Monday, June 11, 2012

Staying Safe & Gluten Free in South Florida

WARNING! Do not approach wildlife!
Never get closer than 15 feet to an alligator.


This was the notice posted at the beginning of a 15-mile scenic loop my family intended to bike in Everglades National Park. It literally stopped us in our tracks. To take pictures of course, not only of the warning sign, but also of the gators swimming lazily in the canal next to the paved trail we were on. And they were definitely closer than 15 feet, with no fence or barrier of any sort preventing them from exiting the waterway and crossing the road to the wetlands on the other side.

Like wildlife in all of America’s national parks, the Everglade’s alligators are free to roam wherever they want. Because they are coldblooded animals, meaning they cannot regulate or maintain their body temperature, they often congregate on the pavement to warm themselves in the sun during the cooler winter months. But since we were visiting South Florida in spring, when daytime temperatures are generally in the mid-80’s, most of the alligators we saw stayed put in the lily pad cloaked channel.

Our 14-year old son, Matthew, had not been thrilled when we started planning a spring break trip to Florida that included the Everglades, Biscayne National Park, and the Florida Keys. He had wanted to spend his holiday in central Florida - at Disney World, Universal Studios, and Seaworld. Or anyplace, really, that didn’t involve biking, hiking, and canoeing in nature. He seemed especially concerned about biking, hiking, and canoeing in the midst of alligator country. His worries were not unfounded. While unprovoked attacks are considered rare, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission did receive 16 reports of alligator attacks in 2010. So as I crept closer and closer to the water’s grassy edge to get that perfect wildlife shot of a baby crocodilian, my family reminded me about the 15 foot rule.

Bikes are rented on a first-come first-served basis at the Everglade’s Shark Valley Visitor Center, located at the park’s north entrance. For those not enchanted with the idea of pedaling around the 15-mile loop, all-the-while keeping watch for road-crossing gators, a popular guided tram tour is a faster and safer way to explore the River of Grass. 

 The entire Everglades area encompasses about 4,000 square miles, from Lake Okeechobee down to the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay. It used to be twice as big, before early settlers, developers, and government projects began altering the balanced ecosystem. Today, roughly 2,300 square miles of this slow-moving sheet of freshwater are protected by Everglades National Park, all of which lies south of U.S. Highway 41. Called the Tamiami Trail, the highway traverses the lower Florida peninsula from near Miami in the east to Naples on the west coast. Additional tracts of marsh are maintained by Big Cypress National Preserve and the Miccosukee and Seminole Indian Reservations on the north side of the highway.


Getting Around in the Everglades

After the bike ride we crossed Highway 41 to MiccosukeeRestaurant, which is run by the Miccosukee Tribe. A billboard outside the diner advertised fried gator tail, fry bread, pumpkin bread, breaded catfish fillets, fried frog legs, and Indian tacos.  While offering me little hope of getting a gluten free meal, we still went inside, basically because there wasn’t much else around. The waiter and I agreed that a salad and a glass of real iced tea were my safest bets.

Down the road from the restaurant is the Miccosukee IndianVillage. Touted as a cultural experience where visitors can enjoy craft demonstrations, watch an alligator show, and take an airboat ride with a stop at an authentic Indian camp, the Village got great ratings in our guidebook. However, with no demonstrations taking place during our visit, the next alligator show not starting for another hour or so, and the sole airboat in sight having already been booked by a group coming from the Miccosukee Resort and Gaming Convention Center, a facility near Miami owned by the Miccosukee Indian Tribe, our experience lasted about 15 minutes. (Recent reviews on TripAdvisor.com are more favorable so it’d be worth it to check it out again). So we headed back towards several airboat tour outfitters we’d passed earlier in the day on our way to Shark Valley. Everglades Safari Park promised an eco-adventure tour that included a 30-minute airboat ride, an educational alligator show, and a wildlife trail.

For our second day in Everglades National Park we pointed our rental car towards the more remote area of Flamingo. Along the way we stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center to walk the “must-see” 0.8 mile loop Anhinga Trail to observe more alligators, turtles, and birds such as the anhinga, herons, and vultures. Other stops along the Main Park Road afforded us views of the Everglades diverse habitats that include subtropical pine forests, jungle-like hardwood hammock, and mangrove forests. We were also privileged to witness a flock of endangered wood storks nesting at Paurotis Pond.

Flamingo Visitor Center is the end of the road in the Everglades. There used to be a lodge, cabins, and restaurants here, providing the parks only accommodations, but that was before Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. Now there is only the visitor center, the marina, a campground, and a convenience store. It was at the store where we rented canoes for a four-mile round-trip paddle up Buttonwood Canal to Coot Bay. There are numerous canoe trails in this area but tides, winds, and advice from marina staff should dictate which route to choose.

Our excursion was relatively uneventful, save for the time my husband steered us into a grove of mangrove trees, causing me to nervously scan the overhead branches for snakes, and we returned having spied only a limited number of birds. Expressing our disappointment about not seeing any reptiles, the staff member helping us out of our canoes at the dock shot a finger toward a saltwater crocodile just a few feet forward of our bow. To which my 14-year old exclaimed, “You mean we didn’t have to waste all that time, do all that work, and get sunburned just to see that?”

Sunscreen is essential equipment in South Florida. Even in the winter when morning and evening temperatures are cool, mid-day temps are regularly in the sunny 70’s. Winter is normally the best time to visit the Everglades because of the pleasant temps, fewer rains, low mosquito activity, and increased migratory bird population. We knew we were taking a chance by visiting the Everglades in late spring when the mosquito population increases right along with the daytime temperatures and water levels.  But we were prepared with mosquito repellant.


Where to Find Gluten-Free Food

I was also prepared with regard to gluten free food. Knowing beforehand that food in general in the park would be sparse I’d packed my usual travel collection of gluten free cereal, crackers, bread, and bars, and planned to pick up perishable items and other snacks at the local Walmart Supercenter Store. Surprisingly, I didn’t need to be so organized because the store carried many gluten free products. It was also situated just a few blocks from our hotel in Florida City, making it convenient place to pop in to for our daily picnic supplies.

We’d selected the Best Western in Florida City for our 5 night stay in south Florida solely for its location. Positioned smack-dab between Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, we counted the hotel’s large courtyard pool, pleasant rooms, daily continental breakfast (hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, fruit, and juice for me), and helpful staff as welcome bonuses. With its official name being Best Western Gateway to the Keys, we also knew we’d be nicely situated for an excursion through the Florida Keys.

Florida City itself is small, with a population of about 8500. It is the southernmost town in the south Florida metropolitan area, located roughly 33 miles south of Miami airport. Coupled with its larger sister city, Homestead (population 50,000), the area has several hotel chains, shopping centers, and restaurants. Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q, Chili’s Grill, and Longhorn Steakhouse are among the chains that have gluten free or allergen menus.  For local, non-chain dining flavor, we looked to the area’s population mix, its legacy as an agricultural zone, and its “tropical” designation. This led us to places such as El Toro Taco, Farmers Market Restaurant, Fruit & Spice Park, and Robert is Here.

El Toro Taco is a family-run business in Homestead with a “very good to excellent” Zagat rating for homemade Mexican food. I’d also give our waitress an “excellent” score for the attention she gave to my gluten free requirements. After checking with the kitchen staff several times, she recommended chicken enchiladas made with soft corn tortillas, and replaced the enchilada sauce, which contained flour, with ranchero sauce. At Farmers Market Restaurant in Florida City, fittingly located inside the gated industrial-looking state farmers market, the staff was equally friendly and willing to accommodate me. With plenty of fresh vegetables on the menu and seafood being their specialty, I had no problem putting together a gluten free meal. However, I did have to send back the mashed potatoes when they were served to me with gravy on top because the waitress didn’t know the gravy was made with flour!

Fruit & Spice Park is a 37-acre tropical botanical garden that grows more than 500 types of tropical fruit, spices, vegetables, herbs, nuts, and other plants. During an hour-long tram tour, visitors are invited to sample whatever happens to be in season. For us this included one of their 75 varieties of bananas, sapodilla (tastes like a pear sprinkled with brown sugar!), and mamey (has a sweet pumpkin flavor). Additional tastings were offered inside the visitor center. At the park’s Mango Café, a fruit sampler, fruit and spice shakes and smoothies, and an assortment of salads and sandwiches (not GF) were available for purchase. We popped into the café only for the smoothies and shakes. We also indulged in fresh fruit shakes at Robertis Here, a landmark exotic fruit and local vegetable stand located en route to the Everglades Royal Palm Visitor Center.  It’s a fun place to breathe in the tangy aroma of freshly squeezed citrus, taste freshly made sun-ripened tomato salsa, or listen to a live weekend band.


Biscayne National Park and Beyond to the Keys

After spending time on and around the water of the Everglades, it was time to get in the water at Biscayne National Park. Ninety-five percent of the park’s 172,000 acres are underwater, so getting wet is the best  way to learn about the park’s four diverse, yet fragile marine ecosystems of mangrove shorelines, shallow bay, undeveloped islands, and living coral reefs. At Dante Fascell Visitor Center, guests can join a ranger-led program, rent a canoe or kayak, or hop aboard one of the park concessioner’s snorkeling, SCUBA, or glass bottom boat tours. Despite the day’s windy conditions, we chose one of the two daily 3-hour snorkeling tours. Onboard, we crossed 10 miles of Biscayne Bay to reach Boca Chita Key, the park’s most popular island with its signature decorative lighthouse, and then traversed an additional three miles of ocean to reach the reefs. Once in the water with mask, snorkel, fins, and a snorkeling vest, the ocean’s swells and wind-driven waves turned our much-anticipated easy-going drift across the water’s surface into gut-churning, salt-water-swallowing snorkeling adventure. Still, the underwater dance of colorful fish and reef was a mesmerizing sight.

The hefty breeze also played havoc with our plans for a snorkeling tour at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. So we discarded that idea and instead spent a leisurely morning driving south to Key West on the 106.5-mile Florida Keys Scenic Highway. Along the way we stopped at Robbie’s Marina on Lower Matecumbe Key (Mile Marker 77.5), where the major attraction is buying a bucket of raw fish to feed to the large school of long silvery tarpon that congregate off the pier. Warning: Release the feeder fish or otherwise risk the tarpon leaping out of the water and latching onto your hand!

Once in Key West we took the obligatory photos at Mile Marker 0 and the buoy-like monument signifying the southernmost point in the continental U.S. Then, we sought out lunch at Help Yourself, a funky little place that serves organic, made from scratch food, and states that almost everything on the menu can be made gluten free and vegan.  By late afternoon we were on the beach at Bahia Honda State Park, one of the top 10 beaches in the U.S. (Mile Marker 37), and then made it to famous Seven Mile Bridge (Mile Marker 47), one of the world’ longest bridges, just in time to watch the warm spring sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico. For dinner we selected Barracuda Grill in Marathon (Mile Marker 49.5) because their menu looked gluten free friendly due to its selection of grilled fish and chops. As with all of our other dining experiences while on vacation, the staff was pleasant and willing to help me pick items, and make adjustments, to keep me safe and healthy in south Florida.

There was one activity on this family spring break trip, however, from which I did not escape safely. You see, I’d made a deal my teenage sons that if they indulged my desire to bike, hike, and canoe in south Florida, I’d indulge them with a day at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando. WARNING: It’s a lot of fun!


Helpful Information

Everglades National Park: www.nps.gov/ever; Biscayne National Park: www.nps.gov/bisc

Best Western, www.bestwesternflorida.com/hotels/best-western-gateway-to-the-keys.

Homestead Restaurants: http://business.intuit.com/boorah-restaurants/best-of/24814/FL/Homestead.html?start=0

Fruit & Spice Park and Robert is Here: www.RedlandTrail.com

Help Yourself: http://www.helpyourselffoods.com/

Barracuda Grill: http://www.barracudagrillmarathonfl.com