Best Place To Bird-Watch 1999 | Wakodahatchee Wetlands | Sports | South Florida
South Florida is thick with amateur ornithologists -- you can't swing a booby around here without taking out a couple bird watchers. It seems that no matter what park you're in, someone is whipping out his Peterson to identify a particularly hot piece of plumage. Local hot spots include Tree Tops Park, West Lake Park, Loxahatchee Nature Preserve -- rewarding venues all. But if you like your fowl up-close and personal, check out Wakodahatchee Wetlands. Brought to you courtesy of the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department, Wakodahatchee is quite probably the world's best-looking sewage-treatment plant. These "created waters," planted with bulrush, slash pine, and sabal palms, are a magnet for birds and reptiles. A half-mile boardwalk keeps you nice and dry above it all, allowing you to get within feet of such finds as the elusive purple gallinule, the red-shouldered hawk, the belted kingfisher, and the great blue heron. Look down and you're likely to see snakes, alligators, and turtles. Admission is free, and Wakodahatchee is open seven days a week, dawn to dusk.

Best Place To Breathe Exhaust And Hear Engines Roar

Air Dania

The only thing loud enough to distract your attention from the throaty buzz of motorcycles tearing around the dirt track is the more imposing rumble of passenger jets. The planes, landing at nearby Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, pass low over the track's carefully bulldozed berms, jumps, and banked curves, lending a hint of aviation-fuel aroma to the unmistakable scent of the gas-oil mixture exhaust. (You know, that smell given off by outboard motors and chain saws.) The fumes come from the 60cc cycles navigated by the peewee class and from the 250s and bigger bikes driven by the big boys (and girls). But all of the riders out here -- who practice every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday and race on Saturdays -- look like professionals to us. Their helmets, jerseys, and padded pants are emblazoned with logos and color schemes matched to their machines. As riders whip around the track, catching big air off jumps and sliding sideways through turns, a row of PA speakers pumps out pounding rock music during practices, though much of the time you can't hear it. When the dust and exhaust have thoroughly coated the back of your throat, step over to the concession trailer for a Coke, or, on Saturdays, free beer for folks age 21 and older. Spectators get in for $2 on practice days and for $6 to $8 on Saturdays.

Not only is the Loxahatchee Florida's only designated Wild and Scenic River, it's actually two rivers rolled into one. Or at least two distinctly different paddling experiences. After debarking from Riverbend Park (canoe rentals and packages including return transportation are available from nearby Canoe Outfitters, 561-746-7053) for the nearly eight-mile trip to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, canoeists first encounter a series of horseshoe curves, which can be challenging depending on the current and which meander through narrow passages beneath overhanging trees and their drooping beards of Spanish moss. Alligators patrol the banks, tortoises sun themselves on logs in the river, and the occasional river otter or armadillo makes itself seen, along with at least ten different species of birds, including osprey and turkey vulture. The jumping mullet has even been known to hop aboard a canoe. Halfway through the trip, Trapper Nelson's comes into view. The former home of a guy by that name who lived there up until the 1960s, the picturesque exploring area has restrooms and a covered pavilion with picnic tables. After lunch the rest of the route is mostly a straight line through open water, with occasional turns, some mangrove growth, and a view of the woods from a distance. The trip takes between five and six hours and can vary in difficulty depending on wind and water level. If it hasn't rained in a while, paddlers are sometimes forced to hop out of their boats to push them through very shallow water or over fallen logs -- all in plain sight of those gators on the banks.

Best Place To Drink, Smoke, And Bet On A Sport That Anybody Can Understand

Hollywood Greyhound Track

Simplicity. This is the beauty of the dog track. Six to eight dogs run in each race. They chase a white mechanical bunny around a track. They almost never pass each other. They almost never bump into one another or fall down or throw their jockeys. (Of course there are none to throw.) Basically whichever dog jumps out in front seems to win the race. The entire spectacle takes well under a minute. Then you buy another beer, smoke another cigarette (everybody at the dog track smokes), toss down another $2 bet on some randomly picked streamlined beauty, and watch what looks like the same exact race transpire again. Occasionally you bet on the right dog, and they give you some money back.

Best Place To Drink, Smoke, And Bet On A Sport That Few People Understand

Dania Jai-Alai

It's Tuesday night at the fronton. The elaborately costumed players -- with names like Andonegui, Lertxundi, and, our favorite, Homero -- parade out to center stage and wave their cestas to the crowd, signaling the commencement of the evening's matches. We're parked in the front row with a cigarette and a $2.95, 16-plus-ounce Budweiser wondering how we ended up at a place called a "fronton" watching a game involving "cestas." Even more so, we're contemplating how this strange Basque game was transformed into a staple of South Florida culture. But in this Huizenga-owned sports era of $6 stadium drafts, gestapo-enforced nonsmoking areas, and arenas designed primarily as playgrounds for corporate executives, we appreciate the casual scruffiness of Dania Jai-Alai. Even if we do have to watch a game that -- as best we can figure -- is just a souped-up version of racquetball. Perhaps we're missing something. We'll try to figure out the betting next.

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.

For all its stifling summer heat and lack of any real winter, South Florida isn't a difficult place at all for those seeking a spot of ice. There are ice-skating rinks in Pembroke Pines, Sunrise, Pompano Beach, and Palm Beach Gardens, to name several. But one clearly freezes out all the others in terms of quality: Incredible Ice, the two-year-old, $7 million, 75,000-square-foot facility just east of the Sawgrass Expressway off Sample Road. Owned by the Panthers, the topnotch arena has two skating rinks, and if you're lucky you'll see Pavel Bure practicing there. On Sunday nights families flock to the center, rent top-quality skates, and glide around for an icy evening. Even the tiny ones -- some as young as two or three years old -- can skate there with the help of steel "gliders" that keep the toddlers up on their skates and give them a chilly thrill. On Friday and Saturday nights, the ice is warmed up with dates and couples; as the lights go down, the laser lights come out and a disc jockey pumps up the jam. It's even cool for those who don't like to skate -- they can sit at the bar and down some beer that's almost as icy as the rink itself.

Plenty of parks in Broward and Palm Beach counties are suitable for putting a few miles on the running shoes. But if you're going to live in South Florida, you might as well take advantage of the ocean. There's no better stretch of property than the Broadwalk in Hollywood. It offers an unobstructed view of the ocean and a pleasant saltwater breeze that'll keep your legs pumping. The pathway gets crowded, but if you play your cards right, all logjams can be avoided. Start at the northern tip of Hollywood. North Beach Park at Sheridan Street is an easily accessible spot. Or if you're looking for a slightly longer jog, start farther north, perhaps Perry Street. (It's still Surf Road up there, but the car traffic is almost nonexistent.) Proceed south on the paved walkway. Admire the waves and soak up the ocean air. You can get about two miles of jogging in before things start to get ugly, crowdwise. We usually turn and head back at Michigan Street. That way we avoid the proliferation of Broadwalk eateries and inadequately clad Canadians.
Spread out beneath the two-story observation tower at Anne Kolb Nature Center is a microcosm of South Florida's pristine natural habitats: more than 1400 acres of preserved coastal wetlands, West Lake, the Intracoastal Waterway, and, off in the distance, the Atlantic Ocean. And in the park below, all but the ocean are accessible by trail or canoe. The best place to start, though, is in the interpretive center itself, where a ten-minute film introduces the center and surrounding park. Also inside are touch-tanks full of marine life and informational displays. A stuffed great blue heron and white ibis, for example, seem to give their distinctive calls when the buttons near them are pushed. A full schedule of classes, environmental boat tours, canoe excursions, and hikes along the mud trails through the mangroves are conducted by naturalists. Or visitors can rent a canoe and explore at their own pace.
The collection of dark-stained, cedar-sided buildings that houses the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center's classrooms, labs, and displays looks like ski lodges. The illusion is furthered by what appear to be several giant hot tubs spread out below the deck out back. But instead of decompressing skiers, the tanks are filled with turtles, fish, lobsters, and sharks, which staff members point out and explain to kids and families. Beyond the main complex are an outdoor amphitheater and interpretive nature trail with numbered signs marking trees and plants. The amphitheater is used for portions of some of the many classes and programs offered, but participants don't sit around for long. Hikes through the center's hardwood hammock and along the nearby beach back up the talking part of classes, and one program has nature buffs analyzing the puffer fish, baby barracuda, and blue crabs they find after dipping a seine into the lagoon. For the less adventuresome, however, just kicking back on the shaded deck of the center can be an in-depth lesson in native plants: Dozens of varieties, each with an information card hanging nearby, live in pots that line the deck railing.

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