In the second of our posts on the best short road trips in our destinations, we're travelling from Miami to Everglades City along a stretch of the Tamiami Trail (US Hwy 41), a dedicated National Scenic Byway which runs from Miami all the way up to Tampa on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Unlike our road trip from San Francisco last week, the Tamiami Trail is completely flat, and at first glance it would be easy to conclude there's not that much to see. But at various points off either side of the highway, there's access to a vast ecosystem of freshwater swamps, tropical plantlife, marine estuaries and mangrove forests which give protection to a number of threatened species, including the elusive Florida panther and the West Indian Manatee.
In fact, not that far from Miami a short detour will lead you into the heart of the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. So, let's get going...
Our drive begins at the start of SW 8th Street in downtown Miami, and heads due west out of the city through the middle of Little Havana, the cultural and historical centre of Cuban-American heritage in Miami, where the road is locally known as Calle Ocho.
Far from being a solely Cuban enclave, Little Havana has welcomed immigrants from all over Latin America, though the Cuban influence, with the domino games in Maximo Gomez Park, cigar factories, and Café Cubano (Cuban espresso) remains strong. To start the day with a real kick, breakfast at Versailles Bakery is not to be missed - this, and the rest of Little Havana's culinary delights are more deeply explored in our guide to Little Havana.
Little Havana, SW 8th Street (roughly) between 12th and 27th Avenues. Versailles Bakery is at 3501 SW 8th St, just before 36th Avenue.
Big Cypress National Preserve
Just over an hour's drive further west along the trail, the Big Cypress National Preserve is home to white-tailed deer, alligators and snakes, and is one of the last remaining hideouts of the Florida panther and Florida black bear. An area of freshwater prairies and dreamy old growth cypress trees, it's the historical home of the Seminole and Miccosukee Native American tribes, who still have permanent rights to occupy the land.
The "paddling season", from November to March is an ideal time to get out on a kayak or canoe; glide silently through a mangrove tunnel and get water-level views of egrets and herons and even a river otter if you're lucky. Prefer to be on firm ground? There are better on-land hiking opportunities here than in Everglades National Park - especially in the hot and dry winter season - but you'll need to be okay with getting your feet wet. In fact, at some points you could be wading up to your calves or knees (or even up to your waist in the summer).
Big Cypress National Preserve Oasis Visitor Center, 52105 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee, Florida 34141
Joanie's Blue Crab Cafe
Carry on driving for about forty minutes and you'll reach the tiny settlement of Ochopee (pop. 11) and its beloved live music venue and diner, Joanie's Blue Crab Cafe. In terms of roadside Americana, this is the genuine article. Adorned with trinkets, maps, flags, postcards, old coloured bottles and pieces of found art, there's a real sense of history and place, of stories and dreams, from the back roads of this wide open landscape.
As you'd expect the menu centres on seafood - stone crabs, blue crabs, crab cakes, shrimp and calamari all feature heavily, as do gator nuggets and frogs legs, with sides of fried green tomatoes, grilled corn, black beans, rice and ratatouille.
Joanie's Blue Crab Cafe, 39395, Tamiami Trail/Hwy 41, Ochopee, Florida, 34141
The smallest Post Office in the USA
On any given road trip through the States, you'll pass through towns and settlements whose eagerness to put themselves on the map manifests itself through some kind of biggest/smallest, shortest/tallest roadside monument; either something completely banal or utterly wonderful.
Just next door to Joanie's, Ochopee's claim to fame is the smallest Post Office in the USA, a 7 x 8 foot shack which used to be the irrigation pipe shed for a tomato farm. According to one of our favourite websites RoadsideAmerica.com (a must if you're planning a road trip), the postmistress reckons she has the coolest job in the world, though the person who delivers the mail may not agree: the daily route is 132 miles long.
On the Tamiami Trail/Hwy 41 around three miles east of Hwy 29, Mile Marker 71.9, south side.
Everglades City and surrounds
The Everglades are the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States (about 25% of the original area is covered by the Everglades National Park). Teeming with life, its attractions are low-key and subtle, unlike the dramatic national parks of the American West.
This watery wilderness of sawgrass plains and mangrove forests is best visited during the winter months, when there are plenty of ranger-led activities and the mosquitoes are considerably less annoying than in summer. The town of Everglades City, a pleasant waterside backwater, acts as a gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands area, a maze of numerous mangrove islands dotted along the coastline, which marks the end of the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile water trail aimed at experienced kayakers and canoeists.
Those with less skill can get out into the eerily quiet waterways on a boat tour; if you're lucky you'll see alligators, racoons and a full spectrum of wading birds, including spoonbills, bitterns, herons and storks. Be careful which operator you choose to go with. There are many environmentally dubious tours advertised along the roadside, so opt for one of the park-sanctioned trips.
Turn off Hwy 41 (left) onto County Road 29 at Carnestown and follow road south for 4 miles.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Miami from London Heathrow and the best fares are always on our website. For a bespoke Florida holiday tailor made to your exact requirements, visit Virgin Holidays.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.