird-watching, gator-sighting, and possible otter encounters. Every now and then a panther will be sighted in the area, so keep your eyes out for one of Florida’s rarest residents. The trail is an oddly-shaped 12-mile loop, but I only recommend doing the full loop if you’re on a bike (Remember, Florida is hot and humid for most of the year). The first 3 miles are some of the prettiest if you want a shorter option. Gators love to hang out on the side of the trail, so be sure to pick up any small dogs or small kids (joking). Dogs aren’t advised on this trail, but if you do bring Mr. Fancy Paws, just stay aware of your surroundings.
  • J.N. Ding Darling Kayak Trail: Located on Sanibel, this federal preserve is a great place to launch a kayak and explore mangrove tunnels and shallow bays. Stingrays, eagles, ospreys, dolphins, tropical birds, and fish love this area (It is one of the top birding locations in the United States!). It costs $10 per a vehicle to enter (free with a National Park pass), and the park is closed on Fridays. If you don’t have a kayak, you can take a guided kayak tour with Tarpon Bay Explorers.
  • Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve: Located in the heart of Fort Myers, this is one of the easiest to access “hikes” on the list. This elevated boardwalk is both wheelchair and stroller-friendly, and twists through one of the last sloughs remaining in the area (thanks, overdevelopment). The boardwalk is about 1.2 miles long, and parking is $1 an hour (but entrance to the boardwalk is free). This is a great early morning or late evening option, as the park is open dawn to dusk. Gators are almost always a guarantee at the large lake about 1/3 mile from the parking lot!

Wrap-Up

This is just a few of my favorite outdoor activities within an easy drive of Fort Myers. Florida is on a constant quest to develop every open area, so it is always important to appreciate these natural places before they are gone. If you love nature, consider also donating to a local conservation group to help beat back the developers (we really don’t need another Wal-Mart). Through our combined efforts, we can continue to enjoy these places long into the future. (Here’s a link to the local Sierra Club).

Save me. Photo credit: @nlarghi

Have a nature spot that you enjoy in southern Florida? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!

Happy Trails!

Posted in North American Travel

A Weekend in Everglades National Park

Entrance to Hell’s Bay off the Park Road (fitting name)

“If the devil ever raised a garden, the Everglades was it.”

James Carlos Blake

The Devil’s Garden. That’s a pretty accurate description for how most travelers would view Everglades National Park as they drive the 39 miles spanning from the southern entrance all the way down to Flamingo. Although it is one of America’s largest parks, it is often forgotten or passed over in favor of more instagrammable locales (looking at you, Old Faithful).

Picture this: Visitors drive past pine lands and cypress, counting the mosquitos that stick to their windshield, and hop out in a Deet-induced haze to quickly snap a picture of an alligator. At the end of their drive, they hit Flamingo, the little dot that sits at the bottom of Florida, caught in the long shadow cast by Miami on the opposite shore. Flamingo is an outpost that probably hit its heyday in the mid 50’s, and has since been forgotten in the annual budget of the Department of the Interior (as seen by the lovely abandoned building that greets you as you enter the outpost area).

The great outpost of Flamingo, Florida

There are few choices once visitors arrive here. For those unlucky travelers who forgot to bring a lunch, they’re left to the overpriced offerings of the general store (the only food option in the park. Picture canned chicken salad and $4 Gatorade). If you didn’t fill up in Homestead, you get the pleasure of paying for the Glade’s premium at the one gas station (only open during the day, so plan accordingly). And if you like to sleep in a room which isn’t composed of canvas and netting, then you’re better off grabbing that entrance sign pic, turning around, and heading to Key West for the weekend instead.

Aforementioned Entrance Sign Picture (for those Instagrammers, the main park road from Homestead has the best sign)

I was like many visitors– hitting a few boardwalks, swatting a few flies, then getting out of there to find some air conditioning and hydrocortisone cream. I just didn’t get the appeal. Then, I started taking more trips here, taking more time to really experience what the park had to offer (and braving the night full of mosquitos) and something amazing happened. I started to get it. This place is truly one-of-a-kind.

Two juvenile ospreys eating fish in a tree overlooking the Florida Bay. They got a great lunch spot!

Everglades is not like other parks. The trails aren’t easily marked and most can only be accessed by a kayak or boat. However, this park can offer an amazing adventure for those willing to go outside of their comfort zone.

Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite (and budget-friendly) things to do on a weekend in the Everglades.

Sleeping in an Eco-Tents

Unless you’re in an RV, the only option for spending the night in the park is camping. Currently, there is a hotel being built in Flamingo, but it’s been a long process and as of May 2021, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be popping up on Booking.com anytime soon. Airbnb? Also not an option.

Great views…if you have a tent. Florida Bay from the Walk-Up Camping Location in Flamingo

However, Flamingo Adventures has created an amazing solution for those wanting a little more glamour than a basic tent. Marketed as an “above-ground, glamping tent”, the eco-tents are built on wood platforms facing the Florida Bay. It’s as far south as you can go without driving to the keys, and the views are specular. I’ve stayed in these canvas rooms twice now (over Labor Day weekend and in May), and both times I’ve been blown away by how comfortable of a camping experience these tents provide. You have the option of booking a tent with a queen bed, two doubles, or BYOSP (bring your own sleeping pad), and each tent is decked out with electricity, three sides of netting, a lamp, and a massive fan (for those muggy, Florida nights). The best part? You have an outdoor patio where you can sit and watch the storms blow by or even catch a glimpse of an osprey snatching a fish from the shallow waters.

Better than any hotel.

The tents are large enough that you can spread out all your gear (like those muddy hiking shoes), and still have plenty of space to move around. Unlike a traditional tent, they’re also tall enough that you don’t have to crouch, and you feel comfortable enjoying nature without becoming a snack for the mosquitos. To add to the extra-level of glamping, there is even a bathhouse with showers and flush toilets (this Missouri girl is unused to such level of comfort).

One of the few camping spots in Florida with a view.

While they are an amazing option in the day (especially as a place to hideout during those daily summer storms– nap time while smelling the rain? Yes, please!), the eco-tents truly shine at night. If you’re here during the milky way season (Spring-early Fall), you will be treated to some of the most beautiful dark skies this side of the Mississippi. This is what makes staying the night in Flamingo a must-do for any weekend adventurers.

The stars speak for themselves.
Want more Everglades Night photos? Check out Nicholas Patrick Photography for more pics of that beautiful sky

The cheapest time to book these tents are in the summer season (late April-November), where you can snag one of these beauties for just $50 a night. A tent site in Flamingo runs $25, so it is definitely worth it to level-up and get a little bit more comfort. If you go in the winter, tents start at $90 and only go up. They’re also more in-demand at that time so you need to book in advance.

You also get to wake up to a field of Morning Glories. What more do you need?

The Cons? Summer time is also the buggy time, where no-see-ums and mosquitos reign supreme. Winter is much more friendly if you’re looking to avoid our buzzing friends, but you will miss out on the storm-watching and Milky Way. You’ll also have to deal with a bit more people around.

Important note: While the eco-tents are a great option to hide from the mosquitos, the netting is not no-see-um proof. It’s best to plan your visit when the wind will be strong enough to keep these annoying pests away.

Hiking a Cypress Dome

Everglades National Park is the first place I ever got my feet wet in swamp hiking (literally. Your boots get soaked.) I was lucky enough to get to go with some friends, and the moment my boot disappeared into the water and I was under the canopy of enchanting cypress, I was addicted to this place.

I spy Mr. Gator.

A cypress dome, for those of us not well-versed in glade vocabulary, is characterized by a circle of cypress trees growing in a deeper pool of water. It is the stereotypical image that most of us have of the swamp, and has probably been featured in over five different Nicholas Sparks’ movies. Cypress trees tower above you as you tread in knee-deep water (even deeper depending on the season). They are populated by gators, tropical birds, and beautiful orchids. I never imagined that I would enjoy treading through water, but the serenity and peacefulness found in a dome is unmatched. Unlike most hikes that are done out west, a dome hike is slower, more reflective. It isn’t about reaching a destination, but more about enjoying where you are at.

Cypress Dome in Southwest Florida. Hiking like you’ve never done hiking before.

I often get asked what to wear when hiking into the swamp. From experience, I can tell you to leave the chacos at home and opt for an old pair of hiking boots or sneakers. Your feet will get wet, but your toes will be protected from whatever may be under the water’s surface. Always wear long pants and long sleeves when hiking in the glades. Opt for clothing that is lightweight and breathable, so it dries quickly and won’t weigh you down.

Where did my feet go? (And this is the dry season)

Cypress Domes perforate the glades landscape, but unless you are with a native swamper, they can be difficult to find (it took me over a year living in Florida before I ever went into one). Fortunately, Everglades National Park organizes ranger-led hikes (called “wet hikes”) into this beautiful ecosystem. Hikes meet at the Royal Palm Ranger Station (the first station you see upon entering the park from Homestead), and can be booked online here.

Looking for Orchids

This was an activity I never envisioned I would enjoy until I found myself dating an orchid-enthusiast. I knew about the beautiful flowers that I would sometimes see at the Home Depot, but I never thought to go view these plants in the wild. Everglades National Park has the most diverse population of orchids in the NPS system (it’s the place to go if you love unique plants and flowers). Unfortunately, a history of poaching and development have led to much of the Everglades’ orchid population being depleted. But you can still view some of these beauties in the wild (just don’t touch or take. Follow the Leave No Trace policy that keeps the wilderness wild).

Orchids can be spotted by the keen eye throughout the park.

Orchids are found in a variety of places in a glades, but most require some hiking to access. A venture into the salt marsh prairie can lead to the rewarding experience of seeing a Mule Ear orchid in the wild. Check out the photo below for just how gorgeous these plants are.

Mule Ear Orchid

Orchids bloom depending on the season you visit. For those sharp-eyed hikers, you can usually spot them on most trails, but a guided hike is also a great option. Check here for more information on ranger-led hikes in the park.

Ok, so maybe there’s a bunch of cool plants to see here.

Just remember, alway carry plenty of water when exploring the park. Florida is a hot and humid destination, and poor planning could lead to a bad situation.

Wildlife Sightings

Everyone heads to south Florida determined to see an alligator, and while gators are cool and all, they are literally everywhere. A drive down 41 will allow a visitor to see enough gators to satisfy any gator-itch they may have.

Florida’s most overrated reptile.

What most visitors don’t realize is that Florida has another toothy-resident, and they’re not nearly as common. The American Crocodile is a spectacular predator to behold, and Flamingo is a great place to spot one of these guys chilling in the water (or out of it if they’re sunning themselves). Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where crocs and gators are natural neighbors. For those itching to catch a glimpse, you are almost always guaranteed a croc sighting by cruising by the Flamingo boat ramp at night. Crocs have a thinner nose and exposed teeth, but if that is too hard to see, shine a light in their direction. A croc’s eyes will shine back red while a gator’s eyes will be yellow. Bingo! You got yourself a croc sighting.

Gator? Nope. Not a gator.

Other critters found in the park include black bears, panthers, mink, manatees, flamingos, birds, snakes, and too many more to list. In the late spring/early fall, manatees can be seen swimming by the docks just past the Flamingo General Store. Ospreys can be seen nesting throughout the area and diving for fresh fish in the bay. Rattlesnakes can be spotted throughout the tall grasses and pine lands, so be careful where you step and keep those airpods at home.

You can always catch sight of a beautiful Osprey hanging by one of their nests.
Be sure to look for the little guys as well!

If you’re a night owl, you can spot your animal namesake perched in trees and on posts at night throughout the park and along the park road (please drive slowly! Owls are frequent roadkill along the road and this is easily avoidable). Pythons come out to play in the evening as well, and, if you’re awake, you can see the invasive snakes hunting across the pavement or in the grass. Just leave the wrangling to one of Florida’s approved python contactors. These men and women are trained to capture these giants.

Your friendly, neighborhood, invasive python

Conclusion

These are just a few of the many activities you can do on a weekend in Everglades National Park. If you’re eager to get on the water, you can also rent kayaks from the Flamingo Activities Booth (located right next to the gas station) and explored one of the countless water trails that snake deeper into the swamps or out into the bay.

If you plan on visiting some of the Park’s other entrances (Shark Valley and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers), there are even more things to do. Shark Valley offers a tram ride to an overlook tower (this can also be done on a bicycle), and Gulf Coast offers boat tours, kayak adventures, and more into the Ten Thousand Island region.

A weekend in the park is definitely one for the hardy adventurer, but it comes with endless rewards and experiences that are truly one-of-a-kind. It is also a nice variation from the binge-drinking party scene popular in Miami. If big lights and clubs aren’t your scene, switch up a trip to south Florida by spending some time in the “true” Florida, where cypress and grasslands have been spared by the relentless development and concrete jungles.

Price Breakdown:

Entrance to the park: $30 (Check out the National Park Annual Pass, only $80)

Food (Pack ahead): $80-100

Eco-Tent: $50 (Summer Season), $90 and up (Winter Season)

Hiking, Exploring, and Seeing a Beautiful Place: Free!

Packing List:

Long Sleeves and Long Pants (don’t hike in shorts here! Your legs will thank you later).

Mosquito Netting (look for the kind that goes over a hat)

Hiking Shoes or Old Tennis Shoes

Camp Shoes (Crocs, sandals, or chacos)

Food and Water for the weekend

Sunscreen and Hat

Camping Gear (Unless opting for the eco-tent. If bringing your own tent, make sure your tent has no-see-um netting!)

Flashlight or headlamp (For those night adventures under the stars)

Camp chair (for those lazy afternoon watching the storms blow by)

Mosquito Repellent (I recommend a Deet-free option. Lemon Eucalyptus oil smells great, is natural, and won’t melt the plastic off your hiking shoes. Check here for my preferred brand.)