Everglades National Park Enviro-Tour with Caribbean Watersports

There's no better way to experience the Florida Keys than from the seat of a zippy little Zodiac boat on the waters of Everglades National Park. Caribbean Watersports has been taking curious visitors out into the Florida Bay for more than 30 years, and its fascinating Enviro-Tours will have you seeing this chain of islands in an entirely new light.

Caribbean Watersports agreed to pick me up for the tour at the docks of Kona Kai, my temporary home in Key Largo. The intimate resort is worth a visit for its ethnobotanic garden alone, which bursts with tropical-fruit trees (a garden tour often yields samples of fresh star fruit, banana, and coconut milk) and flowering bougainvillea, ginger, and jasmine. For overnight visitors, the property's comfortable cottages, private sandy beach, and magical orchid house act as a backdrop for an utterly relaxing and reinvigorating stay.

The Enviro-Tour is designed with a flexible itinerary: Perhaps you'll spot manatees, dolphins, spoonbills, herons, or even crocodiles; the Zodiac might float inside otherworldly mangrove hammocks, creep through narrow passageways that lead to secret inlets, or zip out into the open sea. You will most certainly be treated to a fascinating ecological history of the area. With bearded Captain Dan at the helm, we spied countless fat iguanas sunning themselves high up in the trees, watched nesting cormorants feeding their young, and even caught (and released) a couple of jellyfish and a pygmy seahorse.

At the end of the tour, you'll have a changed perspective on the Florida Keys. It's a place for water-seekers and beach bums, yes, but it's also much more than that. With the only living coral reef in North America and the third-longest barrier reef in the world, these waters are hugely important to the survival of countless plants and animals. One-third of Florida's endangered species makes their homes in this fragile ecosystem of coral, mangroves, and sea grasses. Residents like Captain Dan passionately maintain that environmental protection is paramount. Take a tour through this beautiful backcountry and you'll soon feel the same.

Caribbean Watersports offers two-hour Enviro-Tours daily at 9:15 a.m., 11:45 a.m., and 4:30 p.m. Adult tickets are $60 each ($45 for children); a deposit and reservations are required.

Have a question for Julianne about her trip to the Florida Keys? Planning a trip yourself and need advice? Want to share your own Florida Keys experience? Leave a comment below! You can also follow Julianne on Google+.

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(Photos: Terry J Alcorn/Getty Images; Cayobo via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike; and Julianne Lowell)

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