Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
When we passed by an alligator baking under the sun in a round puddle that was too small to contain his long tail, the 7-year-old with us observed, "He's in his hot tub." And in a way, he was. You get intimate with the gators out in Shark Valley, where a paved, 15-mile bicycle trail cuts through the heart of the 'Glades. They are everywhere. We must have seen 60 or so on a recent two-hour stay at the park, which is on Tamiami Trail (or U.S. 41) 18 miles west of Krome Avenue. There were dozens of babies and one great big granddaddy that must have been more than 100 years old. Add to that huge Florida garfish, majestic anhingas and herons, and the occasional deer (we missed out on that sight) and you've got one magical afternoon. You can either bring your own bicycle or rent one of theirs (at $5.25 an hour -- and some come with baby seats if a real newcomer is tagging along). About the midway point is an observation tower that gives you an incredible vista of the River of Grass. Or if you don't feel like pedaling, you can walk a couple of their short trails. Or, we add with a sigh, you can kick back and ride the tram for $12 ($11 for seniors, $7.25 for children 12 and under). Whatever you choose, we guarantee you'll see just about every form of wildlife. Except sharks, of course.
You've got your workhorse Brian Grant, your streak shooter Travis Best, and your rookie phee-nom Caron Butler. But in the murk of the Eastern Conference basement, only one light shines with star power: Eddie Jones. Maybe Jones can't single-handedly lift the Heat into the playoffs or even make the team a consistently scrappy opponent. (Those 30-point losses take their toll.) But on any given night, he's fun to watch. He's whip-fast and unpredictable. He'll spin past some cement-legged defender to tomahawk the ball through the hoop or lay back and, with a sleepy, ruminative stroke, sink a three. (He always has one of the highest three-point percentages in the league.) Injury-prone, constantly rumored to be trade bait, Jones can't carry the team like Alonzo Mourning used to do. But he has provided Heat fans with more than his share of enjoyable moments this past season -- and there weren't many.
With one of the only working lighthouses in South Florida, easy access to the ocean, and freedom from drawbridges, why take your boat anyplace else? Instead of getting stuck in the rush-hour-thick marine traffic of the Intracoastal, the New River or one of South Florida's narrow canals where the no-wake zones won't let you go past the double digits and the bridges have longer waits than the tollbooths, set loose from the Hillsboro Inlet and fly off into the ocean. Port Everglades might be bigger, but in the Hillsboro Inlet, you won't get run over by a cruise ship bigger than a skyscraper. You will be just minutes away from some great dive spots with living coral reefs, can find a quiet place to coax some fish out of the ocean, and speed, sail, or glide through the water. Either parallel the coast for a few hours or head for the Caribbean. After your trip, you can dock at the Cove and enjoy a nice dinner.
How can we tell Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria doesn't give a flying fish about winning in this town? Let's just take a look at the ones that got away. Two spring trainings ago, in a salary-dumping move, the team traded its closer, Antonio Alfonseca, and its fifth starter, Matt Clement, for Julian Tavarez and a pitching prospect. What happened? The absence of Alfonseca disrupted the bullpen, forcing setup men to try out for the closer role, while rookies were plugged into middle relief and setup slots. The result: inconsistency and blown saves. Tavarez is and always has been a bum, and he pitched like one. Meanwhile, Clement finally had his breakout year, going 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA and keeping down his walk totals while striking out 215 batters -- all for an awful Cubs team. During the 2002 campaign, the Marlins "brain trust," in two more salary-driven transactions, traded away the team's most feared hitter (Cliff Floyd) and most experienced starting pitcher (Ryan Dempster). Granted, Dempster struggled for most of last year, but don't even try to argue that Carl Pavano is an improvement. Juan Encarnacion is a nice player, sure, but compare his on-base percentage and slugging percentage last year (.324 and .449) to Floyd's (.388 and .533). This off-season, management executed a series of deals -- and nondeals -- that, in true Ari Fleischer fashion, it has tried to spin as a demonstration of its commitment to winning. They term it "small-ball" -- pitching defense and speed. Baloney. Replacing a jovial clubhouse presence and consistent hitter like Kevin Millar with a known bust like Todd Hollandsworth is an insult to both the players and fans. All this to save the $500,000 difference in their 2003 salaries. Way to pinch those pennies, guys. The three-way trade with the Rockies and Braves was the capper, though. Yes, the contracts of Preston Wilson ($28 million through 2005) and Charles Johnson ($26 million over the next three years) were onerous, and both players were underperforming, especially CJ. But to go through all those machinations and end up with a punch-and-judy hitting center fielder who never draws a walk (Juan Pierre), a young reliever with more tattoos than total major league wins and saves combined (Tim Spooneybarger), and to be paying Mike Hampton $30 million over the next three years to play for the stinkin' Braves? Ludicrous. Outrageous. Disgusting. But hey, at least we then got Pudge, right? Yeah, this year. Don't come crying to us when the Marlins are paying him the rest of his back-loaded $10 million contract to play for somebody else, too.
Few places on the island of the rich and famous make outsiders feel more welcome than the Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course. Well, at least they won't look at you funny for being worth less than a million. This city-owned mini-course, at 2,450 yards, is perhaps the island's best deal and affords some of the best views. For $17 in the morning and $15 after 2 p.m., duffers get amazing ocean views on four holes that run along the dune and Intracoastal sights from three holes on the opposite side of Ocean Boulevard. Check in at the shack-sized clubhouse, and for an extra $10, jump in a cart if you're absolutely lazy. Don't worry about checking with the starter, because there isn't one. Carts have the keys in 'em. Frequent customers can buy a 12-play card for $210 that makes this 18-hole course the best for the buck. Be warned, however, that this short course was designed for those who can afford to spend their weekdays golfing. Thin fairways running along water and sloped greens make for tough shots. And if you want to fit in, bring your plaid pants and speak loudly about how much you love the entire Bush family.
Taylor isn't just a player; he's a revolution. Teams around the NFL are now searching the universe for "Jason Taylor-types" -- incredibly fast and sleek defensive ends strong enough to get past offensive linemen and quick enough to bring down Michael Vick. When Taylor came out of college in 1997, nobody thought much of him because of his puny size (six-foot-six, 245 pounds). The Dolphins stole him in the third round. After four solid seasons, he had his break-out year in 2002, when he led the NFL in sacks (18.5), made the Pro Bowl for the second time, and was on the very short list for Defensive Player of the Year. Expect more of the same this coming season. The boy out of Akron is 28 years old and just hitting his prime.
There are four good, hard courts here, and at least one is almost always empty. What more do you need? But the real benefit of playing tennis here is the park, 88 acres of lakes and sanguine pleasure. A huge playground with built-in water for hot summer days is available for the kids. Rather shoot some hoops? There are two courts. Volleyball? Check. Rent a canoe or kayak for the open waters, or bring some charcoal and have a picnic. If that isn't enough, nearby is the Anne Kolb Nature Center, home to coastal mangrove wetlands, where you can hike, fish, or simply view the wonder of it all from the observation tower. Between 'em, you've got a beautiful corner of South Florida -- and a great place to cool down after a grueling three-set match.
Forget hair-raising roller-coaster rides. Try hairy critters slobbering on your windshield. Indeed, the animals that roam Lion Country Safari, which is located west of West Palm Beach, make Orlando's mouse seem rather mundane. Developed in 1967 by a group of British and South African entrepreneurs who wanted to bring the African safari experience stateside, the park is now home to more than 1,200 animals that roam freely around visitors, who are warned to stay in their cars. While this may sound like the ultimate couch-potato experience, the place has a rich history. When it opened more than three decades ago, it was the first cageless zoo in the nation. Furthermore, a drive through the park underscores how oxymoronic the term "reality-based TV" truly is; it offers a new incentive to get out of the house. Where else can you commune with curious ostriches (albeit through shatter-proof glass)? And where else can you watch giraffes spar while you hope they don't lose their footing and turn your SUV into a battered Dodge Ram? And not only neophytes are captivated by the zoo's natural wonder. Famed chimpanzee expert Dr. Jane Goodall uses the attraction as part of her ChimpanZoo program, in which trained observers record the animals' activities to help scientists understand how man's closest relatives live. If all that anthropological stuff seems like too much, don't worry. A park at the end of the trail features a merry-go-round, mini-golf, and pedal boats.
Face the facts, cyclist dude. It's not just the oxygen bath from the cardio workout conferring that superhuman glow. It's ego too. Your butt may feel like it should be severed from your body and sent to a spa for a three-day cure, but you did it, baby! Forty miles roundtrip! Not bad. Bragging rights are a definite benefit of this pier-to-pier ride along the southern end of Florida's ritziest sandbar. Still, talking length of ride and arrival time with the pedate and prone back home is easy. The deeper pleasure is something you carry inside, something hard to put into words, a kind of imprinting that happens as you cruise under the green gothic spires of gigantic Australian pines, find your nostrils overcome by the inexplicable smell of lavender, glimpse the Atlantic Ocean from the bridge by South Inlet Park. In the tiny town of Briny Breezes, you can contemplate Florida's vacation past in cement cottages that have yet to face the wrecking ball or gawk at who-the-hell-has-the-money-to-afford-these mansions lining A1A. Bike paths appear and disappear, but there is a sidewalk for a long stretch of the ride. You can park your car at Deerfield Pier for $3 a day. And hey, the Lake Worth Pier is worth a stroll before you head back south, so stretch out those overworked thighs and calves, baby.
Hiking in South Florida can sound about as enticing as swimming in snot. It's hot, it's muggy, it's buggy, and -- let's face it -- those breathtaking vistas are few and far between. But if you pick your spots carefully, you'll discover that the natural wonders of the area extend far beyond the beach. The 747-acre Royal Palm Beach Pines proves that hiking in South Florida is not just oxymoronic or even just plain moronic. A stunning example of what the area used to look like before it was sliced and diced by developers to make room for well, us, it features what environmentalists call pine flatwoods and wet prairies. To enjoy this wonderland, put on some boots or some trashed-out shoes and walk. Along the way, you'll undoubtedly run into a wood stork or two, surely some anhingas drying their wings, and, if you're lucky, a bald eagle. Plants along the well-marked trails are among the rarest in South Florida. So go slowly. Observe. It's a hike, after all, not a jog. The hardest part is finding the western Palm Beach County preserve in the first place. It's north of Okeechobee and Royal Palm Beach boulevards, at the far end of the Saratoga subdivision. Call for directions so your walk in the woods doesn't turn into a frustrating drive through suburbia.
Junior wants to try his inline skates, Mom hopes to play tennis, and Dad hankers to go fishing. What's the easy solution to this battle of recreation wills? John Prince Park in central Palm Beach County, where virtually every form of recreation or leisure can be accommodated. From a stroll, bike, jog, or skate along the 726-acre park's five miles of paved paths to fishing or boating on its 338 acres of shimmering lakes to a family reunion in one of its numerous picnic areas, this county park -- one of the state's oldest -- is truly an outdoors-lover's paradise. Need to alleviate stress? Check out the batting cages. Want to prepare the kid to be the next Tiger Woods? Play a round of mini-golf. Looking for an international hobby? Venture over to the pétanque (that's pronounced "pay-tonk") courts and try your hand at one of Europe's most popular outdoor games. All you have to do is toss or roll steel balls as close as possible to a wooden ball, which is called the "cochonnet" (piglet in French). Best of all, you don't have to leave this patch of paradise at day's end. With a campground that can hold 266 tents and RVs, a romp in the park can be more than a temporary diversion. It may become a permanent address.
The Panthers suck. Center Olli Jokinen knows this, and the fact that he isn't afraid to say it should give fans some hope for the future. The team may have a real leader. In March, as the cats wound down a disappointing, losing season and missed the playoffs, Jokinen showed true leadership by doing the simplest thing. He spoke the truth. "We can't win if we don't have guys showing up every night," he said. "... At least when you put the jersey on, you have to pay the price and play hard. It's frustrating that we have five or six guys showing up to a game... We have people hiding in the corners." Then Jokinen, who scored more in the dismal season than any Panther in history not named Pavel, came down with the hammer: "Things will change, though, you know? We're playing for jobs. There's 25 guys in the minors who want to play in the NHL. Every single guy has to realize that." After reading those words, we know there is a fire burning somewhere in this team -- even if it's only in Jokinen's heart.
Best Place to Hang with Gators: Shark Valley
Everglades National Park