Everybody should ride through the Everglades in an airboat at least once. You can't get any closer to nature without sinking into the swamp, and the trip makes for stories and photo albums that will be shared for years.
Speedy Johnson's Airboat Rides is one of a host of small companies in Everglades City, south of Naples, that provides boating excursions on these odd, propeller-powered craft. Invented in the 1940s, they have smooth bottoms able to skim over water, grass and the occasional small island.
Fourth-generation Floridian Todd Johnson's father started the business 14 years ago, and there are no plans to stop, but none to get much bigger, either. "We try to keep a little guy attitude," says Johnson. Their busiest season is wintertime, but with stronger foreign currencies lately, he explains that, "Between the French, Italians, Germans and English, this summer was the best we've ever had, with a record for September."
The nine boats at Speedy's are unique, because they carry only six passengers each, with seats that are elevated four feet above the deck, allowing for a more panoramic view of the surroundings, while cruising at up to 45 mph. Most people come for the scenery and wildlife, but concierge Luda Brown says that some just like the thrill of riding the 385-horsepower craft. Ear protection is provided.
The tour begins with a long, winding passage through Crooked Creek, beneath a domed canopy of black mangrove trees. Depending on the time of year, you can see a wide variety of birds, like eagles, vultures and osprey. Mullet and tarpon jump right out of the water and manatees are plentiful in season.
Other wildlife you might encounter includes bobcats, raccoons and otters. Once out on the "river of grass," the horizon widens and the special nature of the region is dramatic. Johnson leases 1,100 acres of exclusive territory from Collier Enterprises abutting the Everglades National Park, but the whole area is comprised of protected wetlands.
The perennial star attraction of any Everglades trip remains the alligator. Residents may become blasé about living so close to these native creatures, but to most people, approaching one in the wild within a foot or two is like entering a lion's cage.
Boat captains like Kevin Demere, a fifth-generation Floridian, make stops during the tour to explain what visitors are seeing and answer questions. He says that one of the top queries from startled passengers is, "Can an alligator jump into the boat?"
Speedy Johnson's Airboat Rides is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Reservations are recommended. Cost for a one-hour ride is $39.95 for ages 11 and up and $24.95 for ages 3 to 10, with kids 2 and under free. Information, photos, maps and a coupon good for $5 off per couple is available online at www.speedyjohnsons.com.
621 Begonia Street, Everglades City. 695-4448