Travel down the west coast of Florida, past Naples and Marco Island until you can’t go any farther. Pull into the sleepy “Old Florida” town of Everglades City. It is pretty much the last outpost of civilization before the hard land turns into a maze of channels and mangrove islands.
Perched softly three feet above sea level, the village resides on the southwestern edge of Everglades National Park. Known as the “river of grass,” the Everglades is unlike any spot on earth. A boggy wilderness, its eco-sights remain relatively unchanged from ancient times — everything from bellowing alligators and fragile ghost orchids to towering green cypress trees. The swampy abyss is also the critical breeding ground for a large variety of wading birds.
Everglades City (pop. 400) has been welcoming American presidents and Supreme Court justices, corporate titans and celebrities, serious anglers and birders since the 1880s, when only small boats and yachts reached Florida’s last lonely frontier.
The town’s most favored retreat is the Everglades Rod and Gun Club on the mangrove banks of the Barron River. The three-story white clapboard lodge still casts a spell from its epic early days.
Walk through the weathered, single-hung back door and you gaze upon a smoothly worn marble and gleaming brass registration desk that reflects a blaze in the stone fireplace.
Trophy catches of game fish, deer and ‘gator skins are mounted on the dark brown pecky cypress dining room walls.
The Caloosa Indian tribes first populated the Gulf coast region, followed by the Spanish in the 1520s. The Rod and Gun Club was originally built in 1864 as a lodge for fur traders at the site of the first permanent white settlement in the area. In 1873 Merchant W. S. Allen opened a general store and dock ion the Barron River where the Rod and Gun Club currently stands.
By 1922 Barron Collier, an advertising mogul in New York City, had purchased the Rod and Gun Club, making Everglades City his Florida headquarters. Collier was a business dynamo and within five years the sleepy trading post and farming community was converted into a bustling industrial-based company town. Eventually Collier became Florida’s largest land owner with 1,186,700 acres.
The Club operated as a private establishment and quickly developed a reputation as a stellar hunting and fishing club for wealthy northerners on winter vacations. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush, Sr. visited here. So did great personalities, everyone from Ernest Hemingway, Al Capone and John Wayne to present-day celebrities Sean Connery and Mick Jagger.
These days the Club still retains the grandeur and rustic charm of those high-flying eras. The facilities include a large heated and screened pool, tennis and shuffleboard courts, the Blue Pigeon Inn lounge, extensive marina facilities, charter fishing boats and skiffs. Look for a listing of local guides for trips through the Everglades aboard air boats and swamp buggies where visitors marvel at the unique mix of 700 tropical and temperate plants and 300 bird species, as well as the endangered manatee, crocodile, and Florida panther.
Hire a guide and head over to Barron River with miles of snaking backwater and open bays around Everglades City. With oysters, sandbars, and many small creeks, the river makes a fantastic habitat for snook, trout, redfish,and tarpon. The Club will arrange a box lunch for your fishing expedition and prepare your catch of the day on return, serving it to you with style.
After a day on the water you can settle into the wicker furniture under a paddle fan on the wide, screened verandah. It is ideal for spying the river traffic, pelicans landing on the pilings or a pink roseate spoonbill soaring above a stand of cypress trees winging toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Guests are lodged in the cottages scattered under the trees, rustic and comfortable hideaways with simple furnishings. Bright and airy, the dining room is just off the lobby facing the Barron River. Blackened redfish, grouper fillets, and stone crab claws (October 15-May 15) all are excellent choices. Stone crabbing here is now a multimillion-dollar business with the claws caught by the local crabbers shipped all over the world. Keep an eye out for the surf-and-turf combo of steak and grouper and the swamp-and-turf combo of frog legs and steak. Save room for the key lime pie.
Savor the Club’s illustrious past by scanning the photos and yellowing newspaper clippings in the lobby. You will learn about its colorful and sometime roguish yesteryear. Finally, enjoy a drink on the verandah and take in the unforgettable sight of the flights of the ibis in low formations in the last flash of sunset over the green wall of mangroves.