USA D17: The Everglades and a NASCAR ride
Well whaddayaknow, work has taken over but in a way I guess that means it’s stretching out the trip for me. This post goes back in time to Saturday 26th October. Only a fortnight but it seems longer!
‘Twas another early start from Miami Beach, assisted by another short breakfast stop at Starbucks. Weariness, combined with my back tweak from the previous weekend which was still giving me a bit of gyp, plus a sunburned lip manifesting gloriously like a cold sore, meant that I wasn’t feeling in peak form. Still that couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the big day ahead.
With the able (and downright essential) assistance of TomTom I drove us east to Everglade country for our first activity.
You can’t really visit these parts without experiencing an airboat ride. Mike did lots of research about tour companies and I think he made an excellent choice with Airboat in Everglades. First we had to meet a guy at a gas station on highway 41 who we then followed up the road a bit to the airboat departure point.
Originally we booked the first advertised tour at 10am, but they came back to us saying that was full and how about 9am? That meant an earlier start but it was a blessing in disguise.
The boats aren’t big so you go out there in nice small groups in any case, but at our time there was only one other person on our semi-private tour so we got an excellent deal. When we returned, a tour bus had arrived for the 10am tours – ugh.
We were matched up with a guide, climbed on board and got underway.
It was brilliant! Over the hour you cover about eight miles all up. As well as skimming across the Everglades – actually a very slow moving river – we were taken to meet some local wildlife, most of whom had pet names.
It was noisy but not such that we needed earmuffs. There were some large bugs flying about, dragonflies I think, and as I made a conscious effort to keep lips pursed together I did wonder how many people had experienced the rude awakening of things flying into their mouths.
We really enjoyed this and looked forward to continuing our foray into the Everglades.
Everglades National Park
The Everglades National Park border was very nearby though our journey was a little longer, mostly down a very long straight road, to our entry point at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Centre. We went inside for a map and the obligatory fridge magnet purchase.
We continued a short distance to Royal Palm, the departure point for two short walks. First we ventured out on the half-mile Anhinga Trail, behind a rowdy family group. We veered into a quieter loop of the boardwalk at the first opportunity.
The wildlife sightings were again a highlight, especially the anhinga bird. Quite a crowd gathered as word spread that ‘she’ had caught a fish and was carrying it to shore. She wasn’t perturbed at all by the people standing only a couple of metres away, nor the cheering when she finally detached the fish from her beak. Perhaps she even took solace in the sounds of disbelief when the still-alive fish took the first opportunity to escape back into the water.
The Gumbo Limbo Trail took us through a tropical forest, parts of which looked very similar to NZ native bush. Gumbo-limbo is a tree with shiny red bark.
We returned to the car park. I was keen to photograph the moss draping beautifully from the trees but quickly became distracted when a man said that there was an alligator further along the car park. The trees could wait!
Over the course of a few minutes he made his way back into the undergrowth, not at all bothered (or made hungry) by the small crowd observing from the sidelines. In this day and age where the future of the Everglades is a concern, it was a privilege to see this ‘gator just going about its business.
A bit of a longer drive now to the Pa-hay-okee Overlook, a short boardwalk on a slightly raised part of the Everglades. During the afternoon it was amazing to see the habitat change with only very subtle changes in elevation. Pa-hay-okee means ‘grassy waters’ in Seminole, a Native American language.
We decided we may as well push on and go to the end of the 39 mile road, to a small place called Flamingo on the coast of Florida Bay. Not sure what to expect, we found a quiet, spread out place with a marina and dated looking visitor centre.
Flamingo got whacked pretty hard by hurricanes Wilma and Katrina and some buildings have never been replaced. If I’m honest, it was an anti-climax after our Everglades experience to that point so we didn’t linger.
We drove back the way we came, stopping for one last photo op!
We had a couple of hours to kill which was duly spent in an outlet mall and a crispy cool Starbucks in the nearby small city of Homestead – home to the Homestead-Miami Speedway where I had an appointment at 8pm.
NASCAR Ride Experience
We had looked to see if the Richard Petty Driving Experience roadshow would be somewhere convenient to our travels – and it was! It fell into place nicely that their second visit to Miami this year would coincide with our only visit. Mike wasn’t overly keen to fork out cash for this sort of thing, but I figured it would round out the NASCAR flavour of the trip nicely. Drive and ride experiences are offered but I just went for the relatively modest investment of the latter.
Arriving as the last of the sun slid over the horizon, we followed the instructions to park on the infield, distracted by the floodlit track and sounds of racing cars circulating. We walked to pit lane, surprised how many people there were.
A good half an hour or more after checking in, my number range was called up and I joined the ride-along queue for hairnets, helmets and neck supports. Next door those waiting for the more hands-on experience were also being given overalls. I eyed them enviously, wondering if I should’ve stumped up the extra moolah.
Out on the track, the professional ride experience drivers were circulating high up on the racing line, the punters were staying lower. Homestead-Miami is fairly new, built in the early 1990s to help stimulate the area in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.
The Richard Petty setup is slick. The cars are retired from racing but still set up for it. The crew have an efficient system from start to finish. You only go over the wall at their say-so and once you’re there, you’re minded at all times.
Finally it was my turn – I stepped over the wall and sat down for a couple of minutes until my car pulled up. That punter got out and a staff member escorted me to the passenger side so that I could step in. Yes: you go in and out through the window.
My minder strapped me in and we were off!
It was exhilarating. They say you go up to 170mph in the ride experience, though unsure exactly what the story is at this track with the highest average racing speed being 181mph. Through the 18-20 degree banked turns I giggled as the Gs kicked in – a pretty incredible feeling. On the straights we ran very close to the wall.
Three laps of the 1.5 mile track went very quick and all too soon I was extricating myself, grinning like a big fool.
A fantastic finale to our time in Miami. Next time I want to join the other queue.
- Alligators met: 6
- Close encounters with alligator teeth: 1
- Laps I’d be able to drive properly with my current level of fitness: 0
- On a scale of 1-10, 10 being ‘lots’, how much we’ll miss Miami roads: 0
- Longest post ever: this one probably – sorry!