By WARREN RESEN, NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Assn.)
JEANNE O’CONNOR, Photographer
Sleeping in a modified Seminole chickee and listening to the night sounds of ’gators, birds and other unidentifiable critters in the swamps of southern Hendry County is something very special for a city dweller.
The Big Cypress Seminole Reservation sprawls over Hendry County’s southern border and has two unique visitor attractions that are worthy of a visit: the world class Seminole Ah-Tha-Thi-Ki Museum and the ever popular Billie Swamp Safari.
These two attractions are on the same road inside the reservation and the museum is the first one you will pass. The Seminole Tribe didn’t scrimp on showcasing its history. Stop and spend some quality time here. It will make your visit to 2,200 acre Billie Swamp Safari even more enjoyable.
Inside the museum’s main building visitors begin their tour with an excellent multi-screen move presentation about the tribe and its history, past and present. When the lights come up, it’s time to move to the exhibits. The dioramas of Seminole life, artifacts and inter-active screens make it an interesting experience for everyone.
Behind the main building is a one-mile boardwalk through a cypress dome. It is one of the best maintained and well designed boardwalk tours I’ve ever experienced. But it’s not just trees, water and hopefully animals you will experience on the boardwalk. There is what the museum calls a Living Village where Seminole Tribal members demonstrate traditional craft making. After this learning experience it’s off to Billie Swamp Safari for fun, and even more learning experiences.
Billie Swamp Safari is just down the road, three miles west of the museum. The signage is good and you can’t miss the entrance, but do observe the speed limit. The reservation is patrolled by its own police force and they don’t take kindly to speeders.
The first stop will be the information/ticket counter/gift shop to get oriented and have your questions answered. Visitors do not have to buy tickets to wander the grounds or eat in the Swamp Water Café but will need tickets for swamp buggy and air boat rides and the special presentations.
This is not an artificial theme park. The wildlife is real and move to their own schedules. But there is a lot of wildlife here and going out in the swamp buggy or airboat will bring you face to face with the inhabitants. Many animals are exotic imports, like the Asian water buffalo, but no less impressive. Some of the native wildlife, like the bison will be a surprise to many. Bison are native to Florida.
An admission will get you a ride on a swamp buggy eco-tour adventure, an airboat ride and entry to the many interpretative lectures given throughout the day. Swamp buggy tours leave on the hour and airboats every half hour throughout the day. In a swamp buggy, visitors travel high above wet prairies, through woods, cypress domes and hardwood hammocks observing wildlife in their native habitats, and there is lots of wildlife to be seen.
The airboat ride was unlike any other I’ve ever experienced. It was more like being part of an exhilarating chase scene in a Burt Reynolds movie than a typical slow speed nature tour. But we did stop to get up close to ‘gators and other animals. There is an optional evening swamp buggy that will add to your experience.
For visitors, a Reptile Show and Swamp Critter & Birds of Prey Show are scheduled several times during the day. The operators of Billie Swamp Safari like to say that these shows, “combine entertainment and education and feature many critters of the swamp and reptiles on an up close and personal level.”
Our overnight stay in a modified Seminole chickee is an experience we will long remember. A Seminole chickee is a raised platform open on all sides and covered by a thatched roof. For tourists to Billie Swamp Safari there is a slight modification.
Walls are added and the widows are screens. There is no electric or running water. The posts supporting the chickees are set into the water. Cots and blankets are supplied otherwise it’s like tent camping.
There are no street lights so when the sun sets, it’s a perfect setting to see the night sky without light pollution. Night noises of the swamp and surrounding woods lull you to sleep. Early morning birds calls will wake you gently. No ringing alarm clocks needed here. Then it’s off to the Swamp Water Café for breakfast.
The easiest way to find the location is to get off I-75 at exit 49 and then go north for 19 miles to the park entrance. The mailing address is Clewiston but it’s way south of the city. For more information about these two attractions including prices and times of operation, please go to their Internet pages.