Everglades City sits off the beaten path, surrounded by mangrove swamps. Life in the old-fashioned fishing village goes on at a leisurely pace 51 weeks a year.
But this weekend, the town of fewer than 500 people is shaking off its doldrums and hosting the Everglades Seafood Festival, bringing about 50,000 people down the solitary two-lane access road for one heck of a party
“It's a four-ring circus,” said Marya Repko, local author, publisher and promoter. “You have carnival rides and games, food vendors, arts and crafts, and entertainment on the big stage.
"If you want to add a fifth ring," she said, "it’s all the people who attend from as far away as Miami and Tampa.”
The Seafood Festival doesn’t so much come to Everglades City as replace it. The quiet Southern town disappears, and in its place pops up a honky-tonkin’ carnival midway.
The festival completely takes over the town, obscuring all but the tops of landmarks such as the white-pillared City Hall, behind the main music stage, and the Everglades Community Church across the square.
On the outdoor stage, country-flavored acts poured forth a continual stream of music Saturday, matching the continual stream of brew that flowed from the Budweiser taps at the beer tents.
The headliner was Little Texas, a national act with platinum albums going back to the 1990s.
Before that band played, A Thousand Horses, another recording band with a No. 1 country hit from “Southernality,” the group's second album, played as one of eight acts.
Local performers included Gator Nate and Them Hamilton Boys.
Closing the festival Sunday afternoon will be the Grammy Award-winning Kentucky Headhunters.
Around the stage, long rows of vendors hawked everything from frozen Key lime pie on a stick to gyros, funnel cakes, cotton candy, kettle corn and elephant ears.
There also were T-shirts, cowboy hats, signs for cabana bars, samurai swords, more T-shirts, “crustacean taxidermy” with oversize mounted lobsters and crabs, jewelry, blown glass, pieces from coral reefs. And T-shirts.
A Ferris wheel stood overhead, while closer to the ground, rides and midway games added to the carnival feel.
The festival is a popular destination for a weekend or day trip from the east coast of Florida, particularly for bikers. Looking at the parking lot closest to City Hall, about 100 Harley-Davidsons stood waiting for a rider, sometimes two.
Earl and Brenda Schriver, from Lehigh Acres, not only rode a vintage Electra-Glide, they sported Harley-Davidson caps, bandannas, gloves, vests, and T-shirts.
“It’s pretty much Harley city,” Earl Schriver said.
Much of the seafood in the big food court comes down the east coast, frozen in refrigerated semi-trailers, and has traveled thousands of miles to come to the fishing village.
Just about any kind of seafood imaginable was for sale — shrimp in every style, scallops, ceviche, Maryland crab cakes, blackened salmon, jambalaya, crawfish, mahi mahi, fried oysters, calamari, Alaskan king crab and Dungeness crab, grouper and clam strips.
If you looked, though, you could find local seafood harvested by the Everglades City fishing fleet.
Rick Perez sold stone crab claws at the booth of Island Café, owned by festival organizer Carol Foss. He conceded that at $20 a pound for “mediums,” the smallest size of claws marketed, “this is festival pricing.” The booth also had deep-fried alligator nuggets for $10.
The local Lions Club booth offered smoked mullet dip, as local as you could ask.
“We catch it, we smoke it, we make it,” said Tammie Pernas.
Festival-goers could also learn something about the history of Everglades City, Collier's first county seat, if you searched out the local museum — before it closed at 4 p.m.
“Things get a little louder and rowdy in the evening,” said attendant Keith Underwood.
Inside the museum was one of the quietest places around, even though more than 625 visits were recorded before 3 p.m., according to Underwood's clicker.
“Friday night is our favorite, for the locals,” said Pat Huff, president of the Friends of the Museum of the Everglades. “That’s family night, before most of the booths are set up. It’s nice for us locals; we can just walk around and see the folks we know.”
And if anyone would like to see the real Everglades City, she said, come back next weekend, or any other weekend.
The museum will hosting another festival Feb. 21-25 to honor Everglades preservation pioneer Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
But this weekend, it’s all about the seafood.