EVERGLADES CITY — Everglades City is a little off the beaten path. The former county seat of Collier County, it sits surrounded by the mangrove swamps of Everglades National Park, an old-fashioned fishing village where life goes by at a leisurely pace – 51 weeks a year.
But one weekend a year, E-City shakes off its doldrums and hosts the Everglades Seafood Festival, bringing upwards of 50,000 people down the solitary two-lane access road, and hosting one heck of a party.
"It's a four-ring circus," said Marya Repko, local author, newsletter publisher and promoter, who has her hand in just about everything going on in town. "You have carnival rides and games, food vendors, arts and crafts, and entertainment on the big stage. If you want to add a fifth ring, it's all the people who attend from as far away as Miami and Tampa."
The seafood festival is a very popular destination for a weekend or daytrip from the east coast of Florida, particularly for bikers. Looking at the parking lot closest to City Hall, it appeared every Harley-Davidson in the southern half of Florida was sitting waiting for its rider, and perhaps his main squeeze to sit behind. One outnumbered Honda motorcycle owner, Rafael Ferrer, who came over from Westin, sat on his bike and looked out over the sea of Harleys.
The festival completely takes over the town, turning it into a very different landscape from the typical E-City, to the point where only the tops of local landmarks such as the white-pillared City Hall, behind the main music stage, and the Everglades Community Church across the square, allow you to realize where you would be in town on an ordinary day.
This year, the Everglades Seafood Festival turned 40. The current extravaganza bears little resemblance to the original, when city boosters dreamed up the event to raise money for playground equipment. Now national musical acts, including Nashville artists Jason Thomas, who played Saturday, and Jimmy Van Zant and Jerrod Niemann, who rocked the stage Sunday, draw thousands for their performances.
The festival still raises money for local causes. It is run by the Betterment Association of the Everglades Area, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and just about everyone in town seems to be involved one way or another.
A T-shirt booth, one of many, run by local high school students helped support the athletic teams for the Everglades City School, the only one in town, which serves kindergarten through 12th grade.
Fifth generation E-City resident Chris Stokes, whose dad is "Captain Jungle Erv," the popular airboat tour operator, toured the booths selling everything from hats to pepper jelly, and bought a couple of serious looking broadswords.
"I love this. I just come for fun, bring my kids and look at everything," he said.
Local residents Esperanza Valdez and Diana Valdez sold stone crabs at their booth, which were caught by Sergio Valdez, brother of Esperanza and husband of Diane.
"It's been nonstop," said Diane Valdez. "We haven't stopped cracking claws in two days." It was a good idea to stand a little back from the cracker, or risk being splattered with a little crab juice.
Enjoying the claws, Jennifer Sardinia worked on sucking every morsel of meat out.
"These are delicious," she said of the signature seafood item of Everglades City. "And we're from Miami – we know stone crabs."
In addition to stone crabs, just about any kind of seafood imaginable was for sale – shrimp in every style Forrest Gump could name, scallops, ceviche, Maryland crabcakes, Alaskan king crab and Dungeness crab, grouper, and lobster tails, along with locally produced delicacies such as alligator tail and frogs' legs.
Food vendors came from up and down the country's East Coast, although Pincher's Crab Shack from Naples was another local purveyor. Barbecue, gyros, hamburgers, pizza, plus carnival staples such as elephant ears, funnel cakes, cotton candy and soft-serve ice cream were also available, as was beer, the beverage of choice for many attendees. The only vendor who looked a little slow was the Coca Cola wagon.
"I wait all year long for this weekend," said Robbie Daffin, a beer in each hand – and perhaps a ladyfriend or buddy to deliver one of them to. He was born in Everglades City, and now lives in Plantation. "This is two days out of the year where you can have fun and let 'er go – just let 'er rip."
When he took the stage to close the festival, country singer Jerrod Niemann launched into "Real Women Drink Beer," a song from his new album, and held up a cup cooler with one of his taglines. "Beer is food," it read.
Festival organizers didn't yet have a tally of just how many showed up, but past seafood festivals have been estimated at 50,000 to 75,000 – all arriving via that two-lane road – and this year seemed as busy as ever. Now middle-aged at 40, the Everglades Seafood Festival has grown up big and strong.