Miami residents Carlos Cohen and his wife, Diana, stroll through the Caribbean resort-styled landscape of palm trees, a waterfall and tiki huts with cathedral ceilings.
Diana raises a glass of raspberry-colored guava wine to her lips. "Are we still in South Florida?" she asks.
Carlos, a karate instructor and veteran traveler, says in disbelief, "I thought I had to go to Napa Valley to go to a winery." They sink into a cushy love seat under the oversized tiki's thatched roof.
The Schnebly Redland's Winery opened five years ago. With an eye toward reducing waste, they make wine out of "second-quality fruit" — the fruit farmers can't sell. Lychees, mangoes and avocados that used to become compost or waste are made into sweet elixirs.
Tourists sit around the giant, custom-made U-shaped bar and taste the many varieties. Window light bounces off the high ceilings. In winter, when the humidity is low, it's quite comfortable to sit outside and enjoy South Florida's lucky weather.
This is far from swanky Northern California and a little rougher around the edges, but the unincorporated Redland area in south Miami-Dade County is following the lead of wine trails in Napa and the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
Tipped off by trends in self-guided tours of Vermont's cheesemakers, Michigan's berry growers and Washington state's apple farmers, this tropical breadbasket that sits on the eastern edge of the Everglades is showcasing all that grows in the area. That includes the local guavas in Diana Cohen's glass of wine.
It's not quite as organized as the nation's most famous agritourism regions, but Redland is trying. For Tampa Bay travelers on their way to the Keys, a detour for local wine and fruit is an eye-opener, especially for locavores in search of the Sunshine State's grass roots harvests. First, though, they'll have to find Redland. Or figure out what it's called.
There are a few maps to the area, none comprehensive, but two stand out as solid starters. The Historic Redland Tropical Trail guide (redlandtrail.com) was created by winery owner Peter Schnebly and boasts nine stops, a few that are agritourism destinations but also Old Florida tourist traps like an alligator farm and a monkey jungle.
The other is an early HTML-style map (redlandriot.com) made by Robert Burr, a publisher and the founder of the Redland Riot Road Rallye tour, an annual scavenger hunt-style auto tour that ends at the Schnebly winery.
The winery is just one of many surprises you'll find if you slow down and travel the side roads through the agricultural southland known as Redland, the Redlands or the Redland area or region. The lack of consensus on the area's name is another indication that the agritourism movement isn't fully organized here, which makes a visit more about the road less traveled than the well-documented journey.
This is known for sure: South Miami-Dade is one of the few places in the continental United States where so many tropical products grow. Among the bounty are exotic fruits, giant clusters of bamboo and thousands of orchids.
Some might think that this area just north and west of the Florida Turnpike holds nothing but dirt. More likely, talk of the region conjures up images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew.
But heading west off Krome Avenue reveals fertile, wide-open spaces dotted with fields of strawberries, squash, bananas and tomatoes. There are roaming peacocks and coral rock arbors in front yards. Plan on sharing the road with farming equipment.
In this hotbed of agricultural land are gems to excite garden geeks and surprises for the unsuspecting traveler.
Off the beaten path
Close to 1 million people visit the Everglades every year. Three million visit the Florida Keys. A far smaller number know the quaint spots along the way, where visitors can stay for the night amid fruit-laden avocado trees or just stop for a few hours and enjoy a fresh strawberry milk shake or wine made from local mangoes.
There's a tropical botanical garden plus U-pick strawberry farms and nurseries of orchids, bananas and bonsai trees that seem as much like tourist destinations as mere businesses.
Miami-Dade agricultural manager Charles LaPradd says those who merely drive through on their way to better-known destinations are missing one of the most unusual growing regions in the country.
Everything from avocados to zucchinis grows here. Exotic fruit is shipped to Latin and Asian markets across the country, from thorny-looking, football-sized jackfruits to prickly fuchsia dragon fruits.
"We don't want to be a pass-through," says LaPradd. "We want you to stop and stay awhile and we'll be nice to you."
In this part of South Florida, the folks are unpretentious, charming, laid back. The nightlife, if you're looking for it, is farther east in South Beach. Nature's stars provide the entertainment here when the sun goes down.
LaPradd wants to see the Redland area become a bed-and-breakfast community focused on agriculture. His desire may be easier realized since county ordinances were passed last year granting small farms, among other things, permission to host overnight guests.
Paradise Farms owner Gabriele Marewski is the first to give it a go. She has built two small cabins on her property, a former 5-acre avocado grove that now grows more than 50 types of organic vegetables, fruits and herbs for local chefs.
You can fall asleep to the sounds of frogs and owls. Wake up on the farm and learn to harvest guavas, bananas or sapodilla. Make fresh-squeezed carambola juice. Have an organic lunch packed for you to take on a day trip to the neighboring Everglades National Park. Get a massage.
Or, she says, have no agenda. Sit on the lounge chairs and be still under the fruit trees. "And just be. And just observe and notice. And sit still. And just stop."
In the morning, she offers a breakfast of yogurt, granola and local fruits underneath a 10-year-old giant gazebo with a full kitchen. This space is often used to host meals of local fare prepared by famous South Florida chefs who incorporate the farm's food into the menu: jackfruit, baby greens, nasturtiums.
Just like most of the Redland experience, Paradise Farms' accommodations are a work in progress. When we stayed there, the walk to the unattached bathroom was a little treacherous in the pitch black of night, though more lighting has been added since, and the mosquitoes were a bit pesky. Still, if you can handle a compost toilet and an outdoor bamboo shower with hot and cold water, it's worth checking out.
From Paradise Farms, there are several places to visit within a 15-minute drive.
Just up the road is Miami-Dade County's Fruit & Spice Park, where you'll find seasonal fruit tray samples on the gift shop counter.
Taste sapodilla or olosapo, just two of 500 varieties of fruits, herbs, spices and nuts that grow at the 37-acre tropical botanical garden. During a two-hour tram tour, visitors learn the difference between lady finger and goldfinger bananas and can gather fallen fruit while roaming the grounds. The sense of smell is also entertained by crushing bay rum leaves and citronella grass between your fingers to release the aroma.
If you're an orchid fan, a visit to R.F. Orchids is a must. We nearly got lost meandering down rows and rows of the colorful epiphytes. The variety of miniature trees charmed us at the Bonsai Garden.
There to make memories
Aside from the destinations, it's the people who make Redland special. "Part of what draws people is the quaintness," says Paradise Farms manager Meg Schaltz. "It's real down to earth."
Hani Khouri, a former regional manager for Microsoft in Dubai, now raises goats in Redland. He has at least a dozen and is the only goat cheese producer anyone knows of in the area. Scout groups and schoolkids visit his farm, where he sets up a cheesemaking demonstration.
But like many who sell and make products in the area independently, he doesn't encourage drop-in visitors. After all, most of the farms in the area are, primarily, working farms. However, his locally made cheeses and ice creams are found at area farmers markets, including the one in downtown Homestead from 2 to 6 p.m. Mondays.
Robert Burr is another fixture on the burgeoning Redland agritourism scene. His Uncle Charlie started Burr's Berry Farm, a 51-year-old strawberry farm that sells other homegrown produce plus flowers and honey. His aunt still makes strawberry jam the way the family has for generations.
As a kid, when Burr heard "Let's get in the station wagon and head to the Redlands," to him that meant "goodies."
Now, he says, it's about "going to see where food comes from. And it's lovely."
His goal is to get people to visit the area, learn about it, care about it and protect it. Like many who own smaller farms, he wants agritourism to grow, maintaining the area's viability and increasing the growers' ability to say "no" to developers.
"When I was a kid, my grandmother made guava jelly," said Burr. "I want the next generation to have the same memories."
Lara Cerri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.