Airboats and Gators

Alligators! When you think of Florida wilderness, you think alligators. Florida is famous for its Everglades, a vast tract of wetland at the southern tip of the state. It is an area heavily populated with alligators. But the whole state is dotted with lakes and swamps and you can find alligators in all 67 counties. There are, in fact, 1.3 million gators in the entire state. After our Caribbean cruise, my wife, her sister and I spent a week in Orlando. On the last day of our visit we decided to visit Wild Florida, an airboat and gator park on Cypress Lake, about 45 miles from the city. When going there, you have to exit the Florida Turnpike (a toll highway) at St. Cloud exit #244) and take Highway 192 to the Old Canoe Creek Road. We missed the exit and figured we would just exit later but available exits were Sunpass only and do not accept cash or credit cards. (Passes available to regular commuters.) We had to double back. Wild Florida has handy detailed instructions for getting there. (Note – the map below shows exiting at Exit 240. That is wrong. Exit at 244 if you do not have a Sunpass and head east to and turn right on Vermont Avenue which later becomes Old Canoe Creek Road.) Canoe Creek Road passes under the turnpike and you hang a right at Lake Cypress Road. Wild Florida advertises itself as being “in the middle of nowhere” and it truly is. It sits on the shore of Cypress Lake, a good size lake surrounded on three sides by nature preserves and on the fourth by farmland. Wild Florida includes a zoo and nature walk as well as offering airboat rides. And if you’ve never been on one, it is a must-do experience. We booked an hour long excursion. The airboat dock is offshore aways and accessed by a long boardwalk.
The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.
The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.
Our guide Will steered his airboat to a berth and we got on. Lifejackets and ear protection was handed out. The airboats are fairly loud. Will gave us a spiel about the lake and its 800 alligators, the many cypress trees and the flora and fauna that abound there. He also explained that the airboat was invented and developed in Canada in 1905 by a team led by Alexander Graham Bell – yep – the telephone guy!
3 - skipper Will and our airboat
Will steers our airboat to the dock to load passengers.
After his chat, Will revved up the engine and we tore along the shoreline at a good clip. The airboat is a flat-bottomed boat propelled by a large air prop at the rear behind the pilot. It skims over reeds and vegetation and is perfect for the Everglades. Our first foray took us along the shore where we could see many cypress trees, their branches seemingly dripping grey moss. But it was January and this would green up later in the year. Waterfowl took flight on our approach making a pretty picture. We stopped again as Will gave us some more interesting tidbits. Then the engine roared to life again and we sped across an area dense with reeds and rushes. All of a sudden Will pointed and shouted “Alligator”, pulling the airboat around and towards a clump of vegetation. The alligators like to bask atop a bunch of reeds to catch the sun. We spotted a big old gator soaking up some rays. I stood up and moved to the edge of the boat to get a good picture. Just after I snapped my shot, the gator got wind of me and hustled into the water. It moved so suddenly and so quickly it scared the heck out of me.
One big ole gator!
One big ole gator!
We took off once more and spotted more gators and some large turtles as well. And then we came across a rather gross dead animal floating in the water. A wild boar, Will said. Probably shot by a framer. They are considered pests. Will told us that the alligators would strip the carcass as it decomposes.
Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.
Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.
We cruised along some more and Will took us up Dead Man’s Creek – a small inlet dense with vegetation along its shores. We stopped inside this peaceful setting, taking in the quiet and the beauty of the scenery. Cypress trees were everywhere and Will explained that the many woody shafts poking out of the water around the trees were called cypress knees. Since the entire root system of the cypress is below water, the roots can’t get air. The knees are like so many snorkels bringing life-enhancing air to the roots.
A cypress grove up Dead Man's Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.
A cypress grove up Dead Man’s Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.
After a spell, Will revved up the engine once again and we took off slowly at first through the winding waterway, and then full blast through waters and marshes along a fence line. At one point he pointed the craft directly into a vast tract of reeds and we plowed over them  and stopped in the middle. Clearly a boat with the typical below-water propeller would get seriously tangled here. But the airboat – no sweat! We then headed out of the reeds and into open water charging at full speed across the kilometre or so of lake.  No gators here. They only hang out along the shoreline or in the marshes. During our ride I got a great photo of my wife and her sister, wind blowing their hair out behind them. With the ear protection headset, it reminded me of a famous Maxell battery ad from the 1980s called Blown Away Guy.
Blown Away Gals!
Blown Away Gals!
Back at the dock we walked around Hawk Swamp, an area of cypress swamp with boardwalks letting you observe the swamp up close. A large sign warned not to touch the snakes!
Beware of snakes!
Beware of snakes!
After the swamp walk, we headed for the wildlife preserve where they had a variety of animals on display – a small zoo really. It had tropical birds, raccoons, lemurs, pythons and a giant tortoise among other things. But the big attraction, of course, were the gators. Lots of them. There were elevated walkways above the water and you could get baggies of tasty treats to throw to them.
Lots of gators!
Lots of gators!
In most zoos, the animals are fairly quiet and subdued. Not here. The pythons were on the move. The parrots were squawkers. And the alligators, when food was offered, were eager and energetic swimmers. So if you’re ever in Orlando and looking for something more fun than Universal Studios or Disney World, check out Wild Florida. It was one of the highlights of our visit. Click on Photo Gallery for additional pics or scroll on down if you are on the main page. Follow us on Facebook!
Posted on
This article was previously published at Travelicious as Wild Florida. There may be slight variations in this article including an improved  map and travel guide as well as an additional photo gallery. Alligators! When you think of Florida wilderness, you think alligators. Florida is famous for its Everglades, a vast tract of wetland at the southern tip of the state. It is an area heavily populated with alligators. But the whole state is dotted with lakes and swamps and you can find alligators in all 67 counties. There are, in fact, 1.3 million gators in the entire state.
This article was previously published at Travelicious as Wild Florida. There may be slight variations in this article including an improved  map and travel guide as well as an additional photo gallery. Alligators! When you think of Florida wilderness, you think alligators. Florida is famous for its Everglades, a vast tract of wetland at the southern tip of the state. It is an area heavily populated with alligators. But the whole state is dotted with lakes and swamps and you can find alligators in all 67 counties. There are, in fact, 1.3 million gators in the entire state. After our Caribbean cruise, my wife, her sister and I spent a week in Orlando. On the last day of our visit we decided to visit Wild Florida, an airboat and gator park on Cypress Lake, about 45 miles from the city. When going there, you have to exit the Florida Turnpike (a toll highway) at St. Cloud exit #244) and take Highway 192 to the Old Canoe Creek Road. We missed the exit and figured we would just exit later but available exits were Sunpass only and do not accept cash or credit cards. (Passes available to regular commuters.) We had to double back. Wild Florida has handy detailed instructions for getting there. (Note – the map below shows exiting at Exit 240. That is wrong. Exit at 244 if you do not have a Sunpass and head east to and turn right on Vermont Avenue which later becomes Old Canoe Creek Road.) Canoe Creek Road passes under the turnpike and you hang a right at Lake Cypress Road. Wild Florida advertises itself as being “in the middle of nowhere” and it truly is. It sits on the shore of Cypress Lake, a good size lake surrounded on three sides by nature preserves and on the fourth by farmland. Wild Florida includes a zoo and nature walk as well as offering airboat rides. And if you’ve never been on one, it is a must-do experience. We booked an hour long excursion. The airboat dock is offshore aways and accessed by a long boardwalk.
The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.
The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.
Our guide Will steered his airboat to a berth and we got on. Lifejackets and ear protection was handed out. The airboats are fairly loud. Will gave us a spiel about the lake and its 800 alligators, the many cypress trees and the flora and fauna that abound there. He also explained that the airboat was invented and developed in Canada in 1905 by a team led by Alexander Graham Bell – yep – the telephone guy!
3 - skipper Will and our airboat
Will steers our airboat to the dock to load passengers.
After his chat, Will revved up the engine and we tore along the shoreline at a good clip. The airboat is a flat-bottomed boat propelled by a large air prop at the rear behind the pilot. It skims over reeds and vegetation and is perfect for the Everglades. Our first foray took us along the shore where we could see many cypress trees, their branches seemingly dripping grey moss. But it was January and this would green up later in the year. Waterfowl took flight on our approach making a pretty picture. We stopped again as Will gave us some more interesting tidbits. Then the engine roared to life again and we sped across an area dense with reeds and rushes. All of a sudden Will pointed and shouted “Alligator”, pulling the airboat around and towards a clump of vegetation. The alligators like to bask atop a bunch of reeds to catch the sun. We spotted a big old gator soaking up some rays. I stood up and moved to the edge of the boat to get a good picture. Just after I snapped my shot, the gator got wind of me and hustled into the water. It moved so suddenly and so quickly it scared the heck out of me.
One big ole gator!
One big ole gator!
We took off once more and spotted more gators and some large turtles as well. And then we came across a rather gross dead animal floating in the water. A wild boar, Will said. Probably shot by a framer. They are considered pests. Will told us that the alligators would strip the carcass as it decomposes.
Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.
Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.
We cruised along some more and Will took us up Dead Man’s Creek – a small inlet dense with vegetation along its shores. We stopped inside this peaceful setting, taking in the quiet and the beauty of the scenery. Cypress trees were everywhere and Will explained that the many woody shafts poking out of the water around the trees were called cypress knees. Since the entire root system of the cypress is below water, the roots can’t get air. The knees are like so many snorkels bringing life-enhancing air to the roots.
A cypress grove up Dead Man's Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.
A cypress grove up Dead Man’s Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.
After a spell, Will revved up the engine once again and we took off slowly at first through the winding waterway, and then full blast through waters and marshes along a fence line. At one point he pointed the craft directly into a vast tract of reeds and we plowed over them  and stopped in the middle. Clearly a boat with the typical below-water propeller would get seriously tangled here. But the airboat – no sweat! We then headed out of the reeds and into open water charging at full speed across the kilometre or so of lake.  No gators here. They only hang out along the shoreline or in the marshes. During our ride I got a great photo of my wife and her sister, wind blowing their hair out behind them. With the ear protection headset, it reminded me of a famous Maxell battery ad from the 1980s called Blown Away Guy.
Blown Away Gals!
Blown Away Gals!
Back at the dock we walked around Hawk Swamp, an area of cypress swamp with boardwalks letting you observe the swamp up close. A large sign warned not to touch the snakes!
Beware of snakes!
Beware of snakes!
After the swamp walk, we headed for the wildlife preserve where they had a variety of animals on display – a small zoo really. It had tropical birds, raccoons, lemurs, pythons and a giant tortoise among other things. But the big attraction, of course, were the gators. Lots of them. There were elevated walkways above the water and you could get baggies of tasty treats to throw to them.
Lots of gators!
Lots of gators!
In most zoos, the animals are fairly quiet and subdued. Not here. The pythons were on the move. The parrots were squawkers. And the alligators, when food was offered, were eager and energetic swimmers. So if you’re ever in Orlando and looking for something more fun than Universal Studios or Disney World, check out Wild Florida. It was one of the highlights of our visit. Click on Photo Gallery for additional pics or scroll on down if you are on the main page. Follow us on Facebook!
Posted on
This article was previously published at Travelicious as Wild Florida. There may be slight variations in this article including an improved  map and travel guide as well as an additional photo gallery.

The Sea Caves, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

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James Bond fans may remember 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, starring Roger Moore as 007. Not one of the best Bond films, but memorable in part for the spectacular scenery of Phang Nga Bay in Thailand which served as the setting for villain Scaramanga’s hideout.

The movie drew attention to the area and put pressure on Thai authorities to preserve this natural beauty. In 1981, much of the area was designated as Ao Phang Nga National Park, including the many islands in the area. It has become a major eco-tourism destination.

IMG_3500r
The archipelago at Phang Nga Bay is breathtaking in its beauty.

On our second day in Phuket we booked an excursion to explore sea caves in the area. We boarded a bus near the pier in Patong Bay for the hour long drive to Laem Sai Pier at the northern end of the island. There we boarded a motor launch for the hour boat cruise to Hong Island and the surrounding area.

A tour boat similar to the one we were on. There were quite a few on the bay. Eco-tourism is a booming business here.
A tour boat similar to the one we were on. There were quite a few on the bay. Eco-tourism is a booming business here.

The scenery was, indeed, like that in the Bond movie. Spectacular islands densely covered in vegetation with deep pitting in the exposed limestone, particularly at sea level.

Eroded limestone created some spectacular hongs or sea caves.
Eroded limestone created some spectacular hongs or sea caves.

We dropped anchor offshore from one of the islands and a myriad of small three person canoes were launched – two tourists and a guide in each. Janis and I and our guide followed some other craft into a cave and out the other end into a sheltered area surrounded by steep cliffs, limestone rock formations and lush greenery.

We entered a sea cave and our guide steered us through to the other side.
We entered a sea cave and our guide steered us through to the other side. Some of the rock formations looked like dollops of melting ice cream.

An island near the end of the channel looked much like the island in the movie that had the solar power unit atop it, though it was not the actual island. One of the other excursions did go to that island, now actually called James Bond Island.

This tall pinnacle is similar to the one in Man With the Golden Gun.

We paddled around, occasionally drifting in to shore to see the rock formations up close and on one occasion, we lay back as our guide paddled us into a deep low-hanging cave and back again.

Inside a sea cave illuminated by the flash. We had to lie back to make our way under the low hanging rock face.
Inside a sea cave illuminated by the flash. We had to lie back to make our way under the low hanging rock face.

The entire area was spectacular – stunningly beautiful with streaks of red sandstone interspersed with grey and yellow limestones.

Steeaks of red in the limestone cliffs accentuate the islands' natural beauty.
Streaks of red in the limestone cliffs accentuate the islands’ natural beauty.

We paddled around taking in the scenery for a good half hour before paddling around an outcrop and back to our ship.

We were allowed to swim in the bay, so I gave Janis the camera and went over the side, swimming behind our kayak to the mother ship. The water was very warm.

Yours truly taking a swim in Phang Nga Bay.
Yours truly taking a swim in Phang Nga Bay.

Once aboard, we tootled off towards another island – destination: the bat cave. Not that batcave! No Batman and Robin in sight. But we once again took to the canoes and went into a much deeper cave system. Here we entered total darkness, only the guides’ flashlights providing illumination. We saw dozens of bats hanging upside from the ceiling as we paddled deeper into the cave, then we turned around and paddled back. Unfortunately it was too dark for my camera to take pictures.

Inside the bat cave looking back to the entrance. We saw many bats in the cave, but it was too dark for the camera without a flash and I didn't want to scare the bats.
Inside the bat cave looking back to the entrance. We saw many bats in the cave, but it was too dark for the camera without a flash and I didn’t want to scare the bats.

From there we headed off to another island, the crew serving us a very tasty lunch along the way. At Lawi Island we dropped anchor again and were able to go ashore to a nice beach. Janis took a canoe but I just jumped in and swam ashore. We enjoyed a pleasant swim and soaked up the sun for an hour and then back to the boat again.

The beach where we stopped for an hour.
The beach where we stopped for an hour.

Back on Phuket Island we took the long bus ride back to Patong, stopping at a cashew stand that I’m sure must give kick-backs to tour operators because almost every excursion available included a visit to the “cashew factory”. It was not a factory. It was a shop. I don’t know if these additional stops add anything of value to a tour. I could have done without it.  But some people were buying so I guess it pays off for them.

The sea cave adventure was by far our favourite excursion on our cruise – and the most expensive at US$149 a person. Sometimes spending a little more pays off in a big way.

At 5:30 PM the cruise ship weighed anchor and we headed off back to Singapore. All in all, a great end to our voyage. You’ll find additional photos of our sea cave adventure linked below.

I’ll be adding an overview of our cruise as a whole next, with links to all ports of call and our extended visit to Singapore. Stay tuned!

Links of Interest

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