Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Not in the 'hood, as one might expect (and romantics might hope) but solidly suburban, the four -- count 'em, four -- courts in the southeast corner of this county park's 525 acres host the area's best-quality round ball. Local players make the trek from all over West Palm Beach and as far south as Boca Raton; collegiate talent on spring break and off-season visiting pros have been known to drop by. But even your run-of-the-mill pickup game here covers the full razzle-dazzle: the behind-the-back, no-look pass; the triple head fake, double-pump, pull-up shot; the long outlet pass and the finishing thunderdunk. Twenty- and thirtysomething guys hold the main stage, but there are enough courts to accommodate other ages and genders. A nice racial mix almost makes you think there's hope for the human race.
Everybody knew the Dolphins' offensive line wasn't very good last year, even with a healthy Mark Dixon. While the team's inability to run the ball was often demoralizing, at least the Fins were a team that could stop the run, right? Umm, no. On December 16, 2001, the San Francisco 49ers exposed the Dolphins' vulnerability to a strong running game with several punishing, clock-eating drives en route to a 21-0 victory. This cemented our selection of Gardener as the one player Miami could not do without. Largely because the big defensive tackle was out with a back injury, the Niners' interior linemen were able to get off the line to put a helmet on Zach Thomas, nullifying his speed and playmaking. This year, the coaches are talking about moving Gardener to defensive end to save his back from the beating he takes playing inside. Not sure we agree: While he's a good enough player to make an impact outside, his true gift is as a run-stuffer. If he's healthy, that's where he belongs. If team brass leaves him there, Thomas will be grateful. So will we.
If the Marlins' ownership had been stable this past winter, Cliffy would already be gone. Of course, had that been the case, he might have had an even better year in 2001. His post-All-Star slump seemed to correlate directly to the failure of the stadium drive and the uncertainty about the team's South Florida future. As it was, Floyd still ended up with excellent numbers, offering a consistent, mostly healthy (hooray!) presence in the three-hole, steady, sometimes spectacular defense. And he was the closest thing these pups had to veteran leadership. This year, by the time the trading deadline rolls around, he'll be ripping screaming liners into the right-centerfield gap for a playoff contender -- here, if the young pitching progresses, Luis Castillo and Charles Johnson rebound, and Alex Gonzalez gets his shit together, but more likely somewhere else.
Our favorite feature of this strip of sand in Deerfield Beach is the absence of cars zipping by on A1A ten yards from your beach blanket. In 1967, the Army Corps of Engineers set up boulder piles on the sand every 30 feet or so to prevent erosion. You can sit on the rocks and enjoy the water, lie on the sand, or dive into the ocean. The sand is broader than most of the Fort Lauderdale beaches, and there are vegetation breaks that separate your shot at tranquility from the busy and polluted street. Part of the strip has condos and guesthouses, but they're small and set back from the shore. The sand is dotted with the occasional tiki hut, and a concrete walking path lines the northern end. The nicest, quietest part of the beach is the southern border, which the lifeguards call south beach, not to be confused with South Beach, which is filled with people, restaurants, and dance clubs instead of sea shells and breaking waves. Metered parking is eight bits an hour.
Hidden behind sand dunes and patches of natural Florida vegetation, this place can easily be missed. After you find a parking spot, which admittedly can be close to a mission impossible during the winter season, lug your sun umbrella, towels, and folding chairs through one of the thick and canopied beach entrances. There, you will understand why Delray is among the nation's favorite beach resort towns. The nearly mile-long, pristine, and wide beach is unusually clean and welcoming, without rocks, piers, or fishermen. Food and nonalcoholic drinks are allowed, but don't feed the sea gulls no matter how cute they seem; they'll turn into pests. There is a recreation area in the beach's southern part where teenagers sometimes pass the football and kite enthusiasts fly their creations in the shapes of birds, scuba divers, and sharks. The beach also offers chair rentals, five volleyball courts, showers and bathrooms, a water sports rental shack, and several exotic diving attractions (be mindful of the resident ray at the 19th-century wreck just offshore). And when the sun hits the water just right here and the ocean turns breathtakingly turquoise, you will remember why you live in South Florida.
"Swim Nude to Prevent Sea Lice Infection." Such was the recent headline in a U.S. Public Health Service professional journal. Skinny-dipping is not naughty; it's healthy, experts say, referring to the rash that generally appears on bodies covered in swimsuits. You see, the microscopic jellyfish get trapped beneath the material and release a skin-irritating venom. If that doesn't scare the pants off you, then forget this advice: Peel off your duds behind the Marriott hotel on A1A, scurry across a private beach (though we have had no trouble running around nude for nearly an hour around midnight on several occasions), and give the moon to the night sky.
One minute, you're lying on the beach. The next minute, you're staring down a barracuda. And you aren't even breathing hard. Red Reef Park is the couch potato's answer to underwater adventure. It's definitely more exciting than another rerun of Jacques Cousteau but hardly more taxing. The artificial reef that attracts everything from barracuda to clown fish to triggerfish to puffers is only ten to twelve yards from shore in about ten feet of water. Located at the southern end of the park, the rocks were originally hoisted into place to protect swimmers. The new additions soon attracted fish and other sea life, and -- voilà! -- a not-to-miss South Florida destination was born. The spot isn't hard to find. Just look for the bodies lying on top of the water, snorkels pointed skyward. Grab your own snorkel and fins and join them. Short of buying an aquarium, it's the easiest way to see tropical fish up-close and personal. And you don't have to clean the water, change the filter, or feed them. Just kick and enjoy.
Even if you can't do forward loops in 30-knot winds or catch sick air while hanging from your kitesurf sail, you can still come to 16th Street for a great time -- as long as the wind is blowing, that is. This forgiving site offers ocean conditions fit for both intermediate and advanced wind addicts. The inlet pier and the hefty reef 200 yards offshore minimize the shore break and reduce the swells, allowing even the most flat-footed sailors to venture out. And for the fear-challenged, on big days there is still some nasty whitewater for radical moves. Conditions are best when the winds are northerly and northeasterly with medium waves. But south and east winds are generally doable as well. Parking here, like most beach locations, is a pain in the neck but manageable. Beware the wicked parking-meter attendant who loves lurking around the corner and dispensing tickets. Also, watch out for boat traffic coming out of the inlet and for careless wave runner-drivers on weekends. There are plenty of grassy rigging areas and a spacious, mostly deserted area to launch one's kite. Showers and rest rooms are nearby.
It's another one of those subtropical days. You're hot, hot, hot. Your kids want out. Don't fall apart. Head for Castaway Island, where $5 will buy you or anyone else who's more than one year old admission to the coolest place in South Florida. (Babies get in free.) Opened in 1998 at a cost of $1.5 million, the island offers six slides, a water cannon, H2O-fed palm trees that will drench you, and a baby pool with even more amusements. Last year 140,000 people visited the playground, which is located in the middle of TY Park just west of I-95 and Sheridan Road. It's closed from November through mid-February but wonderfully wet the rest of the year. During the summer, when crowds get serious, the place is open from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and authorities limit you to two-hour sessions. But don't fret if you want to stay longer. There's an artificial lake and beach where you can cool your heels while you wait to reenter. And hey, there's one of those old-fashioned playgrounds with jungle gyms and slides just a few hundred yards away.
Funny how Fort Lauderdale's oft-trumpeted status as "the Venice of America" doesn't apply to the vast majority of its residents. All that the miles of canals mean to the working-class crowd is an annoying wait for drawbridges to close. Yachts are for the rich, and even a nice bass boat will set Bubba back a too-substantial chunk of change. But proletarians can taste life at sea -- sort of. The expensive and limited Water Taxi service morphed into Water Bus in November 2001, adding stops and slashing fares for all-day passes to $5. Three-day passes cost twice that, a week goes for $20, and a month costs $35. Seagoing all year long will set you back $99, with discounts for students, senior citizens, and the disabled. And don't complain about the fleet. Some of the old, yellow, 26-foot open boats that seat 27 are being replaced by air-conditioned 42-footers that carry 72. They putter past the swank condos, elegant mansions, and upscale businesses along the New River and Intracoastal Waterway from 9 a.m. to past midnight every day. Most of the 20 stops between the Riverfront shopping center in downtown Fort Lauderdale and Oakland Park Boulevard on the Intracoastal coincide with bus stops. So climb aboard, squint your eyes, and imagine your public-transit comrades as guests aboard your little yellow yacht. Maps, schedules, and fares are available at all stops, on the boats, and at www.watertaxi.com.
Some experiences just can't be topped, and a canoe trip on the Loxahatchee River in northern Palm Beach County is one of these. With a friendly and reasonably priced canoe livery just feet from its scenic banks, a long or short trip down Florida's oldest designated Wild and Scenic River is a sure-fire way to remember why we all moved here in the first place. In just a day, you can paddle the watery, sometimes narrow, winding, coffee-colored path that opens majestically as it makes its way through Jonathan Dickinson State Park to the pickup point, where a bus will haul you back to your car. Along the way, you can stop by the abandoned fish camp of renowned Trapper Nelson, the Wildman of the Loxahatchee, who was found dead of a gunshot wound in 1968. Murder or suicide? No one knows. If you're up for only a couple of hours in a boat, paddle to a small spillway, have a picnic, and head back upstream. The current is gentle enough for the most confirmed couch potato. If you've been putting off a trip, don't wait. Thanks to an inexplicable action of the all-powerful South Florida Water Management District, the cypress trees that provide a cool canopy for canoeists on hot days are rapidly disappearing. Hurry before water managers destroy yet another of South Florida's irreplaceable treasures.
The fisher people who gather daily on this quarter-mile-long wooden pier have snagged snook, cobia, jack, bonita, mackerel, kingfish, tuna, and even an occasional tarpon, confides pier master Charles Hamilton. But all of that is nothing compared to the creature that glided by one day and brought all the lines cast into the briny blue up short. There, off the city-owned pier, the waves darkened as a 40-foot-long whale shark glided by. The whale shark is vegetarian, so swimmers weren't in danger. But fish like that make good stories. And good stories make good fishing. "I wasn't here, but I heard about it," says Nicholas Wax, conveniently proving the point. Wax antes up the $2 charge to fish just about every day. Asked for insider info on the top fishing spot locally, the 12-year-old angler doesn't hesitate. "Right here!" he just about shouts. For a stroll out over the Atlantic Ocean, where blustery breezes buffet and the 25-foot-deep sea mesmerizes, the two bucks to fish -- or 50 cents for just watching -- is piddling pocket change.