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Fall 2006 | Beyond South Beach

Fall 2006 | Beyond South Beach

From alligator shoes in South Beach to an alligator wrestler in the Everglades, a coast-to-coast road trip from Miami via Naples to Fort Lauderdale is a study in extremes.

Driving from the Fort Lauderdale airport to South Beach, I suddenly remember Australian author and New York City resident Kate Jennings telling me how she loves South Beach "because it is [full of] New Yorkers on vacation." I'm instantly filled with dread--I live in New York, and this trip is at least in part about temporarily escaping New Yorkers. I imagine a beach crammed with thousands of loud, pushy city dwellers full of feelings of entitlement. They all dress in black and bark into cell phones. And those are just the teenagers.

Luckily, I have an escape route. After two nights in Miami I'll drive across Florida through the Everglades to Naples on the Gulf Coast, then back across the state to Fort Lauderdale.

The car stereo blasts Cuban music, the perfect soundtrack for the South Beach standards on Collins Avenue: A man and woman, each wrapped in an albino python, stroll past an alfresco café. A man in messy pink drag makeup waits for the traffic light to change as two cute hipster boys walk hand in hand, gabbing on cell phones as they head toward an expensive sunglasses store. All the chaotic drama resembles New York's East Village on a Saturday night. The difference? These people are more relaxed, and they're showing more skin. On the beach two blocks away, shirtless college-age boys play volleyball. OK, it's not as bad as I'd feared, particularly after a fresh mojito while looking out over the ocean.

Florida's reputation as a holiday destination is so tied to its beach culture, theme parks, and circuit parties that it's easy to overlook the truly wild (as in natural) parts of this state of over 65,000 square miles. The third largest national park in the contiguous United States, the Everglades, begins just a short easy drive away from pumping art deco Ocean Drive and the impossible door policy at Casa Casuarina (Gianni Versace's former mansion).

Without stopping, the drive along the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) from Miami to Naples through the Everglades takes only about two hours, so you can easily make an entire day of it by visiting any of the parks, museums, and boat rides along the way. I chose to visit the Miccosukee Indian Village first because the woman who answered their phone said they wrestle alligators. Daily.

The village has operated as a tourist attraction and museum since the tribe purchased it in the 1970s, but the tribe's history in the area stretches back hundreds of years. Sam Osceola, a tattooed and pierced 24-year-old Miccosukee, mans the cash register in the gift store. He also wrestles alligators for tourists.

"I am a tour guide, but my main job title is alligator wrestler," he explains.

"Does your business card say that?" I ask.

"No, my only business is Miccosukee's business," he says with a sincere humility that makes him seem that much cuter.

The Miccosukee are a tribe of about 550 who live along the Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley (Interstate 75). This reconstructed village demonstrates the basic principles of the Miccosukee way of life, namely self-sufficiency and symbiosis with the environment. The tribes spend at least part of the year hunting local wildlife and avoiding modern conveniences like electricity (they do make an exception for flashlights, which are used to avoid snakes at night).

Sam makes no effort to avoid alligators--a couple of times a day he uses his chin to pry open the jaws of a fully-grown 10-foot-long gator. Two weeks ago, an alligator bit Sam during a routine. He shows me the scar on his right hand. "You could have put a nail through the bite mark," he explains casually. "It didn't hurt as much as you'd think."

Across the highway from the village, the tribe operates an airboat business. Various airboat rides along the Tamiami Trail promise to take you into the marshland and show you wildlife--alligators, birds, turtles, and possibly even the Florida panther--but I chose the Miccosukee airboats because the $10 fee helps the tribe maintain their heritage.

An explosively loud fan propels us at 45 miles per hour as we skim through reeds that spread out for miles in every direction.

Halfway through the ride we stop at a man-made island of wooden planks. An alligator abruptly appears near the edge of the wharf and, with a flick of its powerful tail, vanishes back into the vegetation in the water, leaving only a slight ripple.

The village tour, alligator show, and boat ride easily take up most of the day, and by the time I get back to the car it's late afternoon. I decide to wait and explore Everglades City after I have a chance to search for signs of gay life in Naples, a palm-lined oasis with a decidedly Republican reputation.

The two major gay bars in Naples are located in strip malls. The crowd at the smaller bar, Bambusa, is older, more refined, and the ambience is about low-impact socializing rather than fierce flirting. Snappers, a few minutes away by car, has a bouncer, and the ceilings are several stories high. The energy here is very gay-positive, with a small percentage of heterosexual patrons comfortably celebrating gay culture. But the beach is the real reason to visit Naples. The Gulf of Mexico is much warmer than the Atlantic, and from Naples its skin-tingling sapphire-blue water stretches as far as the eye can see.

It's a 40-mile drive from Naples to the gateway of Everglades National Park, Everglades City. Some of the buildings here look remarkably as if they had been plucked out of New England. Houses along the river are built on stilts, one story off the ground to protect them when Lake Placid overflows during hurricane season.

After witnessing a dolphin courting ritual (two male dolphins will typically team up to seduce the female) on a two-hour boat tour of the area, I ask a local park staffer to recommend the best restaurant for locally caught fish and alligator.

"Seafood Depot," snaps the woman without waiting to hear the end of the question.

The alligator at Seafood Depot is not actually caught wild--it's farmed and brought into Everglades City (so much for that fantasy). But the crab, grouper, and clams all live in the water adjacent to the restaurant. After eating alligator, which has a texture like a hybrid of chicken and fish, I'm ready for a cocktail in the gay oasis of Fort Lauderdale.

The drive from Everglades City to Fort Lauderdale can be cut short by taking Highway 29 to Alligator Alley (I-75), which, in comparison to the Tamiami Trail, offers rest stops and picnic areas. I arrive in Fort Lauderdale just before sunset.

After checking into the Royal Palms Hotel, a well-appointed gay B&B, I walk along Highway A1A, the road that runs parallel to the beach. Fort Lauderdale seems to be Florida's cultural median between the built-up, opulent South Beach and the subtropical wilderness of the Everglades and Everglades City. It isn't as charged with adrenaline and money as South Beach, but it is most certainly an urban city. New condo buildings and hotels tower over the beach.

The next day I eat lunch at local gay hangout Hamburger Mary's in Wilton Manors, the very gay suburb of Fort Lauderdale. Sitting at a table between a rowdy lesbian baseball team and a spirited squad of gay male cheerleader bears seems the perfect way to end my tour of "wild" Florida.


The Everglades can be traversed in about two hours, but allow a full day to take in the sights and attractions. South Beach to Naples: Follow the signs out of South Beach to U.S. 41 West (signs also refer to this as the Tamiami Trail). Naples to Everglades City: Take U.S. 41 East to Highway 29 South. Everglades City to Fort Lauderdale: The two main roads in this region are U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley), which runs between Naples and Fort Lauderdale. For a more direct route, take Highway 29 to Interstate 75 East. Enjoy the ride, and watch out for gators!

South Beach: The spectacular Hotel Victor (1144 Ocean Dr., 305-428 1234, from $450) was completely remodeled just over a year ago and is located right on the beach. The hotel offers five different standards of accommodations for different budgets, but all rooms bear the exceptional touch of acclaimed Parisian interior designer Jacques Garcia. Thursday nights, the hotel presents a party complete with a resident DJ by the pool. Two doors down, Casa Casuarina (1116 Ocean Dr., 305-672-6604, from $1,200), formerly the three-story mansion of slain fashion designer Gianni Versace, has been converted into an exclusive resort that is now open to the public. Amenities include a spa featuring the intriguing six-hand massage, a restaurant headed by internationally acclaimed chef, Wolfgang Birk, and the Caviar Creator Club Lounge (for tasting a range of caviars) as well as 10 sumptuously appointed suites. The 44-room art deco Penguin Hotel (1418 Ocean Dr., 305-534-9334, from $150) is a stylish and affordable option if you must stay on Ocean Drive. With interiors by French designer Karine Rousseau, amenities include access to the nearby President Hotel's secluded pool area, room service, and a 24-hour café and bar. Rooms are appointed with Czech crystal chandeliers and solid marble surfaces. Naples: The comfortable Hilton Naples (5111 Tamiami Trail North, 239-430-4900, from $109) provides easy access to local shopping and galleries on 5th Avenue and 3rd Street South. Located in the heart of Old Naples near the 5th Avenue shopping district, Hotel Escalante (290 Fifth Avenue South, 239-659-3466, from $200) is reminiscent of a Mediterranean villa. Rooms include office accessories and private patios, and the hotel provides a range of spa treatments. Fort Lauderdale: The gay-owned Royal Palms Resort (2901 Terramar St., 954-564-6444, from $189) offers a clothing-optional pool area with large spa. Cocktail hour happens on weekends in a tropical garden that features over 1,000 orchids. Breakfast and snacks are included and served daily. Gay boutique hotel The Cabanas at Wilton Manors (2209 N.E. 26th St., 954-564-7764, from $119) is located on waterfront property at the edge of Wilton Manors, the gay suburb of Fort Lauderdale. Guests can lounge by the clothing-optional pool or venture out on a bike or in a kayak. With a range of sleek rooms that offer a variety of views of the ocean or the city, The Atlantic (601 North Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., 954-567-8020, from $250) is one of the newest and most luxurious hotels in Fort Lauderdale. Rooms include Bose sound systems.

South Beach:Wish Restaurant (801 Collins Ave., 305-674-9474) offers inventive classic American cuisine with a contemporary Asian influence. Dine al fresco or indoors at night. The menu at Flirt Sushi (947 Washington Ave., 305-672-3514) drips with sexual innuendo. Try the "Mi-so Horny" soup, and for dessert, try the ginger ice cream–based "Slippery When Wet." Naples: Patric's (2225 Davis Blvd., 239-793-5581) serves up a menu of exceptionally prepared and delicious continental cuisine that includes homemade desserts and a surprising selection of breads. Everglades City: Seafood Depot (102 Collier Ave., 239-695-0075) provides an opportunity to try delicious local seafood while sitting on a large balcony that overlooks the stunning landscape. The key lime pie is a must. Fort Lauderdale:Hamburger Mary's (2449 Wilton Dr., 954-567-1328) is a fun hangout no matter what the meal. The wide range of burgers and salads range from $9 to $15, but call ahead to make sure there's room since it can get full at meal times. The 15th Street Fisheries (1900 S.E. 15th St., 954-763-2777), located inside the Lauderdale Marina, serves a range of local seafood and a few unusual dishes such as kangaroo and Morton Bay Bug. The gay-owned When in Rome (3311 N. Ocean Blvd., 954-563-1349) has won awards for its pizza, dessert, and pasta as well as its romantic ambience.

South Beach:Twist (1057 Washington Avenue, 305-53-TWIST) houses several levels of gay club life, with three bars, an upstairs dance floor, and bungalow bar complete with go-go boys out back. Naples:Bambusa Bar & Grill (600 Goodlette Frank Road North, 239-649-5657) caters to an older after-work gay crowd for drinks at the bar or dinner in the restaurant. Snappers Nightclub (2634 Tamiami Trail East, 239-775-4114) is set out like a sports bar but also has a DJ, dance floor, and nightly drag shows. Its mixed crowd includes a younger gay clientele. Fort Lauderdale:Boardwalk (1721 N. Andrews Ave., 954-463-6969) is an energetic (sometimes dirty) go-go boy hangout that serves nightly doses of fun, irreverent drag, and the occasional lap dance. Entry is $10 but includes a free drink for guys. Girls pay $20 and must sign a contract saying they won't touch the dancers. Located in the entirely gay strip mall in Wilton Manors, Georgie's Alibi (2266 Wilton Dr., 954-565-2526) is a sports bar with two bars and an al fresco patio that attracts a wide range of gay and lesbian sports fans and regular patrons. The newly established New Moon (2440 Wilton Dr., 954-563-7660) is a popular lesbian hangout with 16 wines, numerous drink specials, karaoke, and DJs.

Tours and airboat rides at the Miccosukee Indian Village (Mile Marker 70, U.S. 41–Tamiami Trail, 305-223-8380) are sold separately. Alligator shows are performed daily. The Big Cypress National Preserve (239-695-1201) offers visitors the opportunity to stop, rest, and perhaps catch a glimpse of a ghost orchid or the Florida panther. Spread over 729,000 acres, this cypress-peppered parkland features ranger-led walks, canoe trips, bike tours, and educational programs during winter. A local landmark on the Tamiami Trail, The Ochopee Post Office (239-695-4131) has gained national notoriety as the smallest post office in the United States. Drop by this tiny establishment to buy a postcard and post it straight away.

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