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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Planning your visit to the Everglades:
- Florida Rambler’s guide to visiting Flamingo
- Updated for 2020: Florida Ramber insider tips for visiting Everglades National Park.
- Camping in the Everglades
- Camping and eco-tent reservations in the Everglades
- Admission has been increased at Everglades National Park and is now $30 per car with a pass good for seven days. In 2020, that fee goes up to $35 per person. As soon as you turn 62, get a senior pass. For $80, it offers lifetime admission to all national parks. Also: Take advantage of these free days in national parks. In 2020, they are Jan. 20, April 18, Aug. 25, Sept. 26 and Nov. 11.
- Do not rely on cell phones for critical communication while visiting the park. This is a large wilderness area and most cell phones won’t have service, even along the main roads. AT&T has a tower at Flamingo and park workers say service is good.
- The Everglades National Park website
- Everglades National Park map
- The Anhinga Trail
- Shark Valley entrance, with its 15 mile trail and trams ride