Everglades City may be best known for what it doesn’t have. You won’t find a mall, traffic lights, high-rises or even a beach here. This trading-outpost-turned-farming-turned-fishing-community spent a few years in the spotlight during Barron Collier’s 1920s construction of Alligator Alley through the Everglades. Situated at the Gulf coast gateway to the ’Glades, the pipsqueak town — all two miles by four blocks of it — is tucked between the Barron River and the waterways of the 580,000- acre Big Cypress National Preserve. An imposing white Neoclassic city hall and a Collier-built bank, laundry and workers barracks hearken back to an earlier era. You’ll find few mansions here, even along Riverside Drive, where crab pots (October to May, stone crabs’ claws are harvested) and boats nod to a working waterfront, and the stoic Everglades Rod & Gun Club melds past and present.
Royal palms and tin rooftops throughout Everglades City vie for this town’s tallest point amid a tangle of seemingly wayward streets and sparse vegetation — a stark contrast to the plant-choked drive through the wilderness (prime Florida panther habitat) to get here. Many of its stilt homes and small cottages are rented to guests seeking solitude — and water (to that end, some businesses also double as kayak, fishing and airboat guides). Fishing rods poke from open windows in time- and weather- worn cars and pickups, an outward reminder of the area’s livelihood. You realize there’s a humility to this city. It’s a place devoid of the Bentleys and Mercedes found in nearby Naples. Along the water’s edge, mangroves provide a green backdrop to moored boats and a tiki hut or two.
Water- and nature-centric adventures are the big draws here. This is, after all, the Everglades. BYOB (b as in boat) or rent a pontoon or flats boat from Glades Haven Resort (gladeshaven.com). You won’t have to travel far for some of Florida’s best fishing spots for snook, permit, flounder, pompano, sea trout and 200-pound tarpon. Boat deep into the vast and quiet backcountry wilderness of the Ten Thousand Islands, and you’re likely to find a small, secluded beach, ideal for a swim and a picnic.
If oar power is your preferred mode of transportation, take a paddle along the Wilderness Waterway, linking Everglades City to Flamingo, with naturalist David Harraden or his guides at Everglades Rentals & Eco Adventures. Harraden’s daily, moonlit and weeklong canoe excursions to primitive camping sites with names like Camp Lonesome and Willy Willy provide the ultimate in natural immersion and wildlife photo-ops. He’s been doing it for more than 30 years — and hasn’t lost anyone yet.
On land, you can head to the hiking trails and boardwalks at nearby Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, home of the summer-blooming ghost orchid. Explore Everglades City’s past — from its earliest inhabitants (the Calusa, Miccosukee and Seminole Indians) to its pioneering Storter family — at the Museum of the Everglades, housed in the old, pink-painted commercial laundry building.
Survey the arrival of the city’s fishing fleet and the departure of shallows-skimming airboats from the open-air deck at City Seafood, a market and restaurant. Inside, the beer and the morning’s catch are served on ice, and a collection jar seeks donations for the local “Cat Lady” who helps wayfaring feral felines. In keeping with Everglades City’s laid-back mentality, City Seafood has an order counter and pickup window, not servers. The same is true at the popular Camellia St. Grill, a kitschy, shabby- chic establishment where it’s practically a pastime to deconstruct the salad, with its flecks of tiny yellow flowers, star fruit, fresh sage and other herbs plucked from the chef’s garden. Dishware, bowling balls and other unexpected items serve as funky ornamentation. The riverfront Rod & Gun Club provides guests a trip back in time and a menu that combines traditional seafood and steaks with more exotic items like frog’s legs and gator.
Weekend visitors find modest comforts at the Ivey House Bed & Breakfast. Owners Harraden and his wife, Sandee, converted a former Barron Co. employee barracks and boarding house into the B&B, with traditional shared bathrooms. There’s also a newer 16-room inn with a courtyard and pool for guests who want to kick it up a notch.
“I moved here from San Diego, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else. It’s a small town and you just don’t worry about anything.” — Sandee Haraden, Co-Owner, Ivey House Bed & Breakfast
- Location — Everglades City is on the western edge of the Everglades, 35 miles south of Naples.
- Place to Stay — Ivey House Bed & Breakfast
- On the Water — Everglades Rentals & Eco Adventures
- Things to Do — Museum of the Everglades
- Where to Eat — Rod & Gun Club, City Seafood and Camellia St. Grill 239-695-2003
- Best Time to Visit — February’s seafood festival
- Resources — Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades