Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
For most of A1A's course through Fort Lauderdale, the west side of the street is a hideous combo of strip malls, restaurants, condos, hotels, and curio shops: crap, in other words. But then you come upon a strange little strip of mangroves and sea oats corralled behind a wrought iron fence, which seems as out of place on this road as a ballerina at a biker bar. That would be the eastern boundary of Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. Mr. Birch was a reclusive former attorney from Chicago who amassed the land for a dollar per acre. In 1949 he donated it to the state, and today it's a priceless reminder of just how beautiful Fort Lauderdale must have been long ago. Spread a blanket on the beach or grab a picnic table on the Intracoastal and watch the parade of passing boats. (But beware the marauding raccoons. You could lose your lunch.)
Last summer Grand Prix Race-O-Rama was bought by the Boomers! amusement park chain, which already had a location in Boca Raton. The place has been given a facelift, and a wooden roller coaster, the only one of its kind in South Florida, was built. In addition to the go-karts that have whizzed through the place since the Race-O-Rama days, bumper cars, boats, batting cages, and a rock-climbing wall provide plenty of fun for kids of all ages. The SkyCoaster drops riders from dizzying heights, and the Blender turns one's insides into mush. For fun-seekers without a need for speed, four 18-hole miniature golf courses beckon. If you prefer your fun indoors, step into the casinolike arcade, which offers hundreds of video games, from state-of-the art fighting games to old-school classics such as Centipede. On a budget? Ten dollars gets you unlimited video games, bumper boats, and miniature golf on Tuesdays. Add another fiver and you can drive like the pros on the NasKart race track all day long.
Get a brass ring about the size of a silver-dollar pancake. Tie one end of a four-foot string to the ring and the other end to a hook in the ceiling. Make sure that your ceiling hook is positioned so that the arc of the ring just grazes a nearby wall. Now hang an upturned hook on the wall. Take your ring and walk to the opposite side of the room and swing the ring so that it catches the hook. That's all there is to the Bahamian pastime of ring toss. It's an incredibly simple yet maddeningly difficult test of hand-eye coordination that actually seems to get easier the more you drink. If you don't believe us, try it yourself at places including the Sail Inn, 657 George Bush Blvd. in Delray Beach, or the 1889 Old House, 300 E. Ocean Ave. in Lantana. Don't bet with the locals, though. Some regulars, especially at the Sail Inn, can hook the ring with their eyes closed.
Maybe because it stands between two intimidating neighbors -- the Millionaires' Row of lake-to-ocean mansions to the north and the luxury-condo wonderland to the south -- this pristine little strip of land along A1A remains everything a public beach should be, even in the height of season: uncrowded, clean, and quiet. You park your car (at a dollar an hour, admittedly a bit of a turnoff) in a small lot at the foot of a rising slope of park land dotted with picnic tables under scattered oaks and palms. Then take a quick hike over the ridge line, where the only amenity is a short series of thatched-roof huts, and make a sudden drop down to the water -- and that's it. No hot dog stand, no fishing pier, no T-shirt shop. Just sand, water, you, and a happy little group of others in the know (and in little else) soaking up the sun. Shhhh.
Location, location, location. No bicycle shop has a better spot than this gem of a place, and owner Mark Quinn knows it. "We're 100 yards from the trail," hesays, motioning toward the nearby Intracoastal Waterway, where bikers, joggers, walkers, and 'bladers cruise along a roughly four-mile paved path that takes them within ogling distance of some of the priciest and best-manicured real estate in the nation. But while the magnet for Quinn's shop is the Palm Beach Lake Trail, the friendly service and varied stock keep people coming back. "It's Palm Beach, and most people aren't looking to buy, so we have to do things kind of differently," says Quinn, age 41, who began working at the shop when he was 15 and bought it nine years ago. Doing things differently means giving customers the chance to rent a $2700 replica of the Trek bicycle Lance Armstrong rode to victory in the Tour de France. (It goes for $25 an hour or $99 a week) Or maybe it meansrenting bicycle-powered surreys that will accommodate two adults and three kids (also $25 an hour) or four adults and four kids ($45 an hour). But in addition to renting and selling expensive and novelty bikes, Quinn deals in basic beach cruisers, fixes flats, and sells the typical assortment of bells, whistles, baskets, and locks -- all at very non-Palm Beach prices. In that respect location isn't everything.
All right so this is South Florida, not the Bahamas. But what's the point of owning a boat if you can't do a little island-hopping? The Palm Beach County Department of Parks and Recreation has made it easy for boaters to feel like true nautical people by offering a chance to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway for the day, then tie up and spend the night away from the madding, landlocked crowd. Peanut Island, long a haven for day-trippers, has been turned into an official but not officious destination for boaters. For $16.50 per night, boaters can tie up at the 20-site campground, pitch a tent, grab a shower, and sleep under the stars with the water lapping nearby. While reservations are recommended for the campground, less organized types can use primitive camping sites that are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. The primitive sites are free, but they don't come with picnic tables, grills, easy access to bathrooms, or any guarantee of availability. Those trying to regain their land legs can stroll along a 1.25-mile path that circles the island or visit a bunker that was built for President Kennedy just in case the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted into nuclear war while he was staying at the family compound in Palm Beach. For those who don't want to spend the night, the island is a perfect place to spend the day. Drop anchor and swim in the perpetually placid waters, then look for shells along the beach or hike some surprisingly hilly terrain. Located just inside the Palm Beach Inlet, the spoil island marks the beginning of some of the best cruising waters on the Intracoastal. Head north and watch as the waterway widens, mangroves replace high-rises, and civilization -- as we unfortunately know it -- disappears. (Wannabe visitors who don't own boats can get to the island for five bucks by calling the Sailfish Marina Water Taxi at 561-683-8294.)
When Ray Hudson won his first game as Miami Fusion head coach, he kissed his players on the lips, grabbed team co-owner Ken Horowitz in a bear hug, swung him around and announced, "I'm higher than a hippie at Woodstock." This transplanted Scot may not know the meaning of the word restraint, but he knows enough others to be a veritable quote machine. He sums up the task facing the defense saying it "needs to be on its tippy-toes, like a midget at a urinal." Commenting on the change in his team's play, he says, "This team was as dangerous as my grandmother knitting a quilt." Explaining how a winning tide can turn, he says, "We have the slushy in the cup holder. The music is playing. There are no problems, and then all hell breaks loose." On his own job, he says, "It's like juggling balls on a high wire while riding a unicycle." But his similes of circus acts aside, there is no question that the man who first made his mark on South Florida as a midfielder for the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale Strikers is no clown. In less than a year, he has turned the beleaguered soccer club around. And the story of how he got the chance to do it is almost as good as his quotes. One day last spring Hudson was working as the team's community outreach manager, selling pro soccer to school kids. The next day, he was tapped to be the team's head coach. Did he really want the job? "Guys now say, Hey, coach,' and I thought about what if I don't get this job, what are they going to say: Hey, community outreach manager'? I don't want that, you know? I like coach." The players and the fans like it, too.
The best part of a trip to the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve is the engendered sense of superiority. As you motor toward Naples on I-75, smirk at the lightweights en route to guided airboat rides. Cackle at the sandal-wearing sissies sauntering through the Miccosukee Indian Reservation's mammoth rest stop. You, stoked for adventure, are leaving the cakewalk behind for the Fakahatchee Strand. To get to the trails, turn off the interstate onto southbound State Road 29. Go about 15 miles (until you hit Copeland) and turn west onto Jane's Memorial Scenic Drive, which becomes a remote dirt road. After driving through a few miles of overgrown forest, you'll come to gated, unmarked paths. Park, strap on your backpack, and start walking. The paths cut through a thick, swampy forest of palm trees, brambles, and tall grass. In some places fallen branches obstruct the trails, which extend for miles and mostly do not intersect. The only noises come from birds calling out as they swoop overhead, the wind rattling through the branches, the rhythmic croaking of frogs, and the occasional mystery animal walking within earshot. More than anything else, the Fakahatchee Strand is the kind of place where you could die and no one would find you for weeks. Though you probably won't run into another hiker, expect to see wildlife; sightings of brown bear, raccoons, birds, snakes, and alligators are common. And if you aren't tough enough, Naples, with its golf-playing, sweater vest-wearing tourists, is only a short drive away.
Smith gets the nod not only because he brought a solid running game to the 'Fins for the first time since Nixon resigned but also because of the hardships he's had to overcome during his seven years in the NFL. When he was a rookie in 1994, he was involved in an alcohol-related car wreck that partially paralyzed teammate Mike Frier. The injuries ended Frier's career; the guilt and bad press could have ended Smith's, but he persevered, showing both contrition and character. He pleaded guilty to vehicular assault, shared his salary with Frier, and took his lumps in the papers as he languished, often on the bench, for four years in Seattle. In 1998 he went to play for the New Orleans Saints' Mike Ditka, a coach revered for his compassion and capacity for introspection and forgiveness -- oh, and for pigs flying out of his ass as well. The Big Easy was plenty hard for Smith, who again struggled. This past season, Dave Wannstedt signed Smith mainly to give projected starter J.J. Johnson some competition. Smith competed Johnson right out of a job. At a compact 5 feet 11 inches and 230 pounds, he has a bloodhound's nose for the hole, deceptively quick feet, and enough power to punish tacklers (and occasionally run over them). The 30-year-old back had a great regular season (1139 yards, 14 touchdowns), but his monster game came in the playoffs when he beat Indy with a 209-yard performance. Smith doesn't talk about Seattle anymore. (In fact teammates say he doesn't talk much, period.) He lets his game do the talking.
If anyone knows fishing, it's worms. Thus by extrapolation, the guys who sell worms to fishermen ought to know where the good fishing is; four of five bait shops surveyed recommended Anglin's Fishing Pier. And why not? The fish are biting. Ask folks along the pier, "Havin' any luck?" (asking if anglers have caught anything is taboo), and they will likely say something to the effect of "yup" or "mmhmm." Bluegill abound in these waters, along with several larger species of fish, especially after a full moon. Strange things happen under the full moon, the saying goes, and this applies particularly to the ichthyoid community; lunar rays turn underwater dwellers into sex-crazed fiends that begin to spawn with anything that moves and looks reasonably like a fish. The result of this aquatic orgy is that the little swimmers get hungry, and those worms on the end of your hook look better and better. So catch full-moon fever at the pier, and catch yourself some dinner.
Because of the airport tram's resemblance to a theme-park attraction, you can calm antsy kids by taking them on a ride around the terminals and parking lots. "Just like Busch Gardens' pseudosafari," you can tell them. But it is fun, not because of the view from the tram (parking spots, terminals, and travelers, oh my!), but because of the sights within. On a recent trip one elderly gent, like some overgrown jack-in-the-box, stood up numerous times until he was warned to sit down. Another man perpetually muttered, "I'm in handicapped parking." Acting like a tram tour guide, a handsome airport maintenance worker politely answered riders' questions -- but unlike the workers on traditional theme park rides, he did it while smoking a cigarette and flexing his buff, browned biceps.
Oh sure, you can hack the greens at plenty of swank and ritzy courses. But we recommend Pompano Beach because it offers two great golf experiences and you don't have to sell your kidney on the Internet to play there. You can go out tomorrow and glide through 18 holes in the morning for a mere $22. If you walk the course (the way God intended), the price plummets to as little as $10. And get this: off-season membership (from April through November) goes for just $280. What do you get in return? Try lush courses with six lakes, brand-new greens, a new practice facility, and beautiful woods and shrubs with wildlife including foxes and ospreys. You'll feel the morning breeze off the nearby ocean, which usually keeps the temperature under 90 degrees, even on the worst summer days. The location also shields you from many of the storms coming off the Everglades. The only decision left, then, is which course to play, the Palms or the Pines. The Palms is short, with picturesque doglegs. It's fun. The Pines is long (7000 yards) and features one of the toughest back nines in Florida. It's mean. We like the Pines -- because it makes the beer seem even colder when we head to the course restaurant after a punishing round.