WEATHER ALERT

Alligators and airboats in the Everglades

Sawgrass Recreational Park is a 40-minute drive from both Fort Lauderdale and Miami

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n his South Florida drawl, Jimmy Koeppel nonchalantly tells us people “don’t get bit” by alligators unless you try to “mess with ‘em”.

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n his South Florida drawl, Jimmy Koeppel nonchalantly tells us people “don’t get bit” by alligators unless you try to “mess with ‘em”.

So what do we do?

We get off his airboat and head straight for Sawgrass Recreational Park’s wildlife exhibit to mess with a gator.

Photos by Steve MacNaull / Winnipeg Free Press

The view of Hotel Maren’s beach club from the 10th floor.

Zookeeper Nick Font brings a three-year-old, metre-long gator called Sgt. Pepper out of his enclosure so we can pat his prehistoric head and run our fingers down his pointed back and tail.

Granted, Sgt. Pepper’s mouth is taped shut, but there’s still the thrill of being badass.

We’re asked to step away and Font removes the tape so Sgt. Pepper can rear his head and show us his jagged teeth.

Somewhat morbidly, after this interaction,we stroll over to the Sawgrass Gator Grill food truck and order for lunch the specialty of seasoned and lightly grilled gator tail nuggets with secret Sawgrass sauce.

“Alligators can be cannibals and eat each other all the time, so I don’t think they’ll take it personally if we eat them,” says Font with a laugh.

Lunch at Loma Cocina Tequileria.

Predictably, gator tastes like chicken, albeit it slightly tough and stringy chicken.

This scene was preceded by my wife, Kerry, and I taking the one-hour tour on Koeppel’s airboat at Sawgrass.

Sawgrass takes an endless string of tourists out on the Florida Everglades just outside of Fort Lauderdale and Miami to spy gators.

Under Koeppel’s expert guidance we spot at least a half a dozen gators, most of them about two-metres long, lounging in the soppy sawgrass.

The ride alternates between invigorating race-speed blasts over the grassy shallow waters and slowing to a crawl to stare at gators and an array of birds from blue herons and kingfishers to red-shouldered hawks and black-faced vultures.

The sunset view from Burlock Coast restaurant.

The everglades are not a swamp or bog as most people assume they are.

They are actually a slow moving river of rain water that percolates out of ground covering what is essentially a sawgrass prairie.

As such, the everglades are pristine and an integral part of the Florida ecosystem.

After our airboat-and-alligators fix, the rest of our long weekend in Fort Lauderdale is the decidedly urban and beachy that Florida is famous for.

We stay at Hotel Maren, a refurbished, 12-storey property in Hilton’s Curio Collection of distinctive accommodations.

Captain Jimmy Koeppel with his airboat.

Its oceanfront locale means we can alternate between lounging at the hotel’s beach club with plunges in the Atlantic and frolicking at the rooftop pool while enjoying stunning beach and ocean views and bar service.

Our room and balconies are big and airy and ideal for admiring both sunrises and sunsets, which has become one of Kerry and I’s favourite vacation traditions, usually with a glass of wine in hand (at least for the sunsets).

Hotel Maren is also located smack dab in the middle of Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, the touristy strip of hotels, shops and restaurants.

That makes it handy for long beach strolls and lunches and dinners at trendy oceanview eateries such as Burlock Coast for swordfish and Lona Cocina Tequileria for its signature tuna tostada.

Fort Lauderdale is known as the Venice of America for its elaborate network of canals and as the Yachting Capital of the World.

To see both in their full glory, we take the Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi tour along the intercoastal waterways to gawk at canal-side mansions with super yachts and stylish speed boats parked out front and numerous marinas bobbing with yet more eye-candy vessels.

Air Canada knows of our penchant for Florida in the winter and has responded big time with new non-stop flights between Vancouver and Miami as well as established routes from Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach, Fort Myers and Sarasota.

Check out EvergladesTours.com, VisitLauderdale.com and AirCanada.ca.

smacnaull@nowmediagroup.ca

You can pat, Sgt. Pepper, the three-year-old, metre-long alligator, at the wildlife exhibit at Sawgrass Recreational Park in the Florida Everglades.

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