Off the Beaten Path from Fort Myers: Hendry County, Fla.
From the waters of Lake Okeechobee to the capital of the Seminoles’ sovereign nation, perhaps no other county contains as much of Old Florida as Hendry County. In some places, it looks largely as it appeared in the ‘60s. The 1860s. Much of its nearly 1,200 square miles remain undeveloped, which means back roads still dart through thick forests, fish are still biting, and the Seminoles remain unconquered.
1. The South Shore
History highlights two notable sights in Clewiston, the largest city on Lake Okeechobee’s southern shore.
The 57-room Clewiston Inn retains a classic Florida look, especially in the Everglades Lounge where, in 1940, artist J. Clinton Shepherd painted a classic mural of Florida wildlife that encircles the room. Opened in 1926, this is the place to stay if you ever wanted to sleep in the past.
Blocks away, the superb Clewiston Museum adjoins the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce. In addition to an assortment of gifts and books focused on Florida history, museum exhibits tell the story of Clewiston’s ‘City Beautiful’ design; fossils and mammoth skeletons reveal the county’s pre-history; maps trace trade routes used by Florida’s Native American tribes; and authentic apparel reveals the intricate artistry of the Seminoles.
2. Go Fish
Celebrity angler Roland Martin dropped anchor in Clewiston in the 1980s and his first fishing shack has spawned a resort and marina with boat rentals, fishing guides, airboat tours, a tiki bar and grill, and accommodations. If you prefer no-frills fishing, follow US 27 until you reach CR 720. After snaking north through the thick sugarcane, several miles later you’ll reach Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp, a collection of cottages and cinder block units just steps from the banks of Lake Okeechobee. It’s a retro-cool setting where anglers can fish like it’s 1949.
3. Home of the Unconquered
If there’s one place to learn about the history of Florida’s Seminole Tribe, it’s definitely the Big Cypress Reservation. An hour south of Clewiston, the Smithsonian-affiliated Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum tells the Seminoles’ story through a short film, exhibits that examine various aspects of their culture, a boardwalk that weaves through the woods that became their home, and a small village where Seminole elders sell fabulous beadwork and handicrafts. The on-site research center contains invaluable information about the Seminoles, the only tribe that holds the distinction “unconquered.” Down the road, the Billie Swamp Safari ushers guests into the natural world of the Seminoles through airboat and swamp buggy rides, demonstrations of gator wrestling, and meals at the Swamp Water Café. Feeling adventurous? Stay the night in a modified chickee hut (although more modern accommodations are available at the tribe’s Big Cypress RV Resort).
4. Open Range Riding
Whether a river, open range, or seashore, few places are as beautiful as untamed Florida. Artists and photographers connect to the natural beauty of Hendry County, which remains largely undisturbed and natural. About 40 miles west of Clewiston on remote and lonely CR Highway 832, the road which is already enclosed by nothing leads to Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, 32,370 acres of even more nothing but trails and untouched forest. Equally primitive and primeval is the adjacent Spirit-of-the-Wild Wildlife Management Area, which offers activities including hunting, fishing, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, and scenic drives.
5. LaBelle, The Beautiful
Between the circa 1926 Hendry County Courthouse and the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, historic LaBelle has a small, but very pleasant, commercial district where shops and restaurants include the innovative Forrey Grill, a coffee shop, dance studio, ice cream bar, and the Harold P. Curtis Honey Company -- “The Home of Honey” since 1921. Just two blocks north, Barron Park is a shaded enclave where you’ll find an art gallery and gift shop, the LaBelle library across the streets, and quiet walkways and docks on the banks of gently flowing Caloosahatchee.
For more information, visit visithendrycounty.com.
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