Last updated on December 21st, 2019 at 07:55 pm
Folks love Stiltsville – it captures our imagination and it always has.
From tales of gambling and debauchery in the 1930s to ‘60s, to appearances on Miami Vice in the ‘80s to mentions in Carl Hiaassen novels, Stiltsville has represented the wild, cool and kooky side of Miami.
The seven remaining houses, built on stilts in Biscayne Bay a mile from land in Miami, are now part of Biscayne National Park and are hard to see except from a boat.
Fortunately, Biscayne National Park and its new partner Biscayne National Park Institute, have begun regular historic sightseeing trips by boat, with a well-informed and entertaining guide.
The boat trips are three hours long and are offered every other Sunday. Tickets are $56 and include entrance to the very worth-visiting Deering Estate, which is normally a $15 admission.
Stiltsville: The story (and the myth)
The first houses in Stiltsville were boats purposely run aground in the shallow sea grass in the 1930s. At the first of these “Crawfish Eddie Walker” sold bait, beer and chowder from his shack, which has been gone for almost 70 years, thanks to a 1950 hurricane.
Other buildings followed and, at the peak of activity in 1960, there were 27. During those mid-century years, Stiltsville got its rowdiest reputation, and you have to wonder what was true what was hype. The famous example was the Bikini Club, where alcohol flowed and women in bikinis drank free – or so the story goes. The club was raided in 1965 for lacking a liquor license and was destroyed by Hurricane Betsy and a fire in 1966. And still, feature stories about the Bikini Club continued, years after it was gone.
Some Stiltsville homes were and continue to be weekend getaways and fishing shacks, often for prominent Miami figures. (Governor Leroy Collins was a frequent visitor.)
When the National Park Service area expanded to include the remaining Stiltsville buildings in 1980, existing leases on the buildings in Stiltsville were honored. When they expired in 1999, however, the park service planned to remove the seven Stiltsville buildings that had survived Hurricane Andrew to return the national park to its natural state. (A more detailed history is at StiltsvilleTrust.org )
Miami rallied to “Save Stiltsville” with thousands signing petitions. The park service reversed its decision and today the seven buildings can remain as long as they survive as safe structures. If a house is more than 50 percent destroyed by a hurricane or fire, it will be removed.
Seeing Stiltsville on a boat tour
For years, Biscayne National Park offered no way to see Stiltsville and, if you didn’t own a boat, the best you could do was peer through binoculars from the Cape Florida Lighthouse on the tip of Key Biscayne.
In the last year, however, the non-profit Biscayne National Park Institute began tours, which recently started leaving from a perfect location – the Deering Estate in south Miami.
The tours, offered every other Sunday, are on a covered boat with a bathroom. A well-trained volunteer guide provides extensive background and history of not only Stiltsville, but of Biscayne Bay. (I never knew Ponce De Leon sailed through Biscayne Bay!) Our guide, Certified Florida Master Naturalist Mike Cugno , a Miami native, added his own lifetime experiences paddling, snorkeling and boating on the bay.
The three-hour tour takes you close to the Cape Florida Lighthouse and all seven of the Stiltsville houses. In the distance, you can see the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse and Soldier Key, a tiny island that unbelievably was the site of Henry Flagler’s Soldier Key Club in 1904.
All the while, your view includes postcard-worthy vistas of the Miami skyline in the distance.
The Stiltsville houses are not clustered closely together. Some look almost abandoned, with rotting wood and peeling paint. Others are clearly prized and cared for, like the home leased by Miami Springs Powerboat Club, which has docks for many boats and is in excellent condition.
The idea of Stiltsville may be better than the reality of it – with no AC and rudimentary facilities, staying there is probably like camping.
Still, with the vast and spectacular clouds and the Caribbean blue water all around, it’s easy to see why we’re still fascinated by Stiltsville.
Details of the Stiltsville boat tour
I recommend you come early and spend a few hours touring the two historic houses that were home from 1922 to 1927 of Charles Deering, the art- and nature-loving industrialist who was chairman of International Harvester. (His half-brother, millionaire industrialist James Deering, built Vizcaya, the Mediterranean palace and gardens also overlooking Biscayne Bay, which is far better known as a Miami landmark.) Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Deering Estate.
Deering Estate is a great place for a picnic before the boat trip, but you are also welcome to bring food and beverages on the boat.
At three hours, the leisurely paced tour may tax the patience of children. Its focus is on history and nature. You may get lucky and see dolphins and birds. We saw manatees at the Deering boat basin both as we left and when we returned, and this was in June – not prime manatee viewing time.
Even on a summer day when land temperatures hit 88, the boat tour was pleasant because of the sea breeze and movement of the boat.
Most of the seating is in the shade, but there are some full-sun seats. If shade is a concern, arrive a little early to make sure you don’t end up there. On our tour, the folks who sat there wanted the sun.
Other Stiltsville tours
A daily alternative to this boat tour is offered by Ocean Force Adventures, which operates out of Miami Beach Marina and primarily serves visitors staying in nearby hotels. At $150 per person, this tour is a small group excursion (six people on a 30-foot Zodiac) that covers a variety of waterfront sites in Miami including Stiltsville, which owner Kim Falconer calls “the star” of the tour.
Visiting a Stiltsville house
All seven of the hours have “no trespassing” signs with a $5,000 fine listed. (However, we saw several houses where boaters seemed to be trespassing.)
As public facilities, two of the Stiltsville houses in better condition are available for “public events.” In the past, owners of the leases have allowed youth groups to visit. Here’s info on public access. (Don’t expect this to be easy.)
- Biscayne National Park Institute boat tours, including Stiltsville
- Biscayne National Park official site
- Florida Rambler guide to Biscayne National Park boat trips
- Deering Estate official site
- Florida Rambler on Deering Estate
- Biscayne National Park trips to snorkel a shipwreck.
Things to do near Biscayne National Park
- If you’re driving to Biscayne National Park, you may want to keep going to explore the Florida Keys. Our Florida Keys mile-marker guide is an ideal companion to a roadtrip.
- Everglades National Park is 20 minutes away. Here are our tips for visiting Everglades National Park. In winter, a free trolley connects the two national parks and the city of Homestead.
- Robert is Here is a great stop in Homestead for milkshakes (key lime passion fruit!) plus exotic fruit and variety of farm animals.
- Drive down scenic Card Sound Road and discover Alabama Jack’s, a classic Keys tiki bar known for its conch fritters.
- An attraction that belongs on the Florida funky hall of fame: Coral Castle Museum, is minutes away.