The Best National Park You've Never Heard of Is Almost Entirely Underwater

And it's got shipwrecks, mangroves, and mermaids, probably.

Photo by Stephen Shelley
Photo by Stephen Shelley
Photo by Stephen Shelley

Some people believe Atlantis sank somewhere near the Strait of Gibraltar. Others think it’s hidden beneath the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. We say they’re all dead wrong, and that the actual location is in Florida somewhere at Biscayne National Park. Considering Florida’s reputation for being real fucking weird, this shouldn’t sound too out-there.

For starters, 95% of this national park actually sits underwater, where you’ll find all the stuff that made Florida magical long before the Magic Kingdom. Biscayne’s got shipwrecks and lighthouses, mangroves channels and pristine coral reefs, abandoned ocean villages, and vibrant wildlife (and, who knows, maybe even some mermaids). For those with strong sea legs and an eye keen for mystery, visiting this oft-overlooked, 270-square-mile ocean paradise is the ideal way to experience the aquatic beauty of South Florida.

What you need to know before you visit

About an hour south of Miami, Biscayne National Park is best accessed by car. The lone visitors center is off a nondescript country road near Homestead, so keep an eye out. If you’ve got your own boat-or a buddy who does-you can sail through the park at no cost.

Otherwise, you’ll need to book an excursion through the Biscayne National Park Institute, a nonprofit that runs eco-friendly, educational trips out to the wrecks, reefs, and mangroves. Park entrance is free, but tours are not-they run anywhere from $40 for a two-hour paddle tour to $475 for a two-day sailing/camping/kayaking extravaganza.

When to go: The cool ocean breezes keep things Florida-pleasant most of the year. That said, from mid-May to early October you run the risk of days-long thunderstorms or a hurricane blowing through. For your best shot at good weather, visit from November-April. The tradeoff is the water will be colder and trips will be a bit more crowded.

Photo courtesy of Biscayne National Park Institute
Photo courtesy of Biscayne National Park Institute
Photo courtesy of Biscayne National Park Institute

Dive coral reefs and spooky shipwrecks

South Florida’s gorgeous turquoise waters are a sight to behold-but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve gone beneath the surface. Your first stop should be the Maritime Heritage Trail, a collection of six shipwrecks that ran aground between 1878 and the mid-‘60s. Because they wrecked in shallow water, snorkelers can easily view them from the surface-along with bright coral, tropical fish, sharks, and eels.

Unlike reefs further down in the Keys, the ones near Biscayne are relatively undisturbed since scuba diving in the park has been severely limited up to this point. The Institute only recently started running two-tank dives for certified divers-a rare opportunity to see the park from deep underwater. It’ll run you about $225 a person, or $1,075 for a private trip of up to six.

Paddleboard with baby sharks

One of the coolest excursions is a paddleboarding trip through the dark, calm channels of the mangrove islands. As you glide along the black water past the creeping mangrove arms, you may well see baby blacktip and nurse sharks swimming alongside you. These smaller sharks hang out in the channels and lagoons because there’s less competition and danger from predators.

The paddle-and-snorkel excursion will also include a trip under mangroves, often in the waters off Elliot Key. You can flipper your way through the monster-like roots of these amazing plants and see the underwater labyrinth they create for fish and sharks. It’s a vantage point few people ever get of natural Florida, and one you’d be hard pressed to find-without constant threat of alligators-outside Biscayne.

Photo courtesy of Biscayne National Park Institute
Photo courtesy of Biscayne National Park Institute
Photo courtesy of Biscayne National Park Institute

Explore historic lighthouses and islands

On the island of Boca Chita, a 65-foot-tall historic lighthouse offers stunning panoramic views from the observation deck on top. Park rangers hold the key, so if none are around, you’ll have to accept the still-pretty-great views from ground level.

A short boat ride from Boca Chita takes you to Stiltsville, the remains of a community that once held 27 homes standing on stilts above the water. Hurricanes, fires, and vandalism have taken their toll on the now-abandoned site, and people are not allowed inside the structures anymore. But they’re still a strange sight and fantastic photo-op if you’re nearby. While the Institute does run excursions up this way, they’re not nearly as common as the other tours, so you may find more opportunities getting your own boat or joining a charter out of Miami.

The Institute’s overnight camping excursion to Adams Key lets you do it all-sailing, paddling, camping out under the stars, and getting a feel for the area’s history. These islands were once the property of the Jones family, one of the first Black families to settle in South Florida, who farmed pineapples and key limes here through much of the late 19th century. The successful family lived on Porgy Key, commuting to the mainland by rowboat for decades; on the tour, you’ll paddle out their family homesite. Adams Key was also home to an old-school Florida fishing club, which drew movie stars, athletes, and even a couple of presidents in its heyday. The old building is still there.

Things to eat, drink, and check out near Biscayne National Park

Toward the mainland, the city of Homestead offers the chance to explore South Florida’s agricultural side. Robert is Here is a destination fruit stand not far from Everglades National Park, with tropical fruit milkshakes Miamians drive hours for. You can also stop at Knaus Berry Farm during winter and spring to try, we swear, the absolute greatest cinnamon rolls you will ever have.

If you’ve never tried avocado wine, well, we don’t blame you. But it’s worth a shot once, and Schnebly Redland’s Winery has plenty of it. This unusual winemaker makes wines from tropical fruit, and some of their stuff might surprise you. Just across a courtyard, you’ll find the Miami Brewing Company, if you feel safer drinking beer.

Dade County is also the only county in America with two national parks within its borders, and if you want an NPS Twofer while you’re in Miami, you can reach the front entrance of Everglades National Park in about half an hour. Though you may need to make a second stop for bug spray.

Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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