Traveling sustainably means exploring your destination without harming the natural environment, whether it be by driving an electric car, supporting local conservation groups, or dining at establishments committed to using locally sourced ingredients. In southern Florida, the sustainable travel opportunities are enough to build a trip around.
The Sunshine State is currently taking advantage of those powerful rays and paving the way for a brighter future. In Florida, you’ll find the first and only solar-powered town, Babcock Ranch, a 18,000-acre planned community near Fort Myers. The state also ranks third in the United States when it comes to the number of electric vehicles on the road.
I’d wanted to visit Babcock Ranch ever since learning about it a year ago, and in January, I finally headed south to see this one-of-a-kind town on an eco-friendly road trip with a friend. With support from Chevy, which supplied a brand-new, electric Chevy Bolt EV for the trip, we set out on a sustainable drive through southern Florida: from Naples to Miami, with Babcock Ranch as our centerpiece.
Here’s how we spent 24 sustainable hours in southern Florida, starting at 12pm on our first day:
More on the Chevy Bolt EV: The award-winning Bolt boasts a 259-mile range on a single charge, longer than most electric cars on the road today. It comes with features like RoD (Regen on Demand) one-pedal driving that conserves energy, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, Wi-Fi connectivity, AVAS (Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System), and rear vision and surround vision cameras. Inside, the large, color touch-screen shares real-time information on the battery level and estimated range. It also displays apps like Google Maps from your phone.
Tour Babcock Ranch
Leaving Hyatt House Naples (from $127/night), a GreenLeaders Silver Medal hotel in Naples, around 11am brought us to Babcock Ranch to meet with Syd Kitson, owner of the eco-centric town. Kitson, a former professional football player for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, wanted to live sustainably in Florida. His vision came to fruition when he partnered with the State of Florida to preserve and protect land and create the first solar-powered town. Babcock Ranch is built on a formerly impacted pasture and rock-mined land. The neighboring 73,000-acre Babcock Ranch Preserve, sold to Florida as part of the deal in 2006, remains the largest land preservation deal in the state.
This master-planned community consists of 18,000 acres of housing and commercial development, including a school, daycare facility, restaurants, medical offices, hiking trails, and recreational activities. All of the buildings rely on power generated at the solar field owned by Florida Power & Light (FPL) and built on donated land north of the town. Spreading as far as the eye could see, the solar field spans more than 880 acres and consists of thousands of panels. Power generated by PV cells on rooftops and solar trees adjacent to the town’s main hub (Founder’s Square) and parks also contributes to the energy consumed in the community.
Houses at Babcock Ranch are built sustainably. Native trees and shrubs are used for a majority of the landscaping, which is irrigated with water reclaimed from the onsite water and wastewater utility; community gardens provide fresh produce to residents. The future is now at Babcock Ranch.
Lunch at Table & Tap in Babcock Ranch
When lunchtime came, it was easy to choose a restaurant. Babcock’s first restaurant, Table & Tap, boasts fresh, farm-to-table cuisine. With indoor and outdoor seating, a warm and bright space with large windows overlooking the sparkling Lake Babcock, the restaurant was inviting.
My friend and I feasted on delicious dishes, starting with a soup with seasonal vegetables and fried goat cheese orbs with a side of honey from nearby Wonderful Bees. We enjoyed vegan jambalaya and an Impossible burger for our main courses. Table & Tap incorporates herbs, spices and vegetables grown at the Babcock Ranch farm into the dishes whenever possible.
Recreational activities at Babcock Ranch
Babcock Ranch welcomes visitors to experience the town’s recreational activities, tour the property, and see the model homes. After lunch, while my friend opted for a leisurely bike ride through Curry Creek Outfitters, I set out on an electric boat ride on man-made Babcock Lake.
Although the electric car had plenty of charge left, I plugged it in at a complimentary Florida Power & Light (FPL) charging station near Founder’s Square. On our way out, we stopped by the massive solar field, and left the ranch feeling invigorated by both the ingenuity and dedication to sustainable living at Babcock.
Visit to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been advocating for the protection of the natural resources and wildlife of southwest Florida for more than 50 years. It’s considered among the most respected environmental organizations in the state. During a visit at the 21-acre Conservancy, which houses the headquarters, Nature Center, and the von Arx Wildlife Hospital, we learned about the animals and their magnificent mangrove, beach and Everglades habitats.
The Conservancy’s Dalton Discovery Center has exhibits on the animals and plants that call the region home, along with some of their animals like a baby loggerhead sea turtle named “NIN,” who acts as an ambassador for the Conservancy’s Florida Sea Turtle Monitoring and Protection Program. The center also has an interactive touch tank and a 5,000-gallon patch-reef aquarium, making it a fun, family-friendly destination.
Among the most popular activities at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida is an electric boat ride. We weren’t able to go ourselves, but if you have the time, don’t miss a chance to take a 45-minute cruise on an electricity-powered boat down the Gordon River during your visit. Those wanting a bit more exercise, meanwhile, can take a guided kayak tour through the mangrove estuary launching from the Allyn Family Lagoon. At neighboring Smith Preserve, a major land management project embarked on by the conservancy, you can spot wildlife including tortoises, raptors and butterflies.
Back to Naples for dinner and rest
The Local is Naples’s first farm- and sea-to-table restaurant, serving fresh and nourishing meals made with ingredients from regional fishermen, farmers and ranchers who practice sustainability. The Local has a cozy wine bar and beers from local breweries, and it offers dishes like “Shrimp Mango & Avocado Salad,” “Vegan Korean Lettuce Cups,” “Zucchini Pasta,” and “Sauteed Snapper Piccata.” Dining here after a long day of driving and exploring was filling and hearty. After, we returned to the Hyatt House Naples to sleep.
— The next day —
Road trip through the Everglades to Miami
With a full car battery—courtesy of the charging stations at the Hyatt House Naples—we started our two-and-a-half-hour, 125-mile trip across the state to Miami. We filled up our Swell reusable water bottles (they keep water cool for up to 24 hours and are helpful on long road trips), packed up our luggage in the 16.9 cubic feet of cargo space, and hooked up one of our iPhones to CarPlay for navigation and Spotify.
We drove through gorgeous Everglades landscapes, taking a short break at a rest stop to stretch and watch locals fishing in a canal next to the mangroves. The closer we got to Miami, the worse the traffic became, but the opportunity allowed me to use the our car’s one-pedal driving: a system that regenerates energy whenever using the gas pedal to slow down (and even stop) in Low mode.
Pizza-making class at Malibu Farm
Tucked behind the massive Eden Roc Miami Beach hotel, the breezy oceanfront Malibu Farm is an outpost of Helene Henderson’s California restaurant. Known for its farm-to-table fine dining, incorporating fresh, organic and locally sourced products in its delectable dishes, this South Florida gem sure attracts a crowd.
But we weren’t there to just dine; we’d signed up for a pizza-making class for an oven-to-table experience. In a private, airy room with panoramic views of the Atlantic, my friend and I joined the class, learning how to knead dough, adding just the right amount of tomato sauce, and choosing our favored vegetables from a beautiful display on the table. We drank fresh watermelon juice as we awaited our pizzas and savored every bit of the fresh-out-of-the-oven slices created with our own hands.
Back to the airport…
From Miami, we headed off to Miami International Airport in the afternoon after an exciting, encouraging and filling 24 hours living sustainably in southern Florida.