Best Walk in Urban Sprawl 2011 | Plantation Heritage Park | People & Places | South Florida

Heritage Park, all 88.5 acres, used to be owned by Fred Peters, the shoe scion who basically designed Fort Lauderdale's original western suburb, Plantation. Then it was an agricultural testing ground for the University of Florida. But in 1984, it became what it was always meant to be — a beautiful oasis in the middle of suburban Florida. It's there that nearby residents can jog or walk around the huge lake — which is always stocked with plenty of birds to watch and paddleboats to rent. Numerous and huge picnic areas dot the lake and are popular for large family reunions and company retreats. For the kids, there's a huge playground that'll keep them happy for hours. That's the beauty of Heritage Park — everything there is big. Mostly it's just a big open space in the middle of bustling suburbia. And that's a heritage that Plantation and its founder, Fred Peters, can be proud of.

Despite what seems like developers' best efforts, there are still a few great, open stretches of land in South Florida, and one of the true gems of southeast Palm Beach County is this expansive wildlife playground. In no other context but in referring to the Everglades could the word primordial become a cliché, but how else to sum up a flat, unpolished parkland where visitors are allowed to wander out into the marshes with nothing separating them from the cold reptilian clutches of a gator but their own wits and a good pair of running shoes? Nature is a fickle beast, and there's no guarantee you'll always spot a gator, but the chances are better than good. There are no tourist-trap bells and whistles, just a fascinating and (occasionally frighteningly) up-close look at the way our state looked before "progress" moved in.

Courtesy of the W Fort Lauderdale Hotel

Walk out the fifth-floor glass doors and into the pool area at the W Hotel on A1A, and euphoria is the only way to describe the sensation. The enormous pool expands in all directions, and if you squint, it's hard to decipher where the pool ends and the panoramic ocean view begins. The best part is that in the offseason, the W opens its doors to the public for "Salvation Sunday" pool parties, weekly from 12:30 to 8 p.m. It's the ideal location to sip a bloody mary and mingle at the white, shiny bar with others who feel living in South Florida calls for at least an afternoon per week of vacation-like activity. Curl up on one of the world's cushiest lounge chairs, bake in the sun, and then take a dip in the pool. Ahh, that's better.

The public parking ends quickly on Palm Beach. In front of Charley's Crab, the parking trails off, and to the south, ocean access is blocked from the road by a formidable seawall. Start on the beach south from the parking area and a secluded beach stretches for five miles, all the way down to Lake Worth. Only the mansions across A1A have access from locked gates, so it's rare to find anyone on this wild beach. Less maintained than the public-access beaches, here the sand juts in and out, pulled naturally by the tide. Eddies form, and natural pools swirl. Limestone rocks sit exposed, asking for someone to step carefully across their spiny surface. Pick sea grapes from the trees that line the road, and on summer mornings, watch sea turtles hatch. It's just you and a seemingly endless stretch of sand, just like it used to be.

Turn off your iPhone. Cross the long boardwalk to the beach, and enjoy a rare stretch of sand unblemished by condos or highway traffic. Slip a kayak into the gentle, cool water of the Lake Worth Lagoon. Paddle softly past the mangrove trees, keeping your eyes peeled for the spindly, regal body of a blue heron or an egret hiding in the branches. In the luscious quiet, you can hear the buzzing insects and spot the occasional silver fish jumping out of the water. The trees look prehistoric at low tide. White trunks and branches, wild and tangled, give a glimpse of an era before humans soiled this place.

A neighborhood park shouldn't be an all-inclusive, Disney-like affair, a city unto itself; it should be a stopping-off point, a quick breath of fresh air in the heart of a community. It should be good for a few hours of reading, some basketball, or as a place to tie your kid's shoe while the dog tries to knock him over. Riverside Park isn't fancy. It's a neatly maintained strip of old trees, a playground, a basketball hoop, and tennis courts encircled by leisurely one-lane roads. Approach via the restored Palm Avenue swing bridge at one corner; all around are residential neighborhoods to explore on foot when the park has served its purpose and it's time to move on.

At Pine Crest, Brandon Knight was one of the most celebrated high school players ever, with two state titles and two Gatorade National Player of the Year awards. But when he chose to attend the winningest college basketball team in the country, nobody could be sure how he would handle the transition. Sure, he had a sweet and simple jump shot and more ways to score than Heinz had ketchup recipes. But sometimes it takes a while to adjust. Not for Knight. He started strong and finished with a magnificent run through March Madness, leading a team as a rookie to the Final Four. His clutch shot to beat the top team in the land, Ohio State, is one for the ages — and it was a heck of a national coming-out party. How could a freshman do this? Well, Knight wasn't a freshman; he was technically a sophomore. Not in basketball but in academics. You see, when Knight is on the bus, his head isn't buried in videogames but in books. He's a scholar — and a prodigy.

Now, perhaps Carl Hiaasen is the easy pick for the finest Miami Herald writer because he's a nationally known novelist who has worked as an investigative journalist and columnist for the paper since 1976. Or perhaps he's the only pick. Here's a guy who has a love-hate relationship with the sleaziest side of the Sunshine State. He isn't afraid to take a hard stance on the sickening flow of oxycodone pills, Gov. Rick Scott's disgusting policies, and the crappy new stadium that awaits the Marlins. But he's also not afraid to profit off all of this muck and turn it into a compelling read. Shrewdly played, Hiaasen. And now you write children's books too?

Is there anything in this world better than a large group of people spontaneously breaking into song and dance? No, there is nothing better. So on the rare occasion that it happens, you better hope there's a camera on. This time, it was during a rain delay last season in the middle of a game against Western Kentucky. Words can't adequately describe all that went on that afternoon, but it involved the FAU Owl baseball team marching in step, to the beat, in a West Side Story kind of way, and ultimately concluded with one shirtless young man standing in the center of a circle of kneeling teammates, Shake Weight in hand, dancing his ass off.

He's big-headed, stubborn, childish, and most certainly a mama's boy. On Pardon the Interruption, an ESPN show he occasionally guest-hosts, he's known as "the hatable Dan Le Batard," and he introduces himself with varying forms of the word bam. But Dan Le Batard can also write like rain, like the purest form of nourishment pouring from the sky. His ideas are often counterintuitive, his notions unorthodox. He cares about the athletes he covers, about the people, and those are the stories he tells. From a Le Batard column about the downfall of Bernie Kosar, the great college and pro quarterback whose success on the field could not prevent failure in every other aspect of life: "The game was fast and muscled. He was neither. He was always the giraffe trying to survive among lions. Still is, really. He has merely traded one cutthroat arena in which people compete for big dollars for another, and today's is a hell of a lot less fun than the one that made him famous. More painful, too, oddly enough."

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