Local boat tour puts Miami’s history on display

08/19/2014 10:31 AM

08/19/2014 10:23 PM

Biscayne Bay is known for its bottlenose dolphins and manatees, but it has more than just sea mammals as its claim to fame. The calm, crystalline waters of the bay are also rich in local lore.

HistoryMiami and Miami-Dade Parks’ EcoAdventures program have partnered for the first time to navigate both the bay’s turquoise waters and its history in an educational boat tour. With a local historian and an ecological expert at the helm, a pontoon skipper boat will set out into the bay for a different type of Sunday morning boating excursion on Aug. 31.

As the boat sails around the bay, the outing will give guests the opportunity to sit back and learn, sans walls.

Cape Florida Lighthouse, Virginia Key and the Miami skyline are just a few of the places the tour will cover. HistoryMiami resident historian Paul George will lead the tour. George has led walking and bike tours all around South Florida, but says boat tours provide an exceptional way to improve one’s understanding of history.

“A boat is one of the greatest vantage points to learn history,” George said. “You are skirting around areas and you are able to touch on a lot of different stuff.”

George plans to delve into the many layers of Miami’s history from its early days with the Tequesta Native Americans to the development of the port of Miami.

“There is a bottomless amount of stories that will come out of the trip,” George said.

The tour will also give guests access to some of Miami’s more-isolated destinations. About a mile off Key Biscayne’s shores stands a grouping of cottages perched above the bay on stilts. Once a hard-partying enclave, the community known as Stiltsville has its roots in the days of prohibition.

George says the stilt homes, which date from the 1920s, have hosted debauchery from social clubs to the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s bachelor party.

But Stiltsville has since seen its share of damage over the years because many of the homes were not able to weather South Florida’s tropical storms. More than two dozen of the homes existed during Stiltsville’s heyday in the 1960s, but only seven remain.

Biscayne National Park now owns the once-private homes, which stand about 10 feet above the water on wooden pilings. Some have verandas and boat docks.

“These homes are not very accessible to many people,” said Griselda Chavarria, HistoryMiami city tours manager. “It is a great opportunity to check out these last remaining homes and Biscayne Bay.”

Intertwined throughout Miami’s story is the role the ecosystem has played in the city’s development. To share the ecological aspects of Miami history, a park specialist will be on board during the tour.

“We will be focusing on the environmental conditions of the bay and what the future holds,” said Ernie Lynk, Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation specialist supervisor. “We will also talk about the impact people have had in the last 100 years to significantly alter that dynamic.”

Conservation, sea level rise and water quality are some of the topics the parks department plans to address on the tour. Lynk says the tour will also discuss the threats to the area’s sustainability, and ways to help conservation efforts.

“We will talk about the immediate challenges that face us, and there will be good news as well,” Lynk said. “It won’t just be the sky is falling. There are some success stories in recent years.”

And if guests are lucky, they may glimpse more than Biscayne Bay’s awe-inspiring seascape.

“It is very common when you’re out in the bay to see dolphins, manatees and other wildlife,” Chavarria said.

For that reason, she says, “You can’t go by a script.”

If you go

When: 9 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Aug. 31

Where: Meet at Bayside Marketplace, 401 Biscayne Blvd.

Cost: $44 for HistoryMiami members; $54 for nonmembers; $25 for children ages 12 and younger. Tickets can be purchased online at historymiami.org.

For more information: Call 305-375-1621 or email citytours@historymiami.org

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