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More sunrises, more stars. Staying overnight in the Everglades at the new Flamingo Lodge

The sun rises over Florida Bay in Everglades National Park.
Ashley Miznazi
/
Miami Herald
The sun rises over Florida Bay in Everglades National Park.

Spotting the first golden rays of morning light gleaming off Florida Bay from the southern edge of Everglades National Park is a treat usually reserved for those who make the pitch-dark drive to the Flamingo outpost at ungodly hours, or the brave souls willing to battle swarms of mosquitoes under the protection of only a nylon tent wall.

Not anymore.

Now, Everglades National Park has (re)joined the ranks of national parks with an on-site hotel. That means real beds, air conditioning, WiFi, even a full-service 110-seat kitchen and bar.

The Flamingo Lodge, which opened just a few months ago, is a relatively bug-free haven with a unique design that speaks to the vulnerability of the low-lying wilds that surround it. The rooms are made from shipping containers and elevated 13 feet above the ground, a nod to the rising threat of sea rise and the history of intense hurricane-driven storm surge, which destroyed the original and much more rustic lodge nearly twenty years ago.

“They weren’t built to stand the test of time,” said J.J. Condella, the lodge’s general manager. “These, on the other hand, are.” The twenty-four rooms are divided into studios ($259 a night), one bedroom ($349 a night) and two bedrooms ($399 a night). Prices are lower in the summer, when sweltering heat and swarming bugs tend to cut down on visitors. Each comes with a kitchenette, but no TV.

That’s no issue in this corner of the park, where there’s plenty to do from sunrise to sunset. Early risers can take their coffee on the balconies of each room, or along the waterfront Guy Bradley trail.

The historic Flamingo Lodge is re-opening in the Everglades with protections from climate change. It’s lifted on stilts, made of steel shipping containers and has hurricane-grade windows.
D.A. Varela
/
Miami Herald
The historic Flamingo Lodge is re-opening in the Everglades with protections from climate change. It’s lifted on stilts, made of steel shipping containers and has hurricane-grade windows.

“It’s a special place to be able to wake up,” said Allyson Gantt, spokesperson for Everglades National Park. “It’s a world-class destination.”

Gantt called Flamingo a great “jumping off point” for activities throughout the park, especially kayaking, biking and fishing.

What to do during the day

The park service offers ranger-led tours from Flamingo Marina, a short walk from the hotel. Visitors can paddle the bay, where they’re all but guaranteed to spot crocodiles, manatees, and all manner of bird life.

Guest Services, the company contracted by the National Park Service to run the hotel, also operates tours from the marina, including a boat tour through the mangrove-studded canals and open, freshwater bays to the north. On it, naturalists regale tourists with stories of the flora and fauna, including the Jamaica dogwood or fish-poison tree, which Native Americans used to use as a mild toxin to sedate and catch fish.

There are also ranger-led bird-watching walks and a dozen or so trails to wander, some with pavement and boardwalks and others a more rough-cut trail through the forest. And for the successful anglers who managed to bring home some of the snook, snapper or other fish that call this corner of the park home, Flamingo Lodge offers a “hook and cook” program. Chefs at the restaurant will prepare your (cleaned and filleted) fish with two sides for $18.25.

For those who prefer to cook their own catch, there are several charcoal grills available by the rooms. Please, the staff requests, don’t cook your fish in your hotel room.

The new lodge is also next door to the newly re-constructed Guy Bradley Visitor Center, which boasts interactive exhibits and viewing scopes to better spot wildlife — most on the second story. The first story has some exhibits, but the designers kept all the important stuff (and the electronics) upstairs so it wouldn’t get destroyed by storm surge, the ruin of the first iteration of the visitor center.

The park says visitation has been up since it finished the new visitor center, from about 17,000 visitors in June to December of 22 to more than 52,000 in the same window in 2023.

READ MORE: Visiting the Everglades? New hotel offers AC, bug protection and elevation from storms

Better after dark

Sunset usually marks the end of a day trip to Flamingo, but overnight guests have an extra treat — night tours from park rangers.

There’s a new program every evening, ranging from talks on the history of the feather trade and the origin story of the park (a bloody tale that involves the murder of a park ranger by poachers) to lectures on local bats.

But there’s one tour that offers something you cannot get anywhere else in South Florida, a peek at the night sky without light pollution from the big city.

Kensie Stallings, a ranger, said on a good night in Miami, someone can usually see 25 to 30 stars. In Everglades National Park, the darkest place you can drive to in all of central and south Florida, you can see 1,500 stars or more on a clear night.

“Just seeing the stars down here is absolutely amazing,” she said. “You can see the Milky Way out here through the summer.” Stallings leads star gazing tours every week.

And if the weather isn’t great, the star gazers move indoors, where Stallings shares the latest astronomical discoveries and science of our universe in between star-themed musical interludes on her clarinet.

The living room inside a room at the Flamingo Lodge inside Everglades National Park in Homestead, Florida, on Friday, October 20, 2023.
D.A. Varela
/
Miami Herald
The living room inside a room at the Flamingo Lodge inside Everglades National Park in Homestead, Florida, on Friday, October 20, 2023.

She said she’s seen an uptick in visitors for her late-night tour since the lodge opened late last year, a trend she hopes continues so that more people can learn about the benefits of darkness for wildlife and people.

Condella, the lodge general manager, said within the first months of opening the lodge already had 80% occupancy, a number he expects to rise as more people realize the benefits of an overnight stay in the Everglades.

“We expect it to be a couple of years before you have to book far in advance to get a room here in the winter,” he said. “You’re right here on Florida Bay. You’re in the Everglades National Park. It’s fantastic.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Alex Harris | Miami Herald