Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
If you want lions and tigers and bears, oh my, then you're better off at Dreher Park Zoo in West Palm Beach or Lion Country Safari. But if it's local flora and fauna you crave, then you can't beat this massive preserve in south central Palm Beach County. It's all that remains of the northern portion of the Everglades, and more than a dozen categories of endangered and threatened species live there, including the American alligator and the extremely rare snail kite. There are also lizards, frogs, snakes, raccoons, armadillos, otters, bobcats, deer, and fish, although the refuge's big draw, especially in winter, is its dazzling array of native and migratory birds. Two main nature trails are available, a marsh trail with an observation tower and a boardwalk through a 400-acre cypress swamp, as well as a five-and-a-half-mile canoe trail. Be sure to take binoculars and, because insects are a big part of the park's population, bug spray.
When it comes to airboat rides, forget the painted, commercialized boats and the uniformed tour guides. They're all too predictable and sanitized. For adventure and education, Buffalo Tiger's outfit is the place. Tiger is an old, worn former Miccosukee Indian chief whose dark eyes still twinkle. And he has a great retirement gig -- running an airboat company off Tamiami Trail. While others actually drive the boats, Tiger can often be found in his gift shop, surrounded by paints and putty, making crafts to sell. You get 40 to 45 minutes on the airboat for $10, but it's not the length of the ride or the cost that makes it really special. It's the intimate and casual approach. If you see something you want to look at more closely, the guide will stop the boat for you. White flowers on the water mean it's shallow, the guide will instruct you, while yellow flowers signify a deeper swamp. The guide will also stop the boat and let you pull a piece of sawgrass out of the swamp and inspect the bottom to see that it's white and has the texture of heart of palm. Miccosukees, you learn, used to eat the grass. (We took a small bite, but were warned that the Everglades are contaminated by pesticides from northern farms.) We saw about a dozen gators, from ten-footers to little babies. (Gators, we were told, live to be well over 100 years old.) The stop at an old Miccosukee village, where chickees stand in ruins, was fascinating. And we got a chance to drive the boat for a few minutes.
While those poor, underpaid NBA players were working out their contract dispute, they cost owners a bunch of cash. They also cost fans half a season. So while you're boycotting the babies who call themselves pros, "get game" yourself. You and your friends can take it to the hoop in style at Cypress Park, where smooth, hunter-green asphalt is divided into four full-length courts by brick-red sidelines. At either end of every court stands a rectangular, mod-looking white backboard with a bright-orange rim and a new cloth net (not the canvas playground type). And for those rowdy games full of body-checking and wild fast breaks, the posts supporting the baskets are covered in blue foam padding, and the chainlink fence surrounding the court area keeps errant shots and passes from getting away. After working up a thirst, players can step over to the nearby fountain or grab a sports drink from the conveniently located vending machine. There's usually one full-court contest going, which leaves the other baskets free for shooting around. A stand of palms and pines shades the court area during part of the day, and for those overtime games, the lights stay on until 10 p.m.
We can imagine doing without the beer-soaked bacchanalia of Fort Lauderdale beach in season. We can imagine doing without the annual dance of the white-bellied snowbird on Broadwalk along Hollywood beach. But somehow we can't imagine doing without the small-town charm of the short but sweet stretch of beach known as Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Drive along A1A from Sunrise Boulevard north. You'll know you're there when the high-rise hotels and condos fall behind and you begin to pass a multitude of small beachfront hotels with names like the Green Lantern and the Blue Dolphin. This beach has all sorts of small but pleasing touches, such as the diner sitting out over the water on the Commercial Boulevard pier where you can eat a down-home breakfast while watching the sun rise out of the ocean. Also, this beach boasts the best close-in reef in two counties for snorkeling or diving straight from the beach. Yes, the place has its share of tourists. Yes, traffic on the main drag can get a little crazy in season. But, it's not so well-known that you won't be able to throw down your towel on a nice quiet spot all your own.
No contest here, or should we say plenty of contests here? South Beach Park, which is south of Las Olas Boulevard off A1A, has just put up brand-new nets on nine volleyball courts in the sand. Some of the more serious players there swear that the park has the best volleyball courts not only in South Florida but also in the entire state. The competition in the pickup games can be fierce, as the winners move from court to court until they reach the first court, where the best matches can be seen. But you don't have to be a semipro to have fun. Whole families can also play, from the oldest, fattest aunts to the littlest, most awkward children. All that is required is a little waiting to claim a court. It's worth it, as the courts are perfect and the setting, complete with the dark blue Atlantic waters lapping on the beach under swaying palms, is enough to gentle the heart of even the most ruthless volleyballer.
Proving they have more to offer than bingo and tobacco, those savvy Seminoles lure tourists to their Big Cypress Reservation with the promise of panthers and snakes, swamp buggies and airboats, chickees and crafts. Signs lead the way from Alligator Alley to Exit 14, then north on State Road 833 to West Boundary Road and into Billie Swamp Safari. Careen through shallow waters and hardwood hammock on a glorified jeep-bus, stopping at the Oasis to schmooze the predatory, territorial Donald Trump -- the alligator, that is -- then return to the kitschy Seminole village and eat his less-fortunate brethren for lunch. The Swamp Water Cafe waitress aptly describes alligator tail as "a cross between chicken and fish," but on a weekend afternoon, this delicacy may be upstaged by another local attraction: charismatic tribal chairman and aspiring country musician James Billie. Though tour guides decline to discuss the chief, approach him during a break in his tableside jam session, and he'll regale you with off-color folktales about the swamp's namesake, Kissimmee Billie. Up the street the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki ("to know, to remember") Museum gives a more conservative history lesson, with Chief Billie making his big-screen appearance in full CEO regalia. Dioramas re-create native activities: Cypress canoes cross the translucent Everglades, mannequins do the green corn dance. Parents might wish to point out printed anecdotes about traditional disciplinary practices such as the scratching of naughty youth; the power of suggestion should be enough to keep children well-behaved on the ride home.