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Best of 2013: Sunday Favorites: Navigating the Nav-A-Gator

Inside the museum

LAKE SUZY -- I didn’t want to launch my paddleboard that far upriver. The water was dark and still with no way to know what could be lurking underneath, not even with polarized glasses.


But I didn’t want to be a killjoy either. Drew had picked our paddling destination for the first time and objecting could have meant challenging his manhood.


So, I went against my better judgment and we launched our crafts, my board and his kayak, and set out to find a nice sandy shore on the Peace River.


Twenty minutes later we were packing up the car.


Most people arriving at the Nav-A-Gator Grill restaurant and tiki bar by water, do so aboard vessels with motors. Airboats, motorboats and jetskis are basically traveling foghorns alerting any living thing within a mile radius of their arrival and giving ample notice for large animals to get out of their way.


When you are paddling it’s a different story. The last thing I wanted to do was startle a 10-foot alligator; they have a way of thrashing around in the water. The waves alone would have been more than enough to upset my balancing act on the paddleboard and I really didn’t want to end up in the drink with something that could eat a deer for breakfast. Drew quickly agreed and we basically turned right back around.


Dennis personifies his establishment

A few months later, we were back at the Nav-A-Gator Grill, this time via car, and we saw some gator thrashing action first hand.


The Nav-A-Gator Grill could definitely be considered "old Florida," although Dennis, the owner is originally from up north. The restaurant is located three miles east of I-75 just off of Kings Highway in Lake Suzy, Fla.

Visiting the place is more than just a dining or drinking experience. Regulars can attest that the Jimmy Buffett cover band playing at the bar is often drowned out by the distinct trumpeting of one of the sand hill cranes that hang around the place. While the birds are singing karaoke, large gators are sunning their backs in nearby canals.


We saw a gator on our second trip and Dennis explained how to estimate the size of the gator by judging the distance from his eyes to his nose.


He was sitting there wearing a Crocodile Dundee hat with gator teeth sewn into the brim. The hat shaded his face and only his mirrored aviator sunglasses were directly visible. He looked at the gator we were watching in the canal and said, “His nose is about eight inches long.”


I could sort of see the gator behind me, reflected in the face of his glasses, but I didn’t understand what he meant.



“Eight feet,” he said. “Looks about eight feet long.”


It was then the gator thrashed suddenly, sending shock waves through the canal and catching me off guard. It was exactly as I had envisioned on our first trip, and I couldn’t wait to show Drew just how close he got us to being eaten alive.


The thrashing didn’t deter Dennis, who just smiled and told the story of how he and his wife Nancy bought the place nearly two decades ago. The dining room, he said, was an extension of their home, which we were sitting outside of, just across the canal from the restaurant, the gator in the canal between them.


“When people come here they are coming into our living room. Every thing in there has a place and everything has a story,” Dennis said.


Dennis is referring to the myriad decorations hanging from the walls. There is an owl with an eye patch, multiple fish, both fresh and saltwater, and antiques galore.


In one of the outbuildings there is a “museum” full of fossils and relics from the river … oh yeah, and a full-size buffalo that Drew sang Donna Summers songs to.



If you want to know about the history of the joint, just ask Dennis. According to him, it was a fort during the Seminole Wars, the hideout of a Spanish pirate before that, and did he mention that Jimmy Buffett once landed his seaplane there?


Who knows if any of it is actually true, but the stories sound good, especially when Dennis tells them and it just adds to the mystique of the place.


But, its not just cool stories that attract thousands to the place each year; its also the food, the cocktails, the character of the place along with the boat rentals and airboat rides.


It’s also Dennis’s sense of conservation that attracts patrons, as for the last 17 years he’s hosted the Peace River Cleanup that draws like-minded folks who want to see the river stay clean and healthy (He gives a prize every year to the person who finds the most unique item).


The Nav-A-gator will likely continue to be a Charlotte and DeSoto County fixture for years to come and it’s all because of Dennis’s sense of what makes his customers happy, how to care for the river and his dedication to the idea of “old Florida”, even if he isn’t an original cracker.



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