“No green meat!”
That was the phrase so eloquently put by my travel partner, at the suggestion of eating some frog when arriving in the Everglades. As it turned out, the frogs and the ‘gator tail were to be the better part of the Coopertown visit.
When I first visited Florida a couple of years ago, I fell victim to Memorial Day (and road-work) traffic as I returned from Key West. A snake of car lethargy that endured for almost 6 hours and left me eventually powering along the 41 with a tear and a sniffle, as I enviously viewed the now-closed airboat tours, 3 hours later than intended.
This time around, there would be no error of judgement, no sitting for an infinite crawl along a highway under a sun-roof lens, no twisted karma turning me into the ant under the magnifying glass I had tried burning as a kid. This time, I was overnighting north of Key West and getting to the airboat tour in the morning.
Highway 41 offers little shelter from the Sun and even during these cooler times in Florida, it was already burning at 10am. I couldn’t wait to feel the breeze of a boat ride. Pulling in to the small dirt and gravel patch that is a parking area, I’m immediately met with the kind of buildings and scenery that wouldn’t look out of place in a low-budget horror. I started to get that feeling – this was going to be the kind of experience I’d only seen in the movies. All the buildings looked like they were put together with whatever could be found to make a wall; the general store doubling as a mortuary for forgotten foods.
Paying the entrance fee of $20 and creaking back a small wooden gate, I’m left to wander a jungle of debris while waiting for the boat tour to start. Unmarked paths lead in multiple directions and after following the widest path, fenced-off compounds come into view, housing a few alligators. To the left is another area displaying empty bird cages with a few feathers scattered in places. I’m left to contemplate on the ultimate fate of the birds and hoping that they’re in a ‘better place’. Some people would call this rustic, some would quote songs and lines from Deliverance; whatever your leaning, it’s the kind of place that leaves you feeling like you could suddenly vanish without a trace. The kind of ambience that will have you watching House of 1000 corpses and exclaiming “Hey! I’ve been to a real place just like that!”
The boat tour taunts at the start with much promise. A deafening fan at odds with the smooth gliding of the boat skimming over saw-grass. Accelerating through a channel and toward more open plains, we stop at set points and are informed in monotone dialog of the history, wildlife and plant life of the area. The occasional yellow-bellied slider turtle is glimpsed and a handful of alligators are statuesque in the sun, off to the sides. The boat captain is tired you sense, his enthusiasm long lost to a yearning of being elsewhere. You can see it in his face, hear it in his voice, feel it in his presence. No longer is the tour fun, it’s just something to endure and in 20 minutes, we’re back at the dock with the parting words of “…all tour guides only work for tips, so your donations are greatly appreciated.” I just parted with $20 for 20 minutes ride and my wallet is staying closed.
Surprised at how good the seasoned ‘gator tail was on Cocoa Beach, I couldn’t leave Coopertown without trying the self-proclaimed “Down-home style frogs legs and gator tail,” so it was settled that one more stop was necessary, before moving on.
The restaurant has character in every corner that you’re able to direct your eyes. Is it 50’s?, 70’s?, both? It certainly looks like it hasn’t been visited in as many years. Cliché tourist hats and shirts, stuffed toys, confederate flag magnets and a collection of t-shirts next to the bathroom entrance that resembles a thrift-store row of random color. Next to the heat vent above these shirts was a box, topped with some wire mesh. On the side was written “Baby rattler – do not touch.”
The food was not a disappointment, with the tail being just as good as the last tasting; certainly the best frog I’ve had and far removed from the greasy memories I recollect from childhood. I took a few minutes to get over the fact these were whole frogs, albeit without a head and looking at a tiny frog spine does not endear one to putting such delights in the mouth. The legs had a surprising amount of delicate soft white meat however and I devoured it all, washing it down with a beer from a chilled mug.
I won’t rush back for another airboat tour but if I’m out this way again, I’ll certainly be stopping off for the unique spirit that’s found in the food and buildings. Now to leave before the smiling guy with a banjo starts calling me ‘purty’.