When you think “family vacation” and Florida, a certain mouse is likely to be the first thing that comes to mind. But there is so much more to Florida, from alligators to rivers, to birds, to beaches and back to alligators. Read on as a city girl faces down wildlife as she discovers Old Florida along the Gulf Coast in southwest Florida.
Gators and More in Southwest Florida
As a city girl, I have to try to love nature. In Florida in the springtime, sunny days, 75-degree temperatures, low humidity and lovely vistas make it easy to be a nature lover. Until you see the first alligator.
My husband and I saw our first one as we kayaked along the Myakka River near Venice, Florida. The gator was sunning himself (or maybe herself, I didn’t check), on the banks of the river as we floated past. So, of course, I stopped paddling and pulled out my camera. As I set up the shot, I noticed him starting to move. As I took the shot, I noticed him sliding into the water. As I dropped my camera and grabbed my paddle, I stopped noticing him and paddled away as fast as I could.
Later that day, as I told the story to an older fella, he offered the standard Florida response: ”Don’t worry. They’re more afraid of you then you are of them.” To which I immediately responded, “I can virtually guarantee that is not the case.”
Finding Old Florida at Babcock Ranch
Still, if you want to experience the real Florida–Old Florida–it comes with alligators. They are in virtually every body of fresh water, from the Myakka River to the local golf course. Nowhere, though, did we see more in one spot than at Babcock Ranch.
This working cattle ranch in Punta Gorda offers a Swamp Buggy Eco Tour. The tour vehicle is a dilapidated school bus, not a swamp buggy, and the swamp when we visited in early March was bone dry. Still, this is a unique look at a part of Florida I never even knew existed. Unfortunately, the sound system on the bus was worse than the worst cell reception ever. That meant we could hear maybe one-tenth of the fascinating knowledge our guide, Jungle Joe, was trying to impart.
When we stopped for a walk along a boardwalk that wound through the bone-dry Cyprus swamp, we heard a lot more, including the sad story of the Florida panther who now lives on the property.
Joe was entertaining and accommodating. When we told him we couldn’t hear because of the faulty sound system, he turned off the mike and talked louder. That mean we could hear about half of what he was saying–a definite improvement over the mic.
When we stopped to see the place where hundreds of gators sunned themselves on the banks of the river, we didn’t need to hear anything except that the bridge was structurally sound. If that bridge had collapsed those gators would have been feasting on tourists for days.
Kayaking Old Florida
If I could spend my life in a kayak, I would be a happy woman. Now that my kids are out of the house (they dislike kayaking), I never have to compromise on my need to kayak. Even if it means braving an alligator every now and then. But kayaking without fear of alligators? Sign me up!
That’s what we did when we joined a kayak tour to Don Pedro Island State Park with Hooked on SUP. The company does the hard work—getting the kayaks and stand up paddleboards and all of the equipment down to the water. Then a guide, in our case, Dawn,, offers a lesson on how to paddle for the kayakers and SUPers (stand up paddlers) before leading the tour.
The highlight of our tour was passing through a mangrove cave. Talk about feeling like you have paddled back in time! We ducked low-hanging mangrove branches, paddled around some branches in the water and used others to pull ourselves along when the mangroves were too close to paddle at all. (Dawn assured me there were no alligators there. Being a nervous city girl, I still spent much of my time in the mangrove cave worrying about the wildlife. In this case, looking for snakes slithering along the branches.)
We came out on the other side of the mangrove cave to find a tranquil lagoon surrounded by the mangroves. As we paddled around, Dawn searched the water for sealife. She found two kinds of sponges, a jellyfish and a starfish. She passed each one around for us to see up close, touch and even hold.
More Wildlife at Peace River
There are no alligators at the Peace River Wildlife Center, but there are plenty of beautiful birds. All of them have been injured, mostly by humans, the executive director believes, but some by other animals. The goal of the center is to rehabilitate the birds and release them back into the wild. Those that cannot be released are kept at the center.
This is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood or just in need of a 30 minutes shaded from the harsh Florida sunshine. It’s a small, peaceful place. Admission is free and the volunteer docents are knowledgeable and friendly. (Not all of the guests at the center are injured birds. Some are freeloaders who fly in for the free eats, says Callie Stahl, the executive director.)
New Florida: Fisherman’s Village
The neighborhood around Peace River Wildlife Center includes Fisherman’s Village, a feature of New Florida with high-end shopping, fancy food, harbor views and boat rentals.
Fisherman’s Village was developed in an historic fishing village in Punta Gorda. It features a collection of small locally-owned shops selling clothes, souvenirs, and other vacation memories. We enjoyed strolling along and were surprised to stumble upon a military museum in the heart of this shopping district. It was small, personal and intimate. It felt like more we were examining the military collection in the basement of a favorite uncle’s house than browsing a museum. The volunteers we met were all former military and they clearly savored the chance to share what they know with someone who seemed interested in hearing it. Just like a favorite uncle would.
We had hoped to catch the sunset while enjoying the seafood buffet at the Captain’s Table at the far end of the shopping center. But we were turned away because reservations were sold out for the night.
Instead, we wandered down to Scotty’s Brewhouse, an outpost of an Indianapolis restaurant company that I know and like. Our table outdoors on the water was lovely, the food was yummy and the guitarist/singer did a great job covering tunes like John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
The second level of the shopping area is lined with rooms for rent. We did not stay there, but got a quick look at one of the units. The view was lovely, the room included a full kitchen, could easily sleep a family and rents at what I thought was a very reasonable rate—about $140/night.
Being in Florida in March means being in the middle of the Grapefruit League spring training. The Tampa Bay Rays call Port Charlotte home for spring training. They play at Charlotte Sports Park stadium. In 2014, the park received the USA Today Readers’ Choice Award for Best Spring Training Facility. After spring training ends, the stadium gets new life as the home for the Rays minor league affiliate, the Charlotte Stone Crabs.
Like most spring training stadiums, it offers a chance to see your favorite players up close. The food was OK. There are some non-traditional offerings that looked interesting. But, to me, baseball means hot dogs. So that’s what I bought.But it was decidedly uninspired.
My favorite thing about spring training and minor league games: They are laid back, fun and affordable, unlike Major League Baseball games. And I just can’t help laughing when someone hits a foul ball over the stadium roof and the stadium plays the sound of glass breaking. Besides, the fireworks at the end of the Rays game were better than some July 4th fireworks I’ve seen. That spectacle alone was worth the price of admission.
Finding Hippies in Old Florida
No trip to Southwest Florida can be complete without a drum circle on the beach. Two beaches within an easy drive of the place we rented in Venice offer drum circles: Wednesdays and Saturdays at Nokomis Beach and Sundays at Englewood Beach. We got to the one at Nokomis Beach and again felt like we had traveled back in time—to the 1960s.
We arrived 5 minutes too late to see a wedding. The bride was barefoot and the groom was barefoot and shirtless. There were a couple dozen drums and drummers keeping the beat. Anyone who was so moved got up and danced to the drumming that seemed to go on and on—until the sun set on the horizon. We took a little wine, some snacks, and folding beach chairs and settled in for a couple of hours of watching people move to the drumming, dresses flowing, beads clanging, and smiles glowing.
It’s a not-quite-so-old Florida tradition.
Have you been to southwest Florida? What is your favorite part?