It’s almost sacrilegious to say aloud, but there are times when I’ve actually had my fill of Florida.
New residents and seasonal Southwest Floridians think I’m certifiably insane when I admit to being over the tropical peninsula they consider paradise. These folks who are new to the area or are snowbirds harbor all-too-fresh memories of scraping ice off windshields, suffering from freezing cold fingers and toes, and, worst of all, shoveling piles and piles of snow. As a result, these traumatized survivors of frigid winters couldn’t care less about the heavy traffic in Southwest Florida, the long lines at restaurants or the heat—in fact, they love the heat; the hotter and more humid, the better.
But there are those of us who grew up here, like me, who have spent 40 years in “paradise” and still aren’t totally convinced. My memories of winter in Dayton, Ohio, until age 10 are fond, filled with snow angels, snowmen, snow balls and snow forts. We went sledding and ice skating and didn’t have to go to school if there was too much snow. Being a little kid in the wintertime, I understand, is very different from being a grown-up in wintertime—it’s a lot more fun.
But, when the heat index is over 100 degrees, the humidity is sucking the life out of me, and I’m cooped up inside with the air-conditioner set at 68 degrees and the ceiling fans on high, I lose all appreciation for the palm trees, the sunsets and the ability to wear spaghetti straps nearly 365 days a year. My fondness for my adopted home state fizzles, and I start dreaming about moving to places that feature four pronounced seasons. And that’s when Ms. Adventure realizes she needs an adventure, and not just any adventure—an adventure that just might make her fall in love with Florida all over again. Since sitting on the beach with a margarita in hand sounds lovely but isn’t exactly an adventure (darn it), I grabbed a girlfriend and we headed to the Everglades for an airboat ride.
My friend Gloria Jordan is a fabulous chef from Cuba. She owns two local restaurants, La Trattoria Café De Napoli and Mermaid Garden Café, and even though she’s busy, she’s always up for a good adventure. So, with snacks in hand for a long drive to the middle of nowhere from Fort Myers, we headed south … and more south … and really, really south to Captain Mitch’s Airboat Tours near Everglades City.
The first part of our adventure was the beautiful but terrifying drive on the old two-lane East Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami, as every now and then Gloria would slam on the brakes because the scenery was so gorgeous.
“Look! An eagle!”
“Was that an alligator in the bushes?!”
Annoyed, the drivers behind us passed us at light-warp speed as we became gawking tourists in our own backyard.
Gloria and I weren’t sure what one wears for an airboat ride, so she went with what she deemed “Everglades chic”—that meant turquoise cowgirl boots, cute jeans, a flannel shirt and a trucker’s cap. Trust me, it worked. A friend with some airboating experience advised me that I would need a scarf for my head, so I came with the only one I own, which is multicolored and sparkly—not exactly the typical Everglades look. Meanwhile, our airboat operator, Captain Rick, was casual and practical in camouflage. True Everglades chic, indeed.
Captain Mitch House presides over the family-owned business that’s been operating on his privately owned land since 1941. In fact, Captain Mitch’s grandfather, known as Barrel Head House, built the first commercial airboat in the ’glades. Fiercely proud of his heritage, Captain Mitch regaled me with stories of his kin and other first families of the Everglades who migrated from Georgia and South Carolina to pioneer the swamp in the late 1800s; clearly, folks who were far more adventurous than I. It was hard to imagine, even with the old photos he showed me, what it must have been like for Captain Mitch’s forefathers to live in such primitive conditions; between the bears, the bugs, the gators and the lack of air-conditioning, I would have been a hot mess.
But, learning so much about the area gave me a real appreciation for it when Captain Rick (Mitch’s first cousin) took Gloria and me out for our hour-long ride. No matter how scary it must have been for the Native Americans and the pioneers, I couldn’t think of any place more beautiful.
Captain Rick glided in and out of the tall grass and silt with great ease as we raised our cell phones and snapped photos of the blue sky and the puffy white clouds reflected on the glassy water. We squealed like kids when he raced around through the air and the water and took us on sharp, fun turns, and when we came upon an alligator, adventurous Gloria moved in close enough to get a selfie with it (I, on the other hand, quickly moved over to the other side of the boat, thank you very much). We saw egrets, herons, sandpipers and more. Captain Rick explained the wildlife and their habitat and answered every question we had, no matter how silly (“Have you ever seen any dead bodies out here?”).
The airboat ride renewed my crush on Florida. Then Gloria suggested we take our adventure even further to Everglades City, where we dined on fresh seafood and drank wine on the waterfront at the rustic and whimsical Camellia Street Grill. My flirtation with Florida grew. We went even further to what felt like the end of the earth to the famous Ted Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, a historic site filled with Indian and pioneer artifacts. There, we snapped photos of a breathtakingly beautiful sunset over the 10,000 Islands.
Just before we headed back to Lee County, two young women with Eastern European accents and backpacks pulled up in a rental car, got out and dipped their toes in the water. “Isn’t this the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?” one of them asked me.
And I had to admit: One wonderful adventure, and I had fallen in love with Florida all over again.