For over 30 years, I’ve wanted to ride in one of those “air boat” (or is it a “fan boat”?) things in shallow water, dodging alligators like a slalom skier with the wind blowing in my face. Last July, we drove from Atlanta to Florida Everglades National Park to do just that.
Our trip started at Delray Beach, FL, where my mother-in-law had booked a large house for her 2 daughters and their children to spend a week; I joined via a one-way Delta flight on Thursday morning. That afternoon, our three children and their two cousins were swimming and snorkeling in the Atlantic when some folks on the beach started screaming and pointing to the water where we were, saying there was a shark. My son was near me–it was about shoulder deep to me and fairly murky, so I couldn’t see anything. I told him to just be still (not knowing if you’re supposed to be still around a shark or not, but I’ve been told that’s what you should do if you come upon a venomous snake in the woods, so I figured we’d just go with it). Also, I didn’t want my daughters or bride to get upset, and they were not as close to the area where the shark supposedly was as my boy and I were, so I didn’t think they were in imminent harm anyway. I didn’t think there were a lot of sharks in this part of eastern Florida, so I was really, really hoping these fools on the beach were overreacting at the sight of a dolphin or other large aquatic but innocuous mammal close to my son and me.
It was not a dolphin or otherwise innocuous mammal. But, it wasn’t a shark, either. Instead, we were just a few feet from 2 enormous, majestic manta rays gliding through the water surrounding us. We weren’t being subjected to a threat; we were getting a treat. I motioned for the girls to come to where we were, and for the next 20 minutes or so, the manta rays swam just at or below the surface, slowly circling us so that we were able to see them as easily as we would at an aquarium behind glass, but these were free…they were just friendly (or curious)!
The next morning, we headed to Everglades National Park via the Shark Valley visitors center. After exploring the visitors center and getting the children’s junior ranger workbooks, we took a tram tour through the everglades, where the object seemed to be to spot as many alligators and shore birds as one can possibly see in an hour or two’s time frame.
This was an enjoyable experience, but then it started raining a bit, and we were glad the cars following the lead tram car had roofs on them, but then the rain got harder, and a few minutes after that, the rain became so torrential that I felt like Forrest Gump when he was walking through chest-high water in the rain in Vietnam, and every inch of our clothing and skin was drenched, and it was kinda miserable (if “miserable” can be qualified). We sought refuge under a covered observation tower during the tour’s only stop, but the damage was done.
The tour ended, and we immediately went to the gift shop to hunt dry clothes. Then we drove just down the road a bit to Gator Park airboat tours, so I could finally realize my bucket list experience of slaloming with gators.
While we didn’t so much “slalom,” we did speed through the shallow water and tall grasses, the wind in our faces, with gators and other wildlife surrounding us.
We headed back up to Delray Beach for seafood at Atlantic Grille (where we could also charge up the car for the next day’s trek north).
On Saturday the 15th, we went up the coast to St. Augustine, stopping to explore Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and get additional national park system passport cancellations and junior ranger badges. All 5 of us enjoyed climbing to the tops of its towers and crawling through the depths of its dungeons. We had a delicious dinner at Aviles Restaurant (where we could also charge the car) before exploring the “old town” area, including a cigar shop where I picked up a skull-shaped meerschaum pipe and a magic shop where the children bought tricks they can use to astound their friends and family.
We pulled into our Fairfield Inn at Jacksonville Beach about 10:45pm. The next morning was Sunday the 16th, and my daughter’s 11th birthday . We went to Fort Caroline National Memorial at Timucuan Preserve just after breakfast. The children earned additional junior ranger badges and passport cancellations, and we hiked the ruins while learning how Native Americans in the area lived.
We crossed into Georgia and stopped to charge at Kingsland, which was next door to an IHOP, where the birthday girl wanted to have lunch, and lo and behold, they’d decorated the place for her birthday !
Okay, maybe it was IHOP’s birthday, but hey, it made her feel good and made for not only a good meal (to her), but a good photo opp.
We pressed on toward home, arriving just north of Atlanta at 10pm.
Another great roadtrip was complete. Florida in July is hot like I’ve not experienced this side of Qatar in August, but as long as the air conditioning is working or the beach is near, it’s tolerable. We want to go back and visit the national parks farther south, like Biscayne and Dry Tortugas, but that will have to be a future trip (likely by air via Miami and inclusive of some time in the Keys). It was great to spend time with family and see a new national park, in addition to the national monuments+memorials from the NPS system on the way home, and for as long as we have the time and willingness from all participants, we’ll continue to get our national parks passport books as full of cancellations as we can possibly get them.