By Terry Gibson
Headed to one of the southern Florida’s glorious coastal destinations along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico?
You owe it to your inner adventurer to head inland to explore the global ecological treasure known as the Everglades.
And, of particular interest, excitement and splendor is Lake Okeechobee, the largest lake in the southeastern United States. Covering some 730 square miles and averaging just nine feet in depth, this vast, marshy expanse is best explored by airboat, skimming at high speeds across the gorgeous marshes of this veritable freshwater inland sea.
Powered by giant air propellers and often by airplane engines, these flat-bottomed boats veritably skip over the emergent vegetation. Airboats have achieved speeds of 130 m.p.h. You won’t be going that fast on a Lake Okeechobee tour, of courSe, but the tour boats really “git it,” as we say here in the south.
Wildlife abounds on the lake, and most species dwell in the golden green marshes.
Alligators are the biggest attraction. If you want to see a gator, you’re just about guaranteed to see some of the biggest “lizards” in North America sunning on the surface or the bank.
Other large animals you may encounter include wild hogs, whitetail deer, black bear and bobcat.
Bird lovers should check out the striking purple gallinule and a local species of waterfowl, the Florida mottled duck. Check off the roseate spoonbill, the wood stork, several types of bitterns, multiple egrets, three kinds of ibis, plus limpkin, herons and egrets.
You may spot our local all-star, the Everglades snail kite, as well as the migratory swallowtail kite, which travels from South American clear to northeastern Canada each year.
Ospreys and bald eagles are common sights, too, and wintertime visiting predators include the speedy peregrine falcon, which is so fast that it catches wild ducks such as blue-wing teal in mid air. There are also ducks galore.
Towns, Tours & Accommodations
Clewiston: Located on the southwest side of Lake Okeechobee, “America’s sweetest town” is about an hour from the Southwest Florida International Airport, and about 90 minutesfrom the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva islands. It also about 90 minutes hours from the Palm Beach International Airport, about two hours from the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, and about three hours from the Miami International Airport. Regardless which route you take, most of the enjoyable ride is through ranchlands and farms, including the vast sugarcane fields that put “America’s sweetest town” on the map.
The Roland & Mary Martin Marina has provided excellent fishing, hunting and airboat charters for decades. The marina includes an excellent range of accommodations. The onsite Tiki Bar serves good food and is a great watering hole.
Okeechobee: Located on the northern rim of the lake, this lively town full of cowboys, cowgirls, and anglers is about 90 minutes from Palm Beach International Airport and about an hour from the beaches of Stuart, Jensen Beach and Fort Pierce.
Okeechobee boasts friendly hotels, cabins and RV parks. Many visitors opt to stay at the Holiday Inn. The Tinfish and Lightsey’s restaurants offer great local fare, including gator tail, froglegs and catfish, plus great fresh seafood. Lightsey’s is a waterfront institution located on the bank of the Kissimmee River. The Speckled Perch Steakhouse serves up great steaks while you’re in cattle country.
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