Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Wake up at first light, close camp and load the canoe, and take off down the Lopez River at dawn. Put the paddle in the heavy, calm water, and start your way upriver, toward Sunday Bay. Don't look up. Look into the water. The Lopez River, in the early morning, provides a stunning reflection of the banks and the trees and the birds and the ascending sky. Look ahead and you see two identical horizons, one real, the other in the river. It takes a lot of preparation and time to experience the Lopez River properly -- it's across the state on the western edge of the Everglades, south of Chokoloskee, and it takes hours to reach by canoe. But few things truly worthwhile come easy. The Lopez provides a channel from the bays of the 'Glades to the Gulf of Mexico and the Ten Thousand Islands -- a handful of which also make for wonderful campsites. It's a short river, taking only a couple of hours to paddle. Dawn is the time to do it. Take your rod and reel and waterproof matches, too. It's packed with big redfish that make for a great meal in the wilderness.
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.
Ali Witherspoon carries an American flag. His head is draped in camouflage. His biceps are bigger than grapefruits. He is big and mean and scowling. You will listen to him if you know what's good for you. He knows what's good for you, and that's running, crunching, squatting, bending up and down, and running down the beach and back again until you are gasping, wheezing, broken, ready to drop. Get it together, soldier! A former New England Patriot, Witherspoon runs Muscle Beach Gym on the beach in Hollywood, headquarters for the most grueling workout regimen south of Fort Benning. Sign up for his Saturday morning basic training at your own peril. At the end of ten weeks, if you survive, you may be in the best shape of your life.
Certainly it's not the finest pool table you'll come across in South Florida. There are a few divots and funny felt runs, and the rails don't play quite true. But how many bar tables in equivalent stages of disrepair force you to shuck out four quarters to play on? Just about every single one. Here play is gratis. So rack 'em up and knock 'em down. Once the sun sets, the anodyne of alcohol begins to work its magic, and the breeze on the open-air patio kicks in, you won't know the difference. Even when the eight ball rolls to the lip of the pocket and then stops suddenly in a queer little depression -- a cherry for your opponent to pick off -- you'll just chuckle and curse your luck. Besides, while you're waiting for your turn at the table to come around again, you'll have time to enjoy some of the best conch chowder and barbecue available, not to mention the mounted deer's ass hanging from the wall.
Fishing superstar and television personality Rolan Martin can take a camera crew wherever he wants to shoot one of his segments for cable fishing shows, and when he's taping one on bass fishing, he heads to the Everglades. He knows something many savvy South Florida fisherman do, and it might not seem fair: When the South Florida Water Management District drops the water level in the Glades each winter based on predictions of rainfall for the coming year, water starts flowing out of the flats and into canals; at such intersections bass, perch, brim, and tarpon sit with their noses into the current waiting for smaller bait fish to float by. And whether you're an avid angler or a first-timer, you can take advantage of the bountiful pickings in the miles of glades accessible from Everglades Holiday Park. Just follow Griffin Road west, and you'll run into the parking lot, where you can use the boat ramp to put in your own craft or rent a boat ($52.50 plus tax for five hours). From there anyone should be able to find a happening fishing hole, thanks to the marvels of engineering. Park admission is free.
"He's got a tricky little pitch shot from off the green, and we can see his knees shake from here," whispers Johnny Miller of NBC, sitting up in his TV tower next to the filled grandstands surrounding the 18th green. You grip down on the sand wedge, ignore the crowds (and the pressure), and lift the ball out of the four-inch rough and onto the bent-grass greens and sink it! Heron Bay was designed by a pro and is owned by pros, and it's where the pros play when the tour stops here in March. It's one of the few TPC courses where the public is allowed to play. They start growing the rough a few weeks before the tournament and put up the stands so you can have pretensions of tour experience as you hack your way around this difficult layout. The course hugs the eastern edge of the Everglades and has been recognized for its nature-friendly design and, of course, beautiful herons. The Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel, would feel at home here with the number of sand bunkers that come into play. And before reaching into the water for that errant shot, make sure there's no gator.
If your daily vocabulary includes words like reps, sets, grams, cardio, and pounds, it should also include one more, Gold's. The self-proclaimed "Mecca of Bodybuilding" sprouted up in July 1990, thanks to partners Ed Benson and Bob DeLuca. Over the last ten years, Benson (now sole owner) has turned the original 10,000-square-foot facility into an elite exercise environment. The purchase of three adjacent stores added an 8000 square feet devoted to arms and legs and a spinning and aerobics studio. Four different sets of dumbbells, Ivanko plates and bars, a rock-climbing simulator, and more than 30 pieces of cardio equipment make this the best place to train for the hard-core bodybuilder or the average person wanting to get in shape. Members of the aerobics staff have appeared on ESPN's Corey Everson's Gotta Sweat and ESPN2's Crunch Fitness, and the spinning is coordinated by WSVN-TV (Channel 7) fitness expert Ellen Latham. Gold's motto is "We guarantee results." How? For those who need motivation or instruction, there is a team of personal trainers headed by author and WIOD-AM (560) radio's fitness show host Phil Kaplan. Got pain? Gold's offers an on-site chiropractic physician's office. Got kids? A baby-sitting service is available. A pro shop of vitamins and supplements makes this the complete gym. Over the years it's been the gym of choice for athletes like Mr. Olympia Vince Taylor, members of the Miami Dolphins, and model Niki Taylor.
Nobody intends to tumble from the saddle, but if it happens, let it be with AA-D Horse Adventures. An amiable guide will dust you off, explaining what caused your abrupt dismount and how to avoid future falls, taking care to minimize your embarrassment. Then, as in the proverb, the group leader will help you back onto the tamed beast. With names like Little Tree and Cowboy, these horses are well groomed, responsive (if you can communicate clearly), and younger than the plodding types found at many horseback-riding outfits. Tree Tops' extensive trails meander through live oak forest, around wild coffee shrubs and Brazilian pepper plants, tempting the ever-hungry equines and keeping you alert. "Toes up, heels down," the guides nag, while praising your improved form. You survive the rest of the ride without kissing the dirt again, and the horse is replaced by a soreness that smacks of a more amorous adventure.