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Hendry County

Explore a watery wonderland of sugar, citrus and palms

Resting between the Florida Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, South Florida’s Hendry County has a reputation for sweetness.

Citrus, sugar cane and fresh vegetable farming account for more than 70 percent of the county’s land. But its two main population centers, LaBelle and Clewiston, make up for it with the kind of small-town charm that’s hard to find in the United States. LaBelle, named after the daughters of pioneer cattleman Francis A. Hendry (the “Cattle King of South Florida”), serves as Hendry County’s county seat.

A subtropical climate dominates the region year round, with mild winters complemented by sweltering and humid summer months.

Swamp Cabs and Swamp Cabbage

One of the area’s most beloved natural wonders is the Sabal palmetto, or “swamp cabbage.” The annual Swamp Cabbage Festival, held in LaBelle’s Barron Park during the last weekend of February, pays homage to this rare species of palmetto palm. The compelling plant is known by a variety of other nicknames, ranging from “Carolina palmetto” to “Sabal palm.” Although common in Cuba and the Bahamas, the swamp cabbage palm tree is only found in the United States along the south Atlantic and Gulf coastlines.

Tolerant to salt spray, hurricanes and other extreme coastal conditions, these trees can grow up to 65 feet tall, and the festival associated with them draws nearly 25,000 visitors to the events celebrated along the shores of the Caloosahatchee River. The Swamp Cabbage Festival features a parade, live entertainment, races, a rodeo and more than 100 booths of arts, crafts, food and other vendors. Lucky visitors get the opportunity to meet the current “Swamp Cabbage Queen.”

If you want to see the local flora and fauna at its best, put away the RV keys and hop on an airboat. Powered by giant fans mounted behind the vehicle occupants, these flat-bottom crafts skim across the shallow waterways with ease. Outfitters like Billie Swamp Safari offer rides across 2,200 acres of the Everglades on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, giving visitors opportunities to see buffalo, bison, alligators, wild pigs, turtles and dozens of other critters in their natural habitat. You can also launch a canoe into the river for a lazy adventure.

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Hendry County

If you prefer four wheels to fans, you can reserve a spot on a swamp buggy, a tall, brawny vehicle that trundles over boggy terrain on large tractor tires. Billie Twilight Swamp Safari offers swamp buggy Twilight Expeditions. When the stars come out, you can sit around a campfire and hear stories told by members of the Seminole Tribe.

Nearby Lake Okeechobee, referred to by locals and regulars simply as “The Lake,” holds the distinction of being Florida’s largest freshwater lake, as well as the second largest in the nation. Roughly half the size of Rhode Island, this massive body of water joins Hendry County to the nearby counties of Glades, Martin, Okeechobee and Palm Beach.

Those who have never visited Florida may still be familiar with this storied lake. It has been celebrated in song by Hank Williams Jr. and John Anderson, and it’s also appeared on the pages of several novels. While vast in area, the depth of Lake Okeechobee rivals that of a hotel swimming pool, measuring only nine feet deep on average. Visitors who wish to remain dry during their visit will appreciate the 1,300-mile Florida National Scenic Trail.

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Sugar Cane and Exotic Cranes

Known as “America’s sweetest town,” thanks to the large plantations of sugar cane that once occupied the banks of Lake Okeechobee, Clewiston is located among miles of Cypress swamp. The US Sugar Corporation, the most prevalent sugar refinery in Clewiston, remained in effect until its eventual purchase in 2008, after which point it was converted into water reservoirs for use in restoring the surrounding Everglades ecosystem.

Visitors who wish to get up close to this wetlands area can contact the Clewiston Museum for a historical tour of this unique Florida swampland, which includes a mile-long boardwalk from which indigenous wildlife and expansive marshlands can be photographed.

Beyond sweets and fruits, Hendry County is a bustling natural preserve, with several winged, migratory species moving through the area each year. Scores of bird varieties are annually spotted by participants of the annual Big “O” Birding Festival, held in March. Residents have even been known to frequently spot new species, making Hendry County a regular on the list of the Great Backyard Bird Counts’ Top 10 “Found Species” locations.

True birding enthusiasts will make the trek to Clewiston to visit Devil’s Garden Bird Park, a 7,000-acre habitat made up of prairies and wetlands. The garden is home to several tree hammocks. Elevated viewing platforms treat visitors to spectacular views of hawks, flamingos, cranes and even the occasional eagle.

Folks those seeking adventure at high altitudes should check out Skydive Spaceland-Clewiston, which has been catering to novice skydivers since 1980s. Turbine aircraft enable up to 23 thrill-seekers to jump on every flight.

If you prefer to watch others do the flying, explore the section of the Great Florida Birding trail that runs through Hendry County.

For More Information

Hendry County Tourist Development Council

863-983-7979

vwww.visithendrycounty.com

 

Florida Department of Tourism

888-735-2872

www.visitflorida.com