The last time you were in southeastern Florida, did you know that you were exploring either in, or near to, one of the National Parks System’s most precious gems? Biscayne National Park is located in the waters that stretch from the Florida Keys up to South Beach—Miami’s most flashy locale.
South Beach is not exactly the kind of place you’d imagine to set out from on a National Park adventure, but it is exactly where to go to launch to one of the parks’ most iconic, special places with the top operator in the area. The place: Stiltsville. The company: Ocean Force Adventures. Both were so incredibly special that we thought they’d earned a special spot on this page.
The collection of colorful and battered buildings at Stiltsville, a small community of houses built on Stilts as the name suggests, lives in the shallows on the northern end of Biscayne National Park.
The first house was built in the 1920s by a well-known fisherman named Crawfish Edie. His brilliance caught on and other houses popped up shortly thereafter, quickly turning the area into a Prohibition-era stopover for rum purchased in the Bahamas on its way to the United States. In the 1930s, a community of squatters took hold of the houses, and then commenced the heyday of shipwrecking, when pirates would dim the nearby Cape Florida Lighthouse causing ships full of booze to wreck on the shores… presenting a perfect opportunity for looting. The 1950s brought gambling, legal booze, money, private clubs, party huts—it was the American Dream, Miami-style. Eventually, Stiltsville became the South Beach of its day—the “anybody who is anybody” place to be seen.
At one time, there were 27 houses. Today, only seven houses—all vacant—remain, the rest being demolished by fires and hurricanes over time. The houses at Stiltsville are owned by Biscayne National Park. Family of original deed owners have access to the houses on weekends, but are not allowed to make any major renovations other than basic upkeep to ensure historic value is maintained. For the rest of us, there are boat tours to take us there.
What made the experience aboard Ocean Force exceptional is the relatively small, 6-passenger high performance Zodiac; the captain’s willingness to brave choppy waters while maintaining speed (I love a little adventure with my adventure), his knowledge of the area and its history, and the diversity of the locations visited while on the boat ride—we were among uber-mansions one minute, and spotting dolphins porpoising on vast protected waters the next. A guided excursion could take you to the most spectacular place on Earth, but it is the operator who really makes the memory. Feeling safe, having great photography ops, learning the legends and backstory, and finding hidden pockets to explore—these are the nuances of guiding that that set great companies apart.