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ROAD WARRIORS // TAMIAMI TRAIL

You Alligator Alley Cats can just race on down the flat, treeless, uninspired superlane. Count me as a Tamiami Trail Blazer. I'll take the curves, trees, chickees, Miccosukee village, gaming parlor, parks (and bathrooms) of the Trail any day.

And don't forget the Pit Barbecue, home of some of the best barbecue in Dade County.

When it comes to the debate between the four-lane Alley and the Trail, there are three crucial considerations: time, toleration and things to do.

First, let's talk time.

If your course leads directly between Naples and Broward County, there's no question that the direct route _ that is, the Alley _ is the way to go. But if your path leads to or from Miami, the choice is less clear.

Jay Clarke, my cohort and competitor, and I set out to find out which route was faster. We left from downtown Miami on a Wednesday morning, precisely at 10:07 a.m.

Our agreement was that we'd go no more than 5 mph above the speed limit _ which is 55 on the Trail, 65 on the Alley.

I made the 112-mile trip to downtown Naples in 2 hours, 12 minutes, beating Alley Cat Clarke by a good 12 minutes.

What this really proves is what any frequent cross-state traveler already knows: the Trail is shorter, but whether it's actually faster depends on the traffic _ usually the heaviest on a Friday or Sunday afternoon.

But there's also toleration, the hassle-or-worse factor: How many RV-driving slowpokes are likely to impede your progress? What are the chances you'll get nailed for speeding? And how likely is it that some moron will plow into the side of your just-paid-for automobile?

This is where the Trail can lead to trouble. As a curvy, two-lane road, it's far more likely that you'll get stuck behind a motorized snail than on the four-lane Alley. Because of the bends and woods, there are more places for radar-wielding police to lurk. And because there are more attractions, creating more stops and starts, you'll encounter more traffic entering the roadway than on Alligator Alley.

When it comes to the things-to-do category, the Trail is the hands-down winner over the Alley. Consider all the things the Alley doesn't have, such as bathrooms. (The Alley doesn't even have a decent bush to hide behind.)

The Trail has bushes and bathrooms aplenty _ and lots more.

It is a highway to mystery, with canals that slip into dark hammocks and gravel roads that fade into the great swamp. It's a historic path, haunted by images of 1920s workers laboring along the ambitious roadway through tall grasses filled with snakes, bugs and God-knew-what.

For the curious or bored, the Trail offers roadside attractions aplenty. After more than a decade of speeding along the Trail with the absolute minimum of stops, I decided the return trip from Naples provided the opportunity to see what I'd been missing.

I was just 6 miles out of Naples when I detoured down S.R. 951, and the Coral Isle Factory Stores, (941) 775-8083.

By comparison to the mammoth Sawgrass Mills outlet complex (just off the eastern edge of Alligator Alley), Coral Isle is a shadow of a mall, with about 40 shops. But Coral Isle has some terrific stores that you can't find at Sawgrass, including Anne Klein, Mark Cross (they've got Coach bags), Mikasa and Villeroy & Boch.

Back to the Trail. About 10 miles farther south took me to the entrance to Collier-Seminole State Park, (941) 394-3397; $3.25 entry fee per vehicle.)

I was pleased to find there's more here than just a nature area. Near the park entrance stands a giant metal contraption that signs describe as a walking dredge. Back in the '20s, when the Trail was being constructed as the first road across the bottom of Florida, the dredge was used to dig canals that then provided rock fill for the roadbed, plus drainage.

Because it had four corner "feet" and a large center one, the dredge could be "walked" over swamps and slippery ground. Dynamite was used to blast the limestone into a roadway. By 1926, Barron Collier _ a wealthy adman who'd set his sights on Southwest Florida _ had spent more than $1-million on building the Trail _ and still had 31 miles to go!

The 6,400-acre park also boasts an interpretive center in a replica of a cypress fortress, plus campsites and canoe rentals. Narrated boat tours lasting one hour leave several times each day; cost is $8.50 per adults; $5 children ages 6-12; under 6 free. For boat tours, call (800) 842-8898.

Lodging on the Trail is still limited. Most luxurious of the accommodations is 22 miles south of Naples, at Port of the Islands. This is a hacienda-style resort with pool, restaurant, marina and chickee bar. Summer rates start at $49; in December rates rise to $95 and up. Call (941) 394-3101.

Much of the Trail runs through or along various protected lands, including Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. For greater insight into the swamp _ and to stretch my legs _ I stopped off at Big Cypress Bend, one of the entrances to Fakahatchee Strand. Here a boardwalk leads into the jungle, quiet and untamed in the way that Florida must have been hundreds of years ago. This is one of the few areas in the country where natural cypress still grow in abundance.

At the intersection of the Trail and State Road 29, signboards at the Everglades Area Welcome Center, (941) 695-3941, announced attractions to the east and south; a 3-mile detour along 29 to Everglades City was irresistible.

Despite the clutter around the bridge just outside Everglades City, the town retains much of the quaint, historic character you'd expect from a former trading post turned early-20th century sportsman's paradise. A stately, two-story town hall sits at one corner of the central park; on another sits Susie's Station, a restaurant and souvenir shop/museum dolled up to look like a petrol station of yore. Across the street, the simple white Community Church peals out hymns each evening at 6 p.m.

Everglades City and its neighbor, Chokoloskee, boast the most lodgings convenient to the Trail. There are several modern motels plus the historic Rod & Gun Lodge and Restaurant, once a nationally known sports headquarters that drew the likes of President William Taft and writer Zane Grey. Likewise, most visitors today are anglers and nature lovers interested in boating and canoeing. Check with commercial outfitters or with the friendly Everglades National Park office, (941) 695-2591.

Of course, the real reason to stop in Everglades City and Chokoloskee is frog legs. You'll find them _ as well as seafood _ on just about every local menu.

It's impossible to know which of the dozen or so adventure tour operators along the Trail is the best, but there's no question that Wooten's is the most advertised. For $10 _ $12 minus the $2 off for a coupon found in one of the omnipresent Wooten's brochures _ I headed off into the Big Cypress Swamp on a swamp buggy, a slow-moving rattletrap contraption pieced together from various bits of cars and trucks.

Though the trip lasted only about a half-hour, I got my money's worth. Monk, my friendly captain and tour guide, pointed out baby alligators and rare orchids and explained about the grasses, plants and wildlife of this place where he was born.

We were surrounded by begging raccoons; Monk explained that the wildlife is most plentiful in the mornings, and talked about hunting trips to catch wild hogs and gators.

Were it not for the signs announcing its presence, you'd miss Ochopee, barely a wide spot in the road. But it does have a famous post office _ a former pumping shed that is said to be the smallest post office in the United States. How the postmaster staves off claustrophobia is a mystery.

On to Monroe Station. Often, there are swamp buggies parked alongside it, but I've never seen the place open. A ranger later explained that when the Tamiami Trail opened in 1928, a traveler was likely to go just 30 miles per day. Monroe and other "stations" were auto courts _ early motels.

The sawgrass rolled by, punctuated by a visitors center (another bathroom!) and the Big Cypress Gallery, (941) 695-2428, where Clyde Butcher's exquisite black-and-white nature photographs are sold, along with the work of his photographer wife, Nikki Butcher. The juxtaposition of the giant photographs and the vast Everglades through which the Trail runs is not to be missed.

If you care about American Indian crafts, make it a point to stop at the Everglades-Shark Valley Craft Center. Sure, there are a few of the kitschy, cheap items that pass for souvenirs. But there's the really fine work, too, from all over the United States, including exquisite silver necklaces and bracelets studded with turquoise, and beautiful baskets that sell for a hefty price.

From this point east, the Miccosukee Indians command much of the Trail. I stopped at their namesake village, (305) 223-8380, and plunked down the $5 entry fee ($3.50 for ages 4-12). Admission includes a 15-minute narrated tour explaining how the tribe came to South Florida from Georgia and Alabama and navigated the Everglades in canoes, living on the tiny wooded islands called hammocks.

Crafts demonstrations, an alligator-wrestling show and stop at the small museum complete the tour. Particularly interesting were its turn-of-the-century photographs of women covered from the neck down without much opening for hands or feet, to protect them from mosquitoes, their heads covered with elaborate hats trimmed in plumes.

Just off the Trail sits Shark Valley, another Everglades National Park facility. Here, visitors can rent bicycles ($3.25 per hour, or bring your own) and roll easily through the park along a 15-mile tarmac path. At the furthermost point from the entrance is a 50-foot observation tower from which you can look over the grassy flats. For those who prefer creature comforts, the park offers a two-hour narrated tram ride ($8 adults, $4 children under 12; (305) 221-8455.)

As I drove toward Miami, my remaining options included an airboat ride (advertised prices started at $7), the Miccosukee gambling hall and the Pit Barbecue (the fried biscuits with honey are worth the calories).

But it was time to get home; I was tuckered out.

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