Eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park
The boardwalk, which is lit with small solar lights at night, links the eco-tents and restroom in Flamingo at Everglades National Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

I love Flamingo, that end-of-the-road place surrounded by Everglades National Park wilderness, where the Florida peninsula ends and Florida Bay with all its abundance of wildlife begins.

That’s why I was thrilled to learn that Flamingo would again have accommodations other than camping. Flamingo is so far from everything else that it is hard to experience it without an overnight stay, but not everybody is equipped to camp or desires to. Motel rooms and cabins were once located here, but were destroyed in Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Beginning Nov. 1, the first new accommodations in decades came to Everglades National Park — 20 new eco-tents opened in Flamingo, operated by the concessionaire at Flamingo. These 186-square-foot structures are canvas houses built on platforms with comfortable beds and linens and a small covered porch. They provide a dry, mosquito-free overnight stay with electric lights, a fan and outlets.

I was anxious to try them out and reserved an eco-tent for two nights over Thanksgiving.

Eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park
A comfy bed with linen is one of the great things about the eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park. By unzipping the canvas, the opening behind the bed (and on three of the walls) can become floor-to-ceiling screen windows. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Flamingo eco-tents: Right for some, but expensive

My review? You can’t beat the location and exceptional views. The tents are comfortable and novel places to sleep and hang out. But there are enough flaws in the arrangement that, without some changes, they will mostly appeal  to international visitors and others for whom the novelty is enough, price be damned.

Let me start with the things I loved about the eco-tents.

First, what a location! Our tent was about 50 feet from Florida Bay and we enjoyed watching the changing sky and clouds. We marveled at the bird life – vultures perching on a waterfront tree, hawks and ospreys hunting overhead and, early one morning, six bright pink roseate spoonbills flying directly over our eco-tent.

Eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park
In the morning, we woke up to this view without getting out of bed. It was one of the best things about eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

I loved the design of the eco-tents. These clever structures look like the sort of place you saw in old movies about rich people on African safaris. They feel more like portable cabins than tents.

Three sides of the structure have large canvas flaps that unzip to reveal mesh screening. With three walls essentially screens, you are open to the breeze off Florida Bay and the screens are like picture windows on three sides. We left the canvas flaps down the first night and awoke to the sherbet colors of sunrise wrapped around us in the sky as we sat in our bed.

Each eco-tent is stylishly furnished. There are director’s chairs that can be used on the porch, a fan, end tables, a dresser and some storage shelves. You can choose eco-tents with queen beds or two double beds. The interior has an upscale glamping vs. camping feel.

The tents are connected via a boardwalk with embedded solar lights, which is important, because you’ll probably be finding your way to the restroom – a central bath house – after dark.

Eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park
Sunset from the porch of our eco-tent in Flamingo at Everglades National Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

What I don’t love about the eco-tents

So what’s wrong with them?

It starts with the pricing. When I booked our eco-tent, the website listed the price as $90 a night. I thought some would find that expensive, but there would be a market for them nonetheless. Within a few days of booking our eco-tents, however, the price was raised to $150 a night. That price tag raises expectations significantly.

The central bathhouse, for example, is the existing not-new facility that has served the adjacent campground for years. It’s not large and, when we visited, it wasn’t even clean. It was also a bit of a walk from my eco-tent.

Another structural issue: The tents are built quite close together and there are no trees to provide a buffer between them. Those expansive screened windows also mean that you are in close communion with everyone staying in nearby tents. Our first night, we were the only visitors to the eco-tents and we soaked up the solitude and views; we felt like explorers who had discovered the place.

The next night, however, half the eco-tents were booked and the atmosphere changed dramatically. When a large group of friends and family celebrated together on Thanksgiving, our eco-tent was so close that we directly overlooked their outdoor party while we sat on our porch enjoying sunset. It’s strange having front-row seats to somebody else’s Thanksgiving dinner.

Eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park
Carts helped us haul our gear to your eco-tent in Flamingo at Everglades National Park, as parking is some distance away. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Eco-tents need to offer better ways to prepare meals

But the biggest issue is that in the planning of the eco-tents, little consideration appears to have been given to how people staying in them in are going to eat. You would think each tent would have a picnic table and a grill, but they do not. Instead there are few communal tables and fire rings, and not necessarily near your tent. Most are positioned some distance from the tents – several unappealingly, along the road near the rest rooms. One group of tables and a single fire ring is centrally located, and that’s the one the group used during our visit, leaving all the other patrons to go to more distant tables near the road. There wasn’t enough capacity, even with half the tents empty.

Since rules forbid cooking on your platform or in your tent, what is a visitor do? I see three options, none great:  1. Use the inconvenient communal tables and fire rings (and hope it doesn’t rain, because they are not sheltered in any way). 2. Travel 1.2 miles to the marina and buy prepared fast food at the marina store or food truck (when it opens this winter). 3. Bring cold prepared food that you can eat at your tent. Subway sandwiches anyone? And none of these solutions makes it easy to fix that essential coffee in the morning.

One of the pleasures of camping is the experience of preparing and enjoying food with your partner or group, and that needs to be addressed for the eco-tents to be appealing to visitors seeking more than novelty.

Eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park
Sunset over the eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Even with these flaws, there will be visitors for whom the eco-tents are a good choice, given the lack of alternatives.

International visitors flock to Everglades National Park and many want to both stay more than one day and avoid driving more than an hour to Homestead at night. A staff member in the camping office told me that it was not uncommon for international visitors to buy a cheap tent and sleeping bags in Homestead, camp at Flamingo and then abandon the gear rather than pack it home.

So it’s possible the eco-tents will be successful enough in the peak season just as they are.

But it would be disappointing for these long-awaited accommodations to fail to meet their great potential to serve a broader audience.

I want to love these eco-tents, but right now, I can only sort of like them.

Eco-tents in Flamingo at Everglades National Park
Sunrise from our eco-tent in Flamingo at Everglades National Park was spectacular, and we could admire it from our bed. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Thank you for this! I’ve been looking for info on the eco tents so I could have an idea of what to expect. I too was shocked when I saw the price change from $90 to $150. I felt like the $90, while expensive, was typical of lodging inside a national park. Always expensive for what you get but you are paying for the location. The $150 for an eco tent is a bit ridiculous. Thankfully I won the Instagram contest and get 2 nights for free. I will plan our meals accordingly thanks to your info and suggestions.
    I greatly appreciate all the info on Florida Rambler for planning this trip to the Everglades and other outdoor trips. Keep up the great writing!

  2. Avatar
    Laura S Friedland

    I love your description and careful assessment of the pros and cons of the tents, and your appreciation of the wildlife.

  3. Avatar
    tim mcdonald

    Eco-tents for $150 a night! Wow what a deal! Gee should I stay there or at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami? I guess at the Ritz you have your own bathroom.

    Kudos to the author for pointing out – or at least alluding to – the lunacy of the ridiculous pricing. Is this really a state park? I mean, seriously?

    Are they trying to draw Arab Shieks to the Everglades? Does Trump own this place? Will there be a golf course where all the swells can frolic? I can’t stay far enough away from this joke.

  4. Avatar

    Thanks for this. I hadn’t heard of this new development. I did read that many of the hiking trails in the flamingo area were not being maintained (as of fall 2019.) so I ask are there activities to pursue in the area without the need of a boat?

    On a side note am I the only person who feels that $35 is too much to charge for admission to the park?

    • Bonnie Gross
      Bonnie Gross

      Vertigo: You’re right. Several trails aren’t being maintained. We hiked Snake Bight, which isn’t being maintained and it had acceptable conditions as a hiking trail. (Incidentally, one long trail that we hiked and enjoyed inthe past, which follows the Old Ingraham Highway and had two primitive campsites, is no longer maintained or listed on the list of trails. It started near Royal Palm.) A ranger with whom we spoke talked about efforts under discussion to address the trail maintenance question.

      Is there enough to do in Flamingo? I guess I’d say no, unless you take a boat tour or rent kayaks. A shorter visit would probably still be rewarding. The visitor who is willing to do one long day could make a few stops along the park highway, spend an hour or so in Flamingo and head back out.

      As for the price of admission, it breaks my heart that national parks are pricing out many Americans. I want everyone to visit national parks not for them to be playgrounds for the rich.

      One good development, though, is the collaboration that brings FREE admission to Everglades National Park on weekends in winter via a FREE environment-friendly trolley. https://www.floridarambler.com/southeast-florida-getaways/take-trolley-for-free-entrance-to-everglades-national-park-on-winter-weekends/

  5. Avatar
    Lisette Baker

    Thank you for this review. I wonder if the eco-tents are also a part of the concessionaire business? I worry about the increase in prices when the NPS privatizes public facilities and activities.

    • Bonnie Gross
      Bonnie Gross

      The eco-tents ARE operated by a concessionaire. The National Park Service signed a contract with a large national company that operates in many parks, Guest Services, to construct both cottages and eco-tents. The contract authorized a total of 40 cottages and 40 eco-tents.

      Guest Services became the concessionaire in Flamingo about a year ago and the increase in activity at the marina with rentals, houseboats and boat tours has been remarkable.

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