It would have been so easy to stay there on Las Olas beach. “We’ve got two lounges reserved for you ladies,” said the gal at reception. “Just see Gino under the blue umbrella.” If Gino was anything like the bedazzled characters checking in beside us, we would have had a wild time. But “we ladies” had a different kind of wild in mind. 

Old friends from our young and daring days in New York City, Deb and I hadn’t seen each other in years. When I suggested she meet me in Florida for a few days, I was surprised how quickly she said yes. Just like the old days, she was up for any adventure. In this case, the adventure was an eco-safari in the Florida Everglades.

Everglades National Park encompasses 1.5 million acres of land, a fraction of the original Everglades wetlands that were fed by Lake Okeechobee over a century ago. The remainder has been drained to accommodate sugarcane plantations, citrus orchards, and residential homes. Today, the “river of grass” travels a leisurely quarter mile per hour southwest across the state and spills out into Florida Bay. Along the way, cypress swamps, mangrove forests, and tropical hardwood hammocks play host to a mindboggling array of wildlife, including dozens of protected species such as the West Indian manatee, Florida panther, and American crocodile.

So, instead of slipping into our bikinis and meeting Gino on the beach, Deb and I slipped on long sleeved shirts and met Luis, an airboat pilot who took us on a wild ride, tore his shirt sleeve to demonstrate the dangers of sawgrass, then stripped the stalk and sucked its onion-like meat to show us how to survive, should we ever find ourselves without food in wetlands such as these. Luis wouldn’t let us sit in the pilot’s chair but he did introduce us to Hershel, an eight-foot alligator, with large, inquisitive eyes and skin that made me feel badly about a clutch I’d once owned. 

Next, we caught a ride west along Tamiami Trail with a local guide named Emily, who noted that the air was “as thick as dog’s breath.” Deb and I giggled. She was right, of course. It was July. The best time to visit is fall or winter. But where’s the adventure in that? Emily cranked the air conditioning and drove off, pointing out osprey, snowy egrets, great blue herons, and anhinga along the way. 

On the west coast, we stopped in a fishing village called Everglades City, where a sun-pink fellow named Corey welcomed us aboard his white skiff boat. “I was born and raised here,” he announced proudly as he motored into Chokoloskee Bay, scanning the water for manatee. “I was swimming with a momma and her little bitty baby around here yesterday. She can’t have gone far.” After a minute or two, he narrowed his gaze and pointed left, “There!” Sure enough, a ghostly shadow appeared beneath the surface, a soft grey snout came up for air, then a smaller one followed suit. Deb suggested a swim. Corey demurred.

As the sun began to hang low in the sky, we cruised the mangrove-thick Ten Thousand Islands and reveled in manatee, dolphin, and roseate spoonbill sightings as Corey spun tales of drug busts, shark encounters, tarpon catches, and python escapes. Meanwhile, back on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Gino folded his blue umbrella, neatly stacked the lounge chairs, and called it a day.