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Southwest Florida Eco-Adventures

Southwest Florida Eco-Adventures
By Candyce H. Stapen

Even the best beach aficionado needs some time away from the shore. Book a vacation in Ft. Myers, Sanibel, Captiva or Marco Island, along Florida’s southwest coast, and you can savor not only the sea and sand, but also the natural Florida of estuaries, salt marshes, mangrove swamps, pine woods and pastures.

A big area attraction is proximity to Everglades National Park, a 1.5-million-acre subtropical wilderness of mangrove swamps and saw-grass prairies cut by watery channels. These rivers of grass harbor alligators as well as the endangered American crocodile and the manatee.

As our tour boat moves slowly along a channel lined with red mangroves, the guide points to an alligator snoozing in the shade near the shore, almost imperceptible among the gnarled, fingerlike roots. Only the creature’s bulging eyes give him away.

The Everglades National Park also attracts many species of birds. On our boat trip we watch an osprey gliding on a wind current, and see a pelican swooping low over the boat. One of the best places for birding in the Everglades is along the Anhinga Trail.

Situated along the northwestern edge of Everglades National Park, the 10,000 Islands are not under park control. That’s why we are able to explore in an airboat. After we don headphones to muffle the noise, the guide gives a thumbs-up signal. All of a sudden we float magic-carpet style, hovering inches above the brackish waters and snaking cartoon-like from side to side to follow the “paths” through the thick clumps of grass.

Commodore Creek in the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge offers good kayaking. As we paddle, a naturalist guide in her own kayak helps us spot pelicans, osprey, and herons.

The guide also points out the mangrove’s barnacles, explaining how the roots create an environment for shells, shrimp, crabs and other small animals that feed on the decaying leaves. Then she pulls out a cache of items she found in the creek, showing us egg cases for whelks; a sea squirt, a critter that looks like dirt encrusted pebble; as well as a tiny seahorse.

Captiva and Sanibel Islands bring the classic past-times of beach strolling and shell collecting to new heights. Shells--conchs, clams scallops and scores of others--wash up on the shores of these barrier islands by the waveful because of the land formations’ east/west orientation. You can keep anything that doesn’t have a live critter inside.

For more adventures, go inland for a swamp buggy tour, a truck with sides and shade. Babcock Wilderness Adventures employs these to explore the oak hammocks, pine woods, pastures and wet areas of the 73,000-acre Crescent B Ranch, Punta Gorda, FL.

We pass alligators sunning themselves on the banks of a pond and slider turtles atop a fallen branch. A boardwalk path through a cypress swamp leads us to a fenced enclosure. Inside a panther, critters once prevalent in this region, cools off in the shade. At the tour’s end the guide surprises us, delighting the kids, by hauling out a baby ‘gator for us to touch.

Southwest Florida also features many resorts. These include the upscale Ritz-Carlton Golf Club Naples as well as the Naples Grande Beach Resort, both in Naples. Other good area choices include the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club and Spa, Marco Island, and the Pink Shell Beach Resort, Ft. Myers Beach.

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