Bittersweet Return to Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park

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Standing in the tall grass I let the wind wrap me in her arms while an osprey chirped from a tree branch above, unsure sure if the distinctive call was meant to be welcoming or a warning. What was once a place where I spent three years of my life was now reduced to barely rubble and overgrown grasses. My feet walked the atop what was once the foundation for Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park. Up until summer 2005, it was the only lodging accommodations in the Florida national park. Today, there are no lodging accommodations thanks to hurricanes Katrina and Wilma but limited services are offered.

My last visit to Flamingo was in 2008. It’s a small outpost some call a ghost town. It sits on Florida Bay providing access to saltwater and backcountry adventures in the forms of fishing and boating. It’s a place some call paradise and many times I thought of it as hell. During the winter months, the population exploded to more than 100, maybe 200 people who primarily worked for the park management company (like me) in areas of the lodge, dining and marina. When summer came, South Florida heat and humidity moved in bringing the rainy season, hurricane season and an extremely active mosquito population. Summer population reduced to 30-something staff and National Park Service personnel.

 

Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park, Condemmed Following Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. Photo Taken in 2008.

Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park, Condemmed Following Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. Photo Taken in 2008.

What's Left of Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park, May 2011

What's Left of Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park, May 2011

The Things I Remember About Flamingo
Forty-three species. That’s how many different varieties of mosquitoes call Everglades National Park with the salt marsh mosquito being the most aggressive. And, it’s only the female mosquitoes who extract blood from their human victims. More than a decade has passed and that’s one of the distinct things I remember about of living and working in the park, mosquitoes.

This particular day during my return to Flamingo I felt at peace. My last visit three years ago was chaotic. I was dealing with shock of my former husband’s sudden death and the secret life he was leading. Instantly, I was a boat owner responsible for its payments, became a cat mother and had to confront his family, who he never told of our divorce. And oh yeah, I had to deal with his dying girlfriend who was about two decades younger than he.

Somehow, I survived those months. I survived figuring out how to sell a boat that was more than 800 miles away, how to avoid being charged with trespassing and theft for taking what was lawfully mine, and dealing with credit card fraud and potential identify theft. My biggest hurdle was overcoming guilt and grief.

Buttonwood Cafe at Flamingo, Everglades National Park

Buttonwood Cafe at Flamingo, Everglades National Park

What’s Available at Flamingo in Everglades National Park?
While lodging is gone, the Flamingo Campground is still open. Journeying down to take a gander, I noticed huge solar panels outside bathrooms in the group camping area. It still provides a fantastic view of Florida Bay and best of all, I didn’t find a single mosquito while standing in the grass.

Dining is still limited but improved, even from when I was there. Although the Flamingo Restaurant is still closed, the Buttonwood Cafe located beneath the restaurant is serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. I got a kick out of the food truck which is where the cook prepared food. Menu items included hamburgers, grouper sandwich, crab cakes and Flamingo fries -which they were out of.

The Marina Store is open to accommodate fishermen and other visitors with the basics. I got a kick out of seeing some things that were implemented during my time at the store back in the mid-1990s. In some way, time stood still.

Canoes, kayaks and boat tours over Florida Bay and into the Everglades Backcountry are still offered along with fuel – all at the marina. There were also several fishermen that day.

Tarpon and Goliath Grouper Once in Flamingo Restaurant Lounge Now in Flamingo Visitor Center

Tarpon and Goliath Grouper Once in Flamingo Restaurant Lounge Now in Flamingo Visitor Center

The National Park Service Flamingo Visitor Center was open but it’s not staffed this time of year. If you ever sipped a rum runner or other adult beverage in the Flamingo Restaurant Lounge and admired the giant fish on the wall, know they are in the good hands of the National Park Service. Stop into the Flamingo Visitor Center to say hello to the goliath grouper, tarpon and hammerhead shark that now adorn the center’s walls.

And can’t forget the new paint job. I was so used to government-issued brown, I’m not sure what to think of flamingo pink draping the primary buildings.

Yeah, this will sound trite but returning to Flamingo this trip provided comforting closure. A new company is running the show and new faces were there to greet me. Flamingo Lodge and its cabins are gone and the land it sat is being returned to Mother Nature. Life is moving forward in Flamingo, just like my life is slowly moving in the same direction.

Planning Your Visit
Flamingo is located 38 miles from the Main Everglades National Park entrance and is located about an hour from Homestead and about 90-minute drive southwest of Miami. The current entrance fee is $10 a car, valid for a week.

Everglades National Park Boat Tours operates concessions at Flamingo, including dining, retail and activities. Visit their website (evergladesnationalparkboattoursflamingo.com) for a complete list of services.

Video: Return to Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park

Author: Solo Travel Girl

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., a hiking trail led Jennifer Huber, aka: Solo Travel Girl, to a career path in tourism. She has worked in the tourism industry for more than 20 years including 10 years with a park management company in Yellowstone, Death Valley and Everglades National Park. She currently lives in Southwest Florida, and maintains this travel blog with the goal of inspiring others to travel alone, not lonely.

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4 Comments

  1. Jennifer,
    Interesting going down memory lane is both satisfying and challenging. Glad you had a chance to revisit. Would love to hear more of the story. Thank you for sharing.
    Eileen

  2. Thanks, Eileen.

    It’s quite the interesting tale – was hoping to write a book about the experience, I have an outline – just need to do it!

  3. I worked in the upstairs restaurant during two winter seasons, and the last time I was in Flamingo was 1999. Funny how life has a way of carrying on, and I had not thought about Flamingo as a physical place that might be different than it was almost 15 years ago. The thought that a place I lived in and met so many great people being destroyed by hurricanes is not surprising giving its location, and yet its still shocking all the same.

  4. I cannot thank you enough for your posts. This means more to me than I could possibly tell you. Although my time working in the cafe/gift shop was comparatively short(summer ’65), the memories are vibrant.

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