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Through the Everglades on the Old Tamiami Trail

December 07, 1986|BARRY ZWICK | Zwick is a Times makeup editor.

EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. — In the land of the snapper, the snook, the skipjack and the pompano, the fish are jumping and the saw grass is high. They went out and built a high-speed toll road, and now the Tamiami Trail is deserted.

After nearly 60 years of service, old U.S. 41 across the Everglades is a ghost road. Alligator Alley has taken its place--wider than Daytona, fast as a bullet and easy on your bottom.

As we begin, our wheels are on Bayshore Drive in Miami and our eyes are on Biscayne Bay. A crabber is pulling out of port, a pleasure boat rests at peace in the harbor and in the distance two mystery vessels go about their business. Behind us the road sign says: "U.S. 41 North, Tamiami Trail."

Heart of Miami

We drive for two miles, and we leave the country. We're on Calle Ocho, the main street of Little Havana in the heart of Miami. We can tell by the courtly old gentlemen promenading by in ice cream suits, by the strolling tunas singing plaintive ballads, by the murals of the homeland brightening street corners.

We can buy anything we want, as long as it's a guitar, a candle, a lace mantilla, a bullfight poster or a pinata.

We detour to our left at the monumental Prado gate to Coral Gables. Built during the first 20 years of this century by architects who marched to the beat of a different drummer, Coral Gables looks like no other city in the world. Its landscaped parkways are so broad that you had better carry a canteen if you plan to cross the street, and its estates fall somewhere between rococo and churrigueresque.

We park at the corner of Granada Boulevard and Avenida Sevilla to check out the Venetian Pool, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and surely the nation's most lavish public swimming pool. Its emerald waters lap through naturally formed lagoons and grottoes of what was once a quarry.

Now we head south to Ponce de Leon Boulevard and pull into the University of Miami's Gate 4, where visitors can park all day without a permit. The university, home of college football's No. 1-ranked Hurricanes, has long had a reputation as a party school. It recently raised its admission requirements to dispel this image. Nonetheless, it looks like a party school. Students cruise the campus in Corvettes and Porsches and set up dates by car phone.

We return to the trail. Settlements thin out, the road narrows to two lanes and now we are in the wilderness. Between Miami and Naples we have the Tamiami Trail to ourselves: 106 miles of spectacular scenery, wild swamp rides, funky little ghost towns and not-so-funky innkeepers who will be thrilled to see us.

We pass through saw-grass marshes with here and there a stand of pines on a hammock, an island in the swamp. Herons skitter along the Tamiami Canal to our right, and kites swoop down for garfish and bream.

Catfish With Pumpkin Bread

Twenty-five miles from Miami we stop at the Miccosukee Indian Village for lunch. Menu choices range from catfish to frog legs, served with pumpkin bread or Indian fry bread.

For $11 we get a guided tour of the village and a half-hour airboat ride deep into the heart of the Everglades.

An airboat has a shallow draft and, in back, two auto engines that drive an airplane propeller. The Miccosukees supply us with cotton to stuff in our ears, and we're off.

At first we're simply aware of plowing through the waterways at high speed, but suddenly our pilot veers off toward a nine-foot-high forest of saw grass and we cover our eyes. Then, remarkably, we find that we're still sailing through water. We're leaving a wake.

The Everglades, we learn, is not a stagnant swamp at all but rather the world's widest, shallowest, slowest-flowing river. Fifty miles wide and six inches deep, the Everglades flows from Lake Okeechobee in central Florida to Florida Bay at the state's southern tip.

Midway between Miami and Naples the scenery begins to change. We enter Big Cypress National Preserve. Tall cypresses rise on the hammocks amid the saw-grass marshes, huge buttresses branching from their trunks, bending at the knees and plunging into the water. High in the sky, up to 170 feet, a delicate tracery of feathery foliage arcs against the clouds.

Presidential Stopovers

At Carnestown we visit the Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce. Jay Craven recommends the Rod & Gun Lodge four miles down the road in Everglades City. "Truman and Eisenhower used to stay there," he says.

First, though, we stop at Eden of the Everglades, one man's dream of bringing the beauty of the Everglades to the world. Ervin Stokes ("Call me Jungle Erv") owns eight acres of swampland along Panther Creek, a waterway so still and clear that it reflects every mangrove stand at its banks.

Jungle Erv built a cypress boardwalk over the swamp. The boardwalk takes us past green-wing macaws, cockateels, African ringnecks, Moluccan cockatoos, blue-mask lovebirds, toucans, tortoises, alligators, bobcats and a panther.

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