“Does your gator bite?”
It seemed like a reasonable question as four feet of beady-eyed, scaly-skinned baby alligator was thrust into my hands for a quick photo op.
“Not right now. But you wouldn’t want to be doing that in six months’ time,” deadpans Tom, our tour guide, who just a few minutes earlier had been scaring the bejeezus out of us in his thundering airboat, careening, seemingly out of control, through the Everglades’ grassy rivers.
Welcome to Coopertown, home of air boat Grand Central, and our first stop on a gentle meander along the trip-back-in-time Tamiami Trail. While the Trail — it’s really Highway 41 — runs all the way from Miami to Tampa, we’re doing the more fascinating 100-mile stretch through the very heart of the Everglades, to Naples.
We needed a bit of an adventure for our test drive of the latest Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge. Normally we would have taken the road less traveled and taken it down to Miami’s South Beach to cruise Ocean Drive and count the thumbs-ups.
But the Cullinan is a bona fide sport-ute, with all-wheel drive and the ability to crawl up the side of Everest. It needed mud under its tires, or at least a bit of crushed shell and sawgrass.
That’s a lie. The Black Badge is not for getting dirty. Here is a $382,000 — more like half-a-million-nicely-loaded — masterpiece of quality and craftsmanship. I admit it; on our trip across the Tamiami, I avoided every puddle.
Where the regular Cullinan — if such a thing exists — is perfectly adept at wading through goopy mud, the Black Badge is an altogether more sophisticated animal.
This is the Cullinan that goes over to the Dark Side, to appeal to a new generation of younger, more diverse, self-made buyers looking for an edgier look. See it loitering outside one of those uber-hip Miami Art Deco hotels, and it radiates a menacing “Don’t mess with me” attitude.
For its Black Badge status, pretty much every piece of shimmery chrome has been given the full Sith treatment and chemically blackened. Even that lovely Spirit of Ecstasy “flying lady” has a full-body coating of high-gloss black chrome. Up front, that iconic parthenon grille gets the Darth Vader noir look. All this might be considered window dressing if it weren’t for the upgrades in performance, handling and braking that come with the Black Badge spec.
The stock Cullinan’s mighty 6.75-liter twin-turbo V12 gets a 29-hp power boost to take the new output to a nice round 600-hp. There’s also an extra 37 lb-ft of torque on tap to lift it to a stump-pulling 664 lb-ft.
Now when you squeeze the throttle, feeling that immense Gulfstream-on-takeoff thrust, you whoosh to 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds. More aggressive transmission-shifting only heightens the Rolls’ athletic, more dynamic, more urgent feel. Here is a 6,100-pound pachyderm that thinks it’s a sportscar.
We test out the Rolls’ gravel-crushing capabilities on the 26-mile, unimaginatively named Loop Road, through Big Cypress National Reserve, to play Spot The Gator. We stopped counting after 100. Then we pull over to gaze in wonder at the amazing work of acclaimed Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher at his must-see Big Cypress Gallery.
A detour into Everglades City leads to lunch at the historic, waterfront Rod and Gun Club. In its 100-year history, five presidents, Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne and even Mick Jagger have stayed here.
Stone crabs — along with gator and frog legs — were on the menu in the rustic restaurant overlooking the Barron River. We could have stayed a week. And yes, they do have rooms.
As we eased into the Naples urban sprawl, I felt we’d just spent a day truly stepping back in time and experiencing a magical slice of Old Florida.
Next time, skip the tedious I-75 Alligator Alley and experience The Trail. Before it’s gone.
Test-drive the 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge at Dimmitt Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Tampa Bay in Pinellas Park.
Look for Howard Walker’s column, “Weekend Wheels,” every Friday at dupontregistrytampabay.com.