Here, less than two hours southwest of Miami, history and nature intersect, creating a panaroma of subtle environmental wonders that will give the average tourist and native alike an unexpected sense of the Sunshine State.
Forget about sandy beaches and elegant hotels. Forget about mouse ears and monorails. Flamingo, like the rest of Everglades National Park, does not hit the visitor with the spectacular scenery and towering vistas of some of the nation's western parks.
But Flamingo is just as special and pristine in a way that inspires awe. It is a step back in time. In 1893, when the ragtag band of sugar cane growers, moonshiners, smugglers and plume hunters at the rim of Cape Sable established a post office, federal officials ordered them to give their mosquito-infested village a name.
The most cynical residents believed that "End of the World" was perfect. After all, most of them had run away from troubled pasts, and their fishing settlement, accessible only by boat, was at the southernmost tip of the Florida mainland. Finally, because of the flocks of magnificent wading birds that gathered, the settlers became less philosophical and appropriately dubbed their outpost Flamingo.
The village never became a boom town and was unknown to most of the outside world. In 1947, however, the U.S. Department of the Interior recognized the importance of Flamingo's estuary system to the region's marine fishery and wildlife and made the town part of the Everglades National Park.
All visitors drive into the park, and the trip to Flamingo, 38 miles from the park entrance, is a delight. The first stop should be the park's Visitor Center, which offers information, exhibits, an 18-minute video about the park and a bookstore and gift shop. This is the place to pick up reading material _ books, brochures and maps _ that will help make your stay pleasurable.
On the drive to Flamingo, points of interest dot both sides of the highway. Do not wait for the River of Grass, which is mostly flat, to overwhelm you. It will not. Rather, you should stop at as many of these designated points as you can. Each site has a short trail and a display explaining the flora and fauna for that area. Gumbo Limbo Trail, for instance, is a 1.5-mile trip through a subtropical paradise, a hardwood hammock of gumbo limbo, strangler fig, live oak, sumac and red maple.
Pa-hay-okee Trail Boardwalk and Tower are required viewing. The boardwalk takes the visitor to an observation platform overlooking the "true" Everglades, vistas of sawgrass prairie the Indians called pa-hay-okee, or grassy waters.
Today, Flamingo is not a town per se but a well-maintained oasis for visitors in what are otherwise 1.5-million acres comprising one of the most inhospitable ecosystems on Earth.
The Flamingo region remains much as it was before the turn of the century _ and it has some of the best canoeing and hiking trails in the southern United States. All self-guided trails can be reached from the park's only highway, and many of these trails are clearly marked throughout.
At Coastal Prairie, for example, the hiker steps back into time, along an old road once used by black cotton pickers and fishermen. Shady buttonwoods line the trail but regularly give way to open expanses of coastal plants. Eco Pond, fresh water, is a favorite of various wading birds, song birds, alligators and other animals. The best times to come here are at sunrise and sunset. Bring plenty of film and binoculars and stake out a quiet spot on the wooden ramp.
Rugged canoeists should try Hells Bay, nine winding miles of sheltered mangrove creeks, ponds and small bays. This trail takes its name, according to oldtimers, because it is "hell to get into and hell to get out of." Park Service officials, apparently believing the old coots, have marked the trail with 160 numbered poles.
Noble Hammock is another challenge. A two-mile loop, the trail is a maze of shady, mangroved-lined creeks and small ponds. Sharp corners and narrow passageways make this trail tough even for experienced canoeists to navigate.
Do not hesitate to walk, to get close to the environment. The miles of lush greenery and animal life on the road to Flamingo will take on a meaning _ an intimate experience that will last a lifetime.
To visitors who have the time and want to explore and enjoy the real beauty of this part of the Everglades, I suggest that they set up base in Flamingo and stay a few nights or a week. For those wanting the amenities of home, the Flamingo Lodge Marina & Outpost Resort provides the perfect vantage point. Facilities include a modern motel and cabins and a restaurant with a great view of Florida Bay. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. Drinks and light fare are available in the first-floor lounge.
For the more hardy visitor who loves sleeping under the stars, the Park Service provides an excellent campground at Flamingo with nearly 100 tent sites and more than 200 sites for motor homes. Ample grills, picnic tables, bathrooms and showers are available. At the Marina Store, visitors can buy groceries, gasoline, propane, camping and marine supplies, gifts and souvenirs and, of course, that essential, insect repellent.
The waters of Florida Bay continue to attract sports fishermen from around the world, and the Flamingo Marina offers a wealth of supplies and services. Visitors can rent boats with outboard motors, and they can rent a variety of fishing tackle. Generally, the fishing is excellent. During my most recent visit, I saw happy tourists showing off snapper, redfish and seatrout. Many visitors prefer charter fishing boats, which depart from the marina each day.
Because much of the region is remote and accessible only by water, I highly recommend a day or more on one of the marina's houseboats, either a 37-foot-long Gibson or a 40-foot pontoon. Each boat will sleep six to eight and comes with propane, pots and pans, dishes, linens, navigational charts and safety equipment.
Renters do not have to be boating experts: Skilled, patient staff offer a complete orientation. A houseboat, moreover, provides great photo opportunities and chances to get intimate glimpses of some of the park's most exotic birds and other wildlife. The marina also rents bicycles and canoes.
Those who prefer organized sightseeing can take advantage of daily, staff-operated cruises into Florida Bay and the mangrove estuary. A tram tour offers a good introduction, and Park Service personnel conduct daily workshops and demonstrations during the winter season.
After arriving at Flamingo, the end of the road, you can relax and enjoy a drink and good meal. Then, before turning in for the evening, prepare yourself for sunset over Florida Bay _ one of the most spectacular sites in North America.
Now, a warning
Beware of mosquitoes! Stuart McIver, in his book True Tales of the Everglades, writes of the old days: "One of the settlers' worst enemies were mosquitos. Stories abound that they had been known to kill cows and mules left out for the night." At any rate, if you follow these do's and don't's, provided by the National Park Service, you should enjoy your visit to Flamingo:
DON'T roll down your windows when stopping along roadsides to observe wildlife.
DO avoid grassy areas. Walk only on paved areas.
DON'T wear colognes or perfumes.
DO apply mosquito repellent before getting out of vehicle.
DO wear long pants, long sleeves and closed shoes.
DON'T leave doors open longer than necessary.
DO avoid areas under trees and in the shade of buildings.