Flamingo Lodge, the only major lodging facility in Everglades National Park, closed in 2005 after being trashed by two powerful hurricanes in 2005. It’ll be demolished now, and assuming that enough funds can be rounded up, it’ll be replaced with a hurricane-resistant lodging complex featuring a small hotel, cottages, and eco-tents.
For nearly half a century, an eclectic collection of boaters, fishermen, birders, nature photographers, hikers, swamp-trompers, canoeists, campers, and adventuresome people (including a smattering of Europeans) has driven 38 miles southwest into Everglades National Park from the park’s main entrance, ending up at the remote community of Flamingo on Florida Bay (see the map at this site). It’s as far south as you can drive in the park.
There is an amazing variety of fun things to do at Flamingo -- even backcountry boat rides and schooner sailing cruises.
Until a few years ago, lodging was available at the two story hotel, 24 cabins, and a campground. The venerable 103-room lodge (opened in 1959) and cabins were far from luxurious, but they were affordable and served their purpose. The rooms had air conditioning, which was perhaps luxury enough in the prevailingly hot and humid summer months. Most visitors came in the cooler months, of course, to avoid the worst heat and mosquitoes.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Wilma -- the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, and the third-costliest storm in U.S. history -- ravaged Flamingo with powerful winds and a nearly ten-foot storm surge. The hotel and cabins were damaged beyond repair. The cabins are already gone, and the lodge is scheduled for demolition.
This is not to say that Flamingo lacks visitor services. Camping is available, and Flamingo’s Mission 66 visitor center, marina/boat ramp, marina store, and gas station are all open for business. Xanterra Parks & Resorts operates the Flamingo Marina and provides associated services, including canoe, kayak, and motorboat rentals.
The National Park Service is eager to restore family-style hospitality services at Flamingo. Park attendance has declined significantly since 2005, and as you can well imagine, area businesses and governments are upset about the losses of income and tax revenues associated with reduced park visitation. Sport fishermen and birders lament the loss of convenient access to some of the best angling and birding in the southern states.
Unfortunately, putting a lodging complex and related amenities in place at Flamingo can’t be done easily or quickly.
Planning for a “new and improved” Flamingo has been going on for three years now. The result is a blueprint for a major makeover designed to make the Flamingo complex smaller, greener, and more hurricane-resistant. The key elements of Plan C (the full makeover) are a 30-room hotel, two dozen cottages, and 40 “eco-tents” for use in the cooler months.
Solar power will supply most of the complex’s electrical needs, and all of the structures will be elevated (stilt-mounted) above the reach of storm surges.
It all sounds pretty good, but there’s a rub. Executing this plan will cost an estimated $20 million, including $9 million for the hotel and cottages alone. Where will all this money come from? It’s been more than 30 years now since a national park lodge was built solely with federal funds.
Park planners and the advocacy NGOs working with them are well aware that they must think creatively, forge public-private partnership, and tap private sector funding if they are to follow through with the ambitious plans for a Flamingo makeover. Some Everglades advocates hope the park will be able to tap the National Park Centennial Fund.
Assuming that a deal can be worked out soon, even the rosiest scenarios don’t have a completed lodging complex in place at Flamingo for at least three to five years.