"Oh, and if you need to get up at night, shine your flashlight in front of the door.... You don't want to step on an alligator."
My 10- and 13 year-old sons looked at me. I looked at my dear friend, Rosemary, a Floridian who was joining us. We all looked at Gus "One Bear" Batista, our guide for the day at Billie Swamp Safari in the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation at the edge of the Florida Everglades.
One Bear was leading us to one of the many screened-in, palm-thatched chickee huts, situated closer to the water's edge than the outhouse-our one-night home during an uncharacteristic cold snap.
The huts, furnished with nothing but raised cots, are just a step away from the chickees that the natives have lived in for centuries-all part of the evolution of tourism, now ecotourism, that the Seminoles learned to capitalize on. Something, apparently, the alligators are perfecting as well. "They know the huts are a good place to find a snack," One Bear told us.
The 36-year-old alligator wrestler who got his nickname when a performing bear sunk its teeth into his skull, looked at us and tied to reassure, "They won't bite. They are really shy." On the plus side, I was no longer worried about my two boys wandering around the camp after I fell asleep. And while I had a brief thought about possible long-term kidney damage from no one seeking relief all night, I knew this was an experience we all would love.
This was day two of our five-day stay in the Ft. Lauderdale area. Our trip was the result of a discussion with a group from Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing corporation. We were told that Chicago is the No. 3 market for Florida and wouldn't Chicago Parent like to come down and write about Florida?
Not a problem. My co-workers took what we called the man-made Florida spots, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios and Disney World. I asked if they could help me craft a natural Florida vacation centering on the Everglades.
We were guests of Spirit Airlines and the hotels in which we stayed. On our first night, we were treated to incredible luxury at the Lago Mar Resort and Club, a wonderful jewel hidden off the main hotel drag in the Harbor Beach area. This is the Gold Coast of Ft. Lauderdale and caters to the same clientele who frequent the Chicago area of the same name.
We had a beautiful suite which costs about $500 a night, not an outrageous price for two bedrooms, three baths, a kitchen, dining, living room and an ocean view. We got lost only once, as did the man from room service, trying to find his way out after delivering breakfast. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to enjoy the two tennis courts, miniature golf, pools, seven restaurants, a spa and the largest private beach in town because we arrived at 11:30 p.m. and had to leave by 9 a.m. the next day.
Still, we made the most of it. We were so excited, stayed up too late listening to the ocean, watching a movie (actually we went from room to room watching it), eating pepperoni pizza, shrimp and key lime pie. So, the next day as I dragged the boys out of bed, all I heard was, "You're taking us to A HUT? When we could be at Lago Mar?"
Fortunately, Rosemary joined us, which stopped the discussion from getting testier.
And after a 11/2-hour drive west of Ft. Lauderdale down a road called Alligator Alley, we arrived at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. The name means "to learn," and we did. It's not just Seminoles but Miccosukee as well, according to the 5-screen movie that gave us the history of the now 2,800-member tribe. It was well done, although the mile-long boardwalk through the swamp appealed more to the Lago Mar-starved younger half. Opened in 1997, the museum is the first of what will be a five-building complex. It was funded almost fully by the tribe, which speaks volumes about the financial footing of the Seminoles.
Then, it was on to Billie Swamp Safari. The name comes from the fourth Tribal Council Chairman James E. Billie, a colorful character who lost a finger to alligator wrestling and his title during an investigation of embezzlement. He has been chairman since 1979 and while there are questions about how Billie has handled money, there's no question the tribe's finances are flourishing, thanks to bingo, citrus fruit, land deals and ecotourism.
After a day in Billie Swamp Safari (I keep wanting to add the possessive to Billie), it's easy to see why. We rode the airboat and the large-wheeled buggies through the swamp, watched a snake show that taught us snakes, like gators, are shy (so why come to the hut for snacks?) We also ate gator, saw gators, held gators, watched One Bear wrestle a 13-foot, 3-inch-long gator and counted gators along the road. We heard Seminole legends around a chickee campfire and had a moonlit Everglade ride to view the animals, which are more international than native. There were sleeping bison, cows, ostriches, boars and sable antelope. We also saw bent tree branches-not very exciting, until One Bear tells you this is where bears glide over fences. From then on, broken trees had a whole mystique. We even went searching for a UFO in the stars.
It was all campy, hokey and not exactly my idea of finding the natural beauty of the Everglades-the hike through the swamp was a mile, we did it twice and it opened on to a road development. Yet, it was all worth it. The boys loved it, Rosemary loved it and so did I. Our thanks to One Bear who made it magic.
"I wouldn't trade eight nights at Lago Mar for this," Bryant, 13, said as we fell asleep, huddled under three blankets each, trying not to think about the bathroom. "This was an experience."
But after that night of nature, we needed nuture. Our last three nights we headquartered in Pompano Beach at the Best Western Beachcomber. The hotel is on a strip along Highway A1A, a coastal version of Lake Shore Drive.
From roadside, it is not a distinguished hotel and the lobby decor is heavy for tropical, but once you get poolside things change. While a step down from Lago Mar, the grounds are lovely with a nicely maintained garden, beautiful palms and all the amenities a family could want-two pools, a children's play area, putting green, extensive rentals for ocean needs, a laundry room, restaurant and a selection of ice cream bars at the pool bar.
The first night, we walked on the beach and the boys ended up diving into the waves, clothes and all. They were joyous. (Although this also lead to my Mommie Dearest moment when they emptied a bucket of sand from their pants pockets into the tub.)
We had an ocean view room with two bedrooms ($189 a night) and fell asleep with the door open to waves crashing. Given the choice, I would pay an additional $40 a night for the $229 one-bedroom villa, which sleeps four, but has a refrigerator, microwave and stove.
The 70-degree temperatures put most Floridians in sweatshirts and corduroys. My boys were on the boogie boards, challenging the ocean waves for four hours. I joined them for one.
Because of the low temperature, we had the state to ourselves. We took advantage of places in the area we wanted to see. We took a boat trip alone and then canoed through the mangrove swamps at the Anne Kolb Nature Center, Hollywood, where we learned about estuaries-where rivers meet the sea-as well as the differences between red, black and white mangroves.
I enjoyed the quiet, a nice contrast to the walk we took down Las Olas Boulevard, the Michigan Avenue of the Ft. Lauderdale 'hood, or the 10 rides the boys took on the 100-foot, old wooden Hurricane Roller Coaster in Dania Beach-something they needed and loved.
All in all, we found more than enough to enjoy and more to return to see in Ft. Lauderdale. It was a nice balance between the nature and the nurturing of ourselves.
Just the facts Fort Lauderdale
Anne Kolb Nature Center (945) 926-2480
Best Western Beachcomber www.beachcomberhotel.com (800) 231-2423
Big Cypress Seminole Reservation and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum www.seminoletribe.com (800) 617-7516
Billie Swamp Safari www.floridaeco-tours.com (305) 257-3737 for tour packages
Greater Fort Lauderdale Tourism Bureau www.sunny.org (800) 22-SUNNY Lagor Mar Resort and Club www.lagomar.com (800) 524-6627
Spirit Airlines www.spiritair.com (800) 772-7117
Dania Beach Hurricane www.xcoaster.com (954) 921-7433
Susy Schultz is editor of Chicago Parent magazine.