Miami Ecotourism Attractions and Activities
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
From eco-friendly hotels and low-impact activities to give-back voluntourism opportunities that help the community, the greater Miami area offers many chances to support conservation efforts, observe wildlife and leave little or no trace of your time here.
Here are some brilliant ways to be mindful and kind while helping the Magic City retain its natural magic.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, an 83-acre oasis with collections of rare tropical palms, cycads and flowering trees, plays an important role in the conservation of South Florida’s endangered plants through seed banking and reintroduction of rare plants. The garden is open daily, showcasing its bizarre, beautiful plants, petite waterfalls, edible garden and butterfly conservatory. The eco-friendly bookstore features fair trade products and books on tropical gardening and cuisine.
Pelican Harbor Seabird Station cares for more than 1,000 injured brown pelicans and seabirds, raptors, songbirds and reptiles every year, most victims of fishing tackle. There are self-guided and custom tours, along with a two-hour sunset birding cruise.
A 50-minute drive from downtown Miami, the Shark Valley Visitor Center walking and bike trail in Everglades National Park is an amazing, 150-mile loop through alligators, wading birds and Florida’s famed River of Grass, the largest subtropical wetland in North America. Rent a bike there or take the two-hour tram tour by a park-trained naturalist.
The 1920s home of American businessman and philanthropist Charles Deering, the Deering Estate is best known as a backdrop for the 1980s TV series “Miami Vice” and the starting line for “The Amazing Race All-Stars” in 2007, but it also is the site of the largest virgin coastal tropical hardwood hammock in the continental United States. Along with a sustainability film series and lectures, there are Biscayne Bay cruises, tours of the property’s restricted natural areas and guided butterfly walks.
Biscayne National Park
Within sight of downtown Miami, the underwater Biscayne National Park is 172,971 acres of shallow bay waters, coral limestone, shoreline mangroves and one of the largest coral reefs in the world. The Biscayne National Park Institute provides eco-adventures that include snorkeling shipwrecks and coral reefs, cruising to islands, and paddling lagoons. The visitor center also rents paddle craft for self-guided tours.
With more than 40 endangered species among its 3,000 animals living in open-air spaces, the 750-acre Zoo Miami is involved in wildlife and environmental conservation initiatives around the world. Staff vets help track flamingos, Florida panthers, rare bonneted bats and other threatened species while also nursing sick or injured animals. Its “Zoo Doo” program recycles manure from elephants and rhinos with landscape debris to sell as high-quality natural fertilizer to the public.
South Florida Breadbasket
South of the city, the Redland-Homestead area is Miami’s rich agritourism region, where visitors can spend an entire day picking tomatoes or strawberries at Knauss Berry Farm, slurping mamey or mango shakes at Robert is Here produce stand, sampling tropical wine at Schnebly Winery and learning about exotic fruit at Fruit and Spice Park.
Bike tours of some of Miami’s most famous neighborhoods are low-impact ways to get to know the city. HistoryMiami museum, Bike and Roll Miami, and Wynwood Mural Tours are among the many operators that offer guides through Wynwood Art District, the Design District, Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, among other gems.
Oleta River State Park
Oleta River State Park, Florida’s largest urban park, has over 10 miles of intermediate mountain bike trails and seven miles of trails and paths for beginners. The park’s saltwater lagoon is a popular swimming hole. An on-site outdoor center rents kayaks, paddleboards and canoes while also providing paddleboard yoga sessions, intro to paddleboarding classes and mangrove paddle tours.
Rent to Explore
The Virginia Key Outdoor Center rents kayaks, paddleboards and bikes from the mangrove-formed island of Virginia Key, with its crystal-clear waters and stunning views of the downtown Miami skyline.
For families, quad bikes that seat four plus two small children can be rented to paddle around nearby Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center at the north end of Crandon Park, also on Key Biscayne, is a conservation-minded nonprofit that hosts family seagrass outings, nature photography exhibits and sea turtle release parties.
Miami EcoAdventures, run by the county parks system, offers kayak and canoe tours, catch-and-release fishing lessons and snorkeling adventures.
Directory of Fishing Guides
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides a searchable directory of outfitters and fishing guides who follow environmentally ethical best practices.
The Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami offers “Citizen Science” opportunities twice a year to accompany scientists on shark tagging expeditions out of the school’s Key Biscayne research center. It also hosts a year-round Sea Secrets lecture series by international scientists and explorers.
FOOD AND DINING
Farm to Table
Farm-to-table restaurants in Miami benefit from South Florida’s plentiful agriculture, but some go above and beyond to offer ethical, sustainable dining. A rooftop garden, compost program and up-cycled décor set apart the Coconut Grove beer-and-burger joint Lokal, the first 100% clean, renewably powered restaurant in Miami.
At KYU, a popular wood-fired Asian barbecue spot in Wynwood, an in-house Orca composter turns food waste into water and diners can choose from a menu option to “Buy 50 Trees for $5,” with the restaurant matching donations.
Whether you’re paleo, vegan or just a healthy eater, DIRT is a quick-stop café with locations in Miami Beach and downtown Miami’s Brickell neighborhood. Its vegetable-forward menu of sandwiches and salads identifies farmers and purveyors, and it’s one of the few restaurants in Florida to be certified by the U.S. Healthful Food Council’s Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership (REAL) program
Arsht Center Farmers Market
Every Monday at 6:30 p.m., Floribbean star chef Allen Susser provides a five-course, plant-based dinner inspired by fresh, local produce in the middle of the Arsht Center Farmers Market in downtown Miami. The Taste of Redland Dinner/Brunch Series is a new initiative offering a winter-time meal series on local farms featuring celebrity chefs; look for updates about scheduled dinners here.
Coconut Grove Farmers Market
The Coconut Grove Organic Farmers Market, held every Saturday from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m., is a fun place to stop for raw-food lunch and snacks. Coconut Grove is also home to vShops, a small vegan food hall anchored by Choices Café, as well as a bakery, pizzeria, smoothie counter and “ice dream” parlor. Nearby, The Last Carrot has been serving fresh juices and veggie fare since the 1970s.
For fine dining, James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz is credited with reviving the fresh, local ingredient craze with his pioneering Design District restaurant, Michael’s Genuine, where the menu changes daily with fresh seafood and wood oven-roasted vegetables, among other specialties.
Area 31 on the 16th floor of the Epic Hotel in downtown Miami offers sustainable yellow tail, swordfish and other seafood caught by community fishermen in Fishing Area 31, an international zone designated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as a sustainable fishery.
Underline to Come
Still in its planning stages, The Underline is a 10-mile linear park in the spirit of The High Line in New York City and Atlanta’s BeltLine that will connect downtown Miami to its southern suburbs.
Citi Bike Miami
Meanwhile, Citi Bike Miami bike sharing and rental program provides access to nearly 2,000 bikes at 160 locations throughout Miami and Miami Beach, including South Beach’s Art Deco District and the Wynwood Art District.
On the last Friday of each month, Miami Critical Mass is a bicycling event that gathers hundreds of cyclists together to explore Miami neighborhoods en masse.
About 300 dockless electric scooters are now being tested throughout downtown Miami and Coconut Grove, with Bird, Bolt, Jump, Lime, Lyft and Spin providing scooter-sharing services for a quick, fun transportation alternative.
Miami has a 25-mile elevated rail system called the Metrorail that connects Miami International Airport with downtown Miami and stretch south to South Miami. Tickets can be purchased at stations or on an EASY Pay smart phone application. Within downtown Miami, the Metromover is a free public transportation service that loops through the city and connects to Metrorail and an extensive Metrobus system.
Cars and Trains
Both Lyft and Uber operate throughout Miami-Dade County. To travel throughout South Florida, Brightline is a new, high-speed train that provides service between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, with future plans to connect to Orlando. Its Brightline Virgin MiamiCentral Station in downtown Miami has its own food hall and is close to Perez Art Museum Miami, the Frost Science Museum and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, as well as the main hub for the Metrorail and Metromover.
For other tips getting to and from Miami International Airport or using Miami MetroBus and public transportation, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau offers an online guide here.
Electric car charging stations, shower timers, organic bedding, reclaimed wood walls and antibiotic-free meat at the on-site Tom Colicchio restaurant make the LEED Silver-Certified 1 Hotel in South Beach a favorite among eco-minded travelers.
Hotel Beaux Arts
Also at the luxury end, Hotel Beaux Arts inside the JW Marriott Marquis in downtown Miami is part of the Florida Green Lodging Program, recognized for its water recycling system, energy-saving room thermostats and liquid food composter that converts banquet food into nutrient-rich grey water.
The affordable 221-room Hampton Inn Miami Brickell is a LEED Silver-Certified property with electric vehicle charging stations, low-flow showers, a cistern for harvesting rainwater and xeriscaping.
Oleta River State Park
Off-the-grid overnight stays are available in one of Oleta River State Park’s rustic cabins, which are equipped with a double bed and bunk bed. There is an outdoor grill and fire area, as well as picnic tables and a shared bathroom with showers.
The annual Baynanza celebrates Biscayne Bay as one of South Florida’s most important ecological systems, with a 24-hour cleanup as part of the activities every April. VolunteerCleanUp, founded by a local couple, is a platform that connects volunteers to teams and events cleaning up Miami’s shorelines every weekend. The Biscayne Nature Center on Key Biscayne also hosts monthly beach clean-up and restoration days.
HandsOn Miami is a local nonprofit that connects would-be helpers with organizations that need them for planting gardens, painting buildings, tutoring children and more. Lotus House, a refuge for homeless women and children, offers opportunities to sponsor a meal, volunteer with kids or help with yoga and fitness classes.