Big Cypress Reservation
Back to nature—and a rich heritage.
A swamp buggy tour of the wetlands
If you’re looking for one of the most remote tourist destinations in Florida, pull out a map and point at a place roughly 45 miles south of Lake Okeechobee. Your finger will rest on the Big Cypress Reservation.
Seminoles gather for a meal under an authentic, open-air chickee hut
Big Cypress Reservation
Located near the fringes of Everglades National Park, this is perhaps the best place of all to learn about the Seminoles, the nation’s only unconquered Native American tribe. At the Smithsonian-affiliated Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, the short film We Seminoles is a sincere look at the tribe and its history. Following the movie, exhibits take you through a timeline to show how the Seminoles hunted, prepared meals, made clothing, and how they traveled and traded and celebrated. This is where you learn about their culture, their beliefs and family structure. On a nature walk behind the museum, you enter the kind of swampy woods that provided the Seminoles with shelter, food, medicine, and protection as they disappeared into the Everglades to evade soldiers intent on their capture. The trail eventually reaches a village where Seminole elders create and sell beadwork and handicrafts. A research center at the museum safeguards invaluable relics such as the manifest for captured Seminoles who were being shipped to Oklahoma following the Second Seminole War.
ELMSCHRAT/CC BY-SA 3.0
The stately Clewiston Inn
Down the road, the centerpiece of the Seminoles’ tourist industry is the Billie Swamp Safari (billieswamp.com). Reminiscent of pre-theme park roadside attractions, the experience is a wonderful glimpse into the area’s natural surroundings. Before their fortunes improved (the Seminole Nation owns most of the Hard Rock chain), wrestling alligators was one of their few sources of income. Now a part of Seminole tradition, you’ll see these demonstrations along with shows featuring venomous snakes and animals of the Everglades. From here, knowledgeable guides will take you via swift airboats and towering swamp buggies into 2,200 acres of woods and waters, pointing out the secret world within.
One last bit of travel advice. When the opportunity presents itself, talk to members of the tribe. You’ll quickly realize few people are as kind as the Seminoles, few as deservedly proud of their heritage, and few Florida destinations as enlightening as Big Cypress. floridaseminoletourism.com
There are few choices for lodging here: one designed for adventure, the other for comfort.
At Billie Swamp Safari, waterfront chickee huts are modified versions of traditional Seminole dwellings. They are screened and have beds, but no air-conditioning or plumbing (i.e. no bathroom). On the other hand, you’ll fall asleep—and then awaken—to the sound of alligators, water buffalo, and sandhill cranes just outside. billieswamp.com
A few miles from Billie Swamp, the Big Cypress RV Resort and Campground offers fully equipped cabins and paved pads for RVs.
When you’re at the Billie Swamp attraction, one of the few dining options is the full-service Swamp Water Café, the restaurant of choice for many tribal members. Casual and comfortable, it serves traditional American meals as well as Seminole favorites including catfish, frog legs, gator tail nuggets, and traditional fry bread.
Nearby, on Josie Billie Highway, is the Sweet Tooth Café, which serves typical roadside fare. Nothing fancy, but quite convenient. 863-983-4700.
Roughly 45 minutes north of the reservation on the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee, a marina run by famed angler Roland Martin can get you out on the lake, after which you can retreat to the circa 1926 Clewiston Inn. The hotel projects an Old Florida feel—especially in the Everglades Lounge, where a 360-degree mural of Florida wildlife, painted in the early 1940s by artist J. Clinton Shepherd, has been appraised in the millions.