Just a few minutes by boat from Miami Beach lies an unusual kind of national park. Beyond the seascape of turquoise water for as far as the eye can see, its ample natural and man-made treasures – the coral reefs, mangrove swamps, shipwrecks and curious remains of human habitation – aren’t immediately apparent. That’s because ninety-five percent of its 172,000 protected acres are found beneath the waves, making Biscayne National Park the largest marine park in the national system.
Located at the northern tip of the Florida Keys, it is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, offering exceptional opportunities for scuba diving, snorkeling, paddling and wildlife viewing.
WHAT TO SEE
Flanking Biscayne Bay near the park entrance at Convoy Point, clusters of salt-tolerant mangroves weave their way in and out of the water, a tangle of exotic leafy green trees. This shoreline is one of the longest continual stretches of mangroves on Florida’s east coast. It is a key breeding ground for tropical coastal birds and spawning grounds for 70% of the area’s commercially important fish.
One of the best ways to experience the mangroves is by a guided kayak or canoe trip along the coast. At Jones Lagoon paddlers are likely to see manatees, dolphins, stingrays, upside-down jellyfish and even young nurse sharks. Hurricane Creek offers excellent snorkelling beneath the mangroves. Experienced paddlers can make the seven-mile crossing to Elliott Key.
The coral reefs
The third largest coral reef in the world, the Florida Reef, begins in Biscayne National Park at Fowey Rocks, extends east of Soldier Key and continues 170 miles south to the Marquesas Keys. It is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. The park’s reefs are approximately 10 miles from the mainland and require boat access.
Tiny coral animals, called polyps, obtain calcium from seawater and use it to manufacture cup-like limestone skeletons around themselves. Generations of polyps creating adjoining cups result in fantastically shaped colonies that take on the appearance of flowers, mountains, and animal antlers. When colonies of various species occur in close proximity, they create the living fortresses we call reefs.
The shallow waters of Biscayne Bay have been a problem for local mariners but a boon for local divers. The park’s Maritime Heritage Trail consists of six shipwrecks: Arratoon Apcar; Fowey Rocks Lighthouse; Eri King; Alicia; Lugano; Mandalay; and a 19th century wooden sailing vessel. The Eri King, Alicia and Lugano require scuba equipment while the other sites can by enjoyed by snorkellers. Mandalay is a particular favourite for snorkelers; it’s like being in your own private aquarium.
Many people harbour the fantasy of living in a house on stilts in the middle of a tropical bay. In Biscayne Bay, seven buildings out of Stiltsville’s legendary 27 have survived fires, exposure and tornadoes, including 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. In the 1930’s local character Crawfish Eddie Walker built the first shack on stilts and, as the community grew, so did the stories of illegal alcohol and gambling within its private ‘clubs.’ What the police didn’t shut down, nature mostly carried away. Sunset is prime time for photo opps.
The park’s entrance at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center is located at Convoy Point, about an hour’s drive from Miami or less than 20 minutes by water taxi or charter. Here are the boat concessioners, a museum, and a one-quarter mile Jetty Trail. Just south of the visitor centre is Homestead Bayfront Park featuring a protected swimming area. Otherwise, there are no beaches in the Florida Keys and the best snorkelling experiences are found several miles offshore, away from the shallow waters immediately surrounding the welcome centre. Guests are dependent on boats and kayaks/canoes to explore the park beyond Convoy Point and will want to make arrangements in advance of arrival. See the Biscayne National Park website for more information.
GETTING AROUND INSIDE THE PARK
The Pelican Skipper – Guided boat tours
A 45-foot power catamaran guided by park rangers which explore the scenic ecosystems of the park. Tours last three hours and include opportunities to explore scenic Boca Chia Key and the park’s iconic and historic lighthouse. To book contact the Florida National Parks Association at (786) 335-3644
Island Dream Sailing – Full-day sailing trips
This guided six-hour trip include opportunities for sailing, swimming, snorkelling, island hiking, kayaking or paddle boarding in the park. Book at www.BiscayneNationalParkSailing.com or by calling (561) 281-2689; tours are available throughout the year
Short and full-day guided paddles are available and are usually free. To book contact the Florida National Parks Association at (786) 335-3644.
Other Snorkelling/Scuba Charters
For a list of those authorized to operate tours or taxis inside the park, please see the following list of commercial use authorizations.
Our Luxury Hotel Consultants Recommend:
The outstanding service and serene, Asian-inspired atmosphere at The Setai, Miami Beach attracts an affluent clientele of jetsetters and sophisticated travelers. If you are looking to stay close to South Beach’s energetic scene while enjoying all the luxuries of an elegant, world-class resort, look no further. With full beach service, exquisite restaurant choices, three azure pools, and a world-renowned Collins Avenue location, The Setai, Miami Beach is an obvious choice.
Halfway between the non-stop action of South Beach and the tourist hot spot Fort Lauderdale, is Acqualina Resort and Spa. A stunning resort experience in the upscale area of Sunny Isles, this romantic retreat lies on the shores of the Atlantic. This luxury property has the sophistication of a Mediterranean villa, and provides guests with amenities that cater to every desire.
Originally built in 1939, Royal Palm South Beach has been an institution in South Beach for over seven decades. The Art Deco hotel sizzled during the 1950’s heydays then like much of the city, it sat abandoned after hard times hit Miami until it was rebuilt and restored back to its elegant state in the mid-nineties. Royal Palm South Beach today emits the same grace it once did, and provides guests with a warm and welcoming stay. Decorated with an ocean-themed palette, the fresh and modern rooms feature modern and convenient amenities, beautifully restored wooden fixtures, a one-of-a-kind curated art collection, and spectacular ocean or cityscape views.
Tags:Biscayne Bay, Biscayne National Park, Convoy Point, coral reef, Crawfish Eddie Walker, Dante Fascell Visitor Center, day trip, Elliott Key, Eri King, Fowey Rocks, Homestead, Island Dream Sailing, mangrove forest, mangroves, Marine Park, Miami, Miami Beach, pirates, reefs, scuba diving, shipwrecks, snorkelling, South Beach, Stiltsville, The Pelican Skipper, U.S. National Park