Greek mythology birthed the phoenix, a bird that lives for centuries. When it dies, it regenerates and rises anew from the ashes. In my world, the Florida version of a phoenix is a flamingo. Specifically, deep in the heart of Everglades National Park, a small town called Flamingo is rising from the ruins caused by three hurricanes.
At the end of t he Road
Accessible through the park’s main entrance in Homestead and at the end of a 38-mile road at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula sits Flamingo. An outpost established during the late 1800s where Gladesmen lived off the land, today it is a destination for park visitors with a National Park Service visitor center, marina with boat ramps, tours, rentals, provision, and campground.
Located in the country’s largest subtropical wilderness, Flamingo provides access to world-class fishing in Florida Bay and the Everglades backcountry including Whitewater Bay. It is the terminus of the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway paddling trail, bird-watcher’s haven and an outdoor enthusiast’s dream.
History of Flamingo
I spent more than three years working in Flamingo for a park management company and departed at the end of 2000 to begin a new life in Sarasota. I left behind a husband and an opportunity few people dream about — living in a national park.
The original Flamingo complex opened in 1959. It included the marina, restaurant, lodge, gas station, and NPS visitor center, was designed by NPS architect Cecil Doty. It was part of the NPS’s Mission 66 program, a 10-year plan to expand visitor services in anticipation of its 50th anniversary in 1966.
Hurricanes change the visitor experience
The summer of 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Wilma ripped through Flamingo with damaging winds and storm surge. What was once a thriving day-trip and overnight facility was nearly destroyed. I had lived and worked in the lodge and due to significant damage, it was razed in 2009. Today, nature has reclaimed the area with grass, trees and wildlife.
My former husband passed away unexpectedly in 2008 and I made the trip to say goodbye. It was a heartbreaking visit and the bright spot was seeing how the facility adapted and became a day-use area with limited visitor services. Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017 and once again, Flamingo was damaged and visitor services were closed.
A New Era for Flamingo
On Nov. 15, 2017, Guest Services, Inc., entered a 20-year contract with the NPS to operate visitor services at Flamingo and Long Pine Key Campground. GSI, operating as Flamingo Adventures at Everglades National Park, offers visitors a host of services and activities to enhance their experience.
These include kayak and pontoon boat rentals for day-use, houseboats for overnight trips, sightseeing trips into the backcountry and over Florida Bay, and fuel service. The marina store has been renovated and is stocked with needs for anglers, adventurers and campers including frozen bait, food and souvenirs. A food truck serves hot meals. GSI manages the Flamingo Campground for tent and recreational vehicle camping.
Anticipated the first quarter of 2019 is the opening of 20 eco-tents near the group camping area. Units will have comfortable amenities including bed lines and will be near rest rooms. A Flamingo Lodge and Cottage Campus is the works in the location of the original Flamingo Lodge. It will consist of 24 elevated cottages constructed with 100 percent recyclable steel shipping containers on reinforced concrete structures. Cottages will have views of Florida Bay and modern amenities including electricity, water, VOIP phone and high-speed internet.
A 4,000-square-foot multiuse facility will house a 60-seat restaurant and bar, gift shop, registration desk, rest rooms, and phone charging station. The design will incorporate Mission 66 and Miami Modern architecture.
During my November visit, the full moon’s glow lit my way as I walked through the campground. Every so often I stopped to admire the moon rising over Florida Bay while listening to the buzz of chirping insects. An intoxicating scent from the blooming moonflowers, like scents of jasmine and citrus blossoms, combined with a hint of the earthy notes of the River of Grass, perfumed the air. The evening was near-perfect, and I cried.
Over the course of nearly 25 years I have seen the beauty of Flamingo but more often, I have seen it battered and bruised. I have experienced great sadness in the Everglades. My tears that night were for the peace in knowing Flamingo is regenerating and rising into something stronger and more beautiful. Others will have an opportunity see what journalist and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas saw — “There are no other Everglades in the world.”
Plan your visit
Flamingo Adventures at Everglades National Park
1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy.
Homestead, Fl. 33034
The Marina Store is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Boat tours are offered throughout the day. It is advised to book reservations in advance for boat tours and the campground. Cellphone service is limited, but AT&T service is excellent in Flamingo.