The thirty seconds it takes to drive over the Jolley bridge onto Marco Island has always been to me like cross-ing over into another world. Not only because Marco is a community like no other, but also because Marco is the gateway to the wonderful world of the Everglades. Those of us who are lucky enough to have lived here for many years can sometimes take for granted our unique and beautiful surroundings. But when I spent an afternoon with Vantastic Tours, they gave me a different perspective on an area I thought I knew like the back of my hand. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride... We started our adventure by taking a quick tour of Marco in Vantastic Tours' comfortable air- conditioned van. Our guide pointed out highlights of the island and its distinctive wildlife and talked a little about its history, including the early settlers to the area - the Calusa and Seminole Indians. Our fi rst stop was the top of the Goodland bridge, where we took a few minutes to look south over the 10,000 Islands and learned that the surrounding mangrove islands and es-tuaries are part of the Rookery Bay Preserve. Before we had gone too far our eagle- eyed guide spotted the tell- tale " foot-print" of a West- Indian manatee in the canal to our right. It would have been so easy to pass by the gentle giant, but he knew just what he was looking for and he proceeded to tell us some interesting facts about this endangered creature. As we headed further into the Everglades our next stop was at the Fakahatchee State Preserve where we took a leisurely walk down the boardwalk. Our guide would stop and show us various points of inter-est and explain how the fragile eco system works, especially with the feast or famine rain cycle in south Florida. As we followed the curving boardwalk there was so much to look at on every side that I didn't even notice we had reached the end of the walkway until a fellow traveler took a big gasp at the sight in front of her. We had reached a watering hole where two very large alligators were sunning themselves on the bank. They kept very still, evidently hoping to blend into the mud so they could surprise their next meal.
Adrenaline pumping... Next we drove through Everglades City, which is a fascinating place. From small fi shing huts to homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, this quaint fi shing village was once the home of the Collier County Government, until Hurricane Donna ripped through in 1960. As we traveled through this peaceful community in our comfortable van we had no idea the adrenaline rush we were about to have when we stepped onto the airboat. The 6- person airboat was high above the water, enabling us to see in all directions as we sped through the open water of the fl ats and through the narrow passageways between the mangrove islands. Seconds later we were out in a peaceful lagoon with the wind fl owing through our hair. The captain maneuvered the airboat so smoothly, that I was surprised when he quickly slowed down. Though I didn't see it right away, the captain had spotted two eyes, a snout and the swishing tail of an eight-foot alligator about 30 feet ahead. As we snapped away with our cameras, the creature moved very smoothly around showing off his powerful body, posing for the camera almost touching the boat. I moved back to my seat when the Captain told us that he could jump straight out of the water at least half his length! Hands on learning... Just when we thought we had seen it all, it was now time to get up close and personal with some of the Everglades' most famous and long standing residents.... Our next stop was the Animal Habitat Center located in the Big Cypress National Preserve, where they adopt and care for any resident of the everglades that is in need of a home. Here we met and got to hold Garfi eld, a 16 month old alligator, and several native snakes and our guide explained each of the reptiles' characteristics that aid in their survival. The Everglades National Park is so large, encompassing state and national preserves and parks, to see everything the area has to offer in one trip would be very diffi cult, but our Everglades Adventure with Vantastic Tours gave us a tantalizing taste of this complex ecosystem. So maybe next time you drive over that bridge onto Marco Island, slow down for a moment, look south at the 10,000 Islands and into the Everglades and remember how lucky we are to live in, or even visit, this beautiful and unique part of the world. I know I will. Call 239- 394- 7699 for more information or reservations or visit www. vantastictours. com