Chokoloskee Here We Come!

by Mary
(Miami, FL)

Tamiami Trail at Butcher's Gallery

Tamiami Trail at Butcher's Gallery

The Tamiami Trail (Rt. 41 between Miami and Naples, FL) is sometimes called slow, flat and boring. It is definitely slower than

I-75 (Alligator Alley, also a direct route across the state). And it is flat, but for me it is a delight. This morning I shared that delight with my daughter Angela and some friends (Ben, Dave and Mike). Ben, with his well equipped SUV, was driver; I was tour guide.

The plan was to go to Chokoloskee for lunch. (None of them had ever been there.) It?s a 75 mile drive from my house, so I promised there would be plenty of things to see along the way.

In the early part of our trip, we saw alligators and turtles soaking up the early morning sun. Newly arrived storks were everywhere. We passed airboat rides, a brand new Miccosukee Indian home (with a faux thatched roof) and old timers fishing the canal.

Our first stop was a side road to the little known Miami-Dade County training airport. This is a place I?ve been many times over the years (and seen very few planes). The area consists of acres and acres of dwarf bald cypress ? aged trees, many with unique shapes from years of Florida weather (including hurricanes). My group has a special interest in horticulture, so this was on my ?must see? list. It?s also a good spot for bird watching.

In the winter, this swampy area is usually somewhat dry. Today there was too much water to walk among the trees. Angela was busy with her binoculars and found a woodpecker. The rest of us were pointing out unusual trees to each other.

Next stop along ?The Trail? was Clyde Butcher?s Big Cypress Gallery. The gallery is easy to miss (especially if you?re flying), so watch for the big American flag. In addition to the gallery, it is a perfect Everglades photo op! Yes, right in the parking lot (see photo above).

The photography in the gallery is amazing! We spent a long time just soaking up the grandeur of the huge framed photographs. If you are not familiar with Clyde's work, the gallery alone is worth the trip.

Clyde Butcher is a world renowned black and white photographer (and often compared to Ansel Adams). A new section to the gallery was added since my last trip, and it holds many new offerings. Ben found an exquisite triptych of ?ghost orchids? he couldn?t resist. We then continued west.

The tiny Ochopee Post Office is another easy-to-miss site. Sitting in the back seat, I didn?t see it coming. As we passed, it quickly became a place to stop on the way back.

At Rt. 29 we turned south and headed to Everglades City, known as the ?Gateway to the 10,000 Islands? a fisherman?s paradise. This is an old Florida town and a jumping off place for many canoe and kayak fans. A number of boat tours are available.

We saved The Rod and Gun Club (a hotel in Everglades City since the 1920s) and the museum in town for our next trip and continued to our goal.

It is a very short drive from Everglades City to the island of Chokoloskee. This small island was inhabited by a very tall tribe known as the Calusa Indians for centuries before its? shorter settlers arrived in the 1870s.

The Smallwood Store (where many of those new homesteaders purchased their supplies) still stands where and how it was so many years ago.

Today, there was a resident Smallwood historian on duty with many stories to tell. One was particularly fascinating to me. The story goes that Ponce de Leon (no doubt in search of the fountain of youth) came to the island much to the objection of the Calusa tribe. They shot him with a poison dart; not long after, he died from the injury in Cuba.

It was great fun to see old medicine bottles, soap boxes, magazines, a wringer washer and sundry ?dry goods? - too many to list. Boxes, furniture, clothes and more were also there from a time gone by. (Lots of history books of the area were for sale.) We were filled with stories and things to see.

The elevated store holds a prime spot on the water. (In the early days shoppers often came by boat.) It was a pleasure to just stand on the shore and enjoy the breeze.

Hunger, however, began to call. Although there are a number of places to eat on Chokoloskee, someone suggested we try the Havana Café. We were a little dubious. Being from the Miami area, we had our choice of good Cuban restaurants at home. We wanted fresh fish! We were assured we would love the way fish was prepared at this particular restaurant.

There were lots of cars and bikes out front (a good sign). So, the Havana Café it was. The weather was perfect to eat outdoors. The patio was clean and the service excellent, despite how busy it was. (Delightful Heather was our server.) We all ordered mahi-mahi. Dave and Mike declared it ?the best fish sandwich ever!?

At lunch we talked about coming back to see all the things we had missed in this quaint, quiet old corner of Florida!

On the way home, we did stop at the Ochopee, FL post office. It?s considered to be the the smallest post office in the United States. We took pictures for tourists, so they could be in the picture. And they took pictures for us. We laughed at how quickly we became tourists ourselves and continued east.

My first-timer friends stopped at least three more times to take photos of gator families, birds and turtles before we reached the Miami side.

Good company, good food, lots of laughs and beautiful scenery on a warm, winter day in South Florida ? it was a day to remember.

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