Your boat slows over sparking turquoise water that is inches deep. Something shimmers ahead. A heat mirage?
Houses in crayon colors – yellow, green, red and blue – hover weightless above the bay.
Squinting now. No, these homes aren’t levitating at all; they are supported by pilings and suspended a few feet above the sea. Welcome to Stiltsville in Biscayne National Park.
Accessible only by boat, these seven wooden homes are a few miles off downtown Miami but light years from the city’s stress and hum. Stiltsville dates to the 1930s. "Crawfish Eddie Walker" built the first shack above the water. Over the years, larger homes were constructed and enlarged, and the area took on an aura of mystery.
Today, a visitor can lean back on the veranda and watch the currents carry bonefish across the flats. Take a dip off the back porch. Snorkel pristine coral reefs only a few minutes’ ride by boat. Or, at the end of an afternoon with the day’s catch on the grill, watch the lights of Miami blink on while the setting sun paints the sky in hues of orange.
In 2003, a non-profit organization called the Stiltsville Trust was established to preserve these unique properties and give access to the public. Individuals, families or groups can rent a home for a weekend or a week. Applications are available online at stiltsvilletrust.org.
Access to the buildings is by permission only and you’ll need to provide your own boat transportation. Call the park superintendent at 305-230-1833 for more information, or for further details on the progress of the Stiltsville Trust, call the group's chair, Gail Baldwin, at 305-443-2266, or visit the website.
Here are a few more unusual destinations.
Sunset Key Guest Cottages are on a secluded 27-acre island off the coast of Key West. Each residence, from one to four bedrooms, is designed in “Old Key West” architecture and offers ocean or garden views. Amenities include flat-screen cable televisions, CD players, DVD/VCR and complimentary Wi-Fi access. Each four-bedroom cottage has a private plunge pool and washer/dryer. Daily maid and turndown service is provided.
Additional info: www.westinsunsetkeycottages.com
Rent an Island
Your own private island includes two beds and two baths and panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico from every room.
Pretty Joe Rock, as the locals call it, is off Marathon in the Florida Keys.
Exposed wooden beams in the living room's cathedral ceiling complement the home's wood and tile floors. French doors lead from the great room to a screened front porch, then to a covered deck. A full kitchen has a breakfast bar. There is an outdoor gas grill. The master suite features a sunken Jacuzzi tub and a shower with ocean views on two sides. Rental includes a small power boat intended for transportation between shore and island.
The crystal-clear, warm waters are occasioned by dolphins, manatees, parrot and angel fish, roosting pelicans and great herons.
Phone: 1-866-563-1222 or 262-650-0246
Under the Sea
To enter Jules' Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, one must scuba dive 21 feet beneath the surface of the sea. Diving through the tropical mangrove habitat of the Emerald Lagoon and approaching the world's only underwater hotel is a rare experience. The round windows, 42 inches at the diameter, cast a warm invitation: Come in and get to know the underwater world that few of us have even visited.
Entering through an opening in the bottom of the habitat, the feeling is much like discovering a secret underwater clubhouse. The cottage-sized building has creature comforts: hot showers, a kitchen with refrigerator and microwave, books, music and video movies. From bed, guests can watch fish visit the windows of their favorite underwater "terrarium."
Additional info: www.jul.com
Back in the Swamp
The two houses, named Niki’s Bungalow and Clyde’s Cottage, are more like comfy mountain homes, furnished and tucked back away from the main road.
Famed nature photographer Clyde Butcher and his wife once lived in the Big Cypress home but started to rent out the dwellings in November 2009. Guests wanting a change of pace from certain car-clogged parts of Miami can escape to nature. The traffic for the vacation rentals peaks between the months of January to March.
Butcher, often called the Ansel Adams of the Everglades, hosts an annual Labor Day weekend event with a swamp walk that attracts crowds of vacationers looking for a getaway in Florida’s landscape.
The Big Cypress Gallery and Butcher’s homes are only an 18-mile drive from the Shark Valley bike trail and the Miccosukee Reservation.
Reservations: 239-695-2428 or online
Houseboat rentals may be one of the best-kept secrets of the Florida Keys. Enjoy a romantic evening on the upper deck. Watch the sunrise from your bed. Enjoy Key Largo’s great restaurants, diving, fishing and charter services, and the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
Cruising the coast or Intracoastal Waterway? Sailing from the Florida Keys, the Bahamas or Caribbean Islands for the winter? You can rent a houseboat and raft your own boat alongside. Each boat has a full kitchen, washer/dryer, cable TV and grill on full patio.
During the summer rainy season, no-see-ums and mosquitoes can be troublesome at some of these locations. Bring plenty of repellant and sun block.
Rafael Lima teaches journalism and screenwriting at the University of Miami. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, Tropic magazine. He has written scripts for Warner Brothers and Spelling Entertainment. He lives in Miami.