Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
USF quarterback Steven Bench had to have known he was in trouble the minute the ball left his hands. His team was down to the Florida Atlantic University Owls 21-10 late in the fourth quarter, and he was desperate to get his team back on the board. But Bench decided to throw in the direction of FAU cornerback D'Joun Smith. Off shotgun formation, Bench took the snap, rolled out, and looked for his receiver downfield. Problem was, his receiver was blanketed by the speedy Smith, who had pretty much been feasting on interceptions from opposing quarterbacks all year long, leading the conference in INTs and passes defended. As is usually the case, Smith was his receiver's shadow, like a menacing, ghostly figure ready to devour the ball and break his opponent's back. And sure enough, as soon as Bench's pass got near the cornerback and receiver, Smith used his strength and instincts, plucked the ball out of the sky, jammed it into his side, and ran 75 yards back for the nail-in-the-coffin touchdown. Smith ran past the USF players with a fluid and effortless speed you usually see only in the NFL. Smith's accolades are only just beginning, and the American football viewing audience is starting to take notice. D'Joun Smith is going to be NFL-bound some day, where he'll be devouring passes from the likes of Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, no doubt.
At daybreak, before the Maseratis and the Duck Tours clog A1A, before the sand temperature matches that of the coals on the grill, before the throngs of socks- and Teva-wearing tourists kick sand on your towel, Fort Lauderdale Beach is yours. You know it's worth waking up early for the sunrise, so by 6 a.m., you've already staked your claim in the sand, glowing pink from the morning's first rays. Here, there is more space for your volleyballing and picnicking than anywhere else, with courts and benches and grills you've already claimed for the day. Here, you know the tricks to finding the best parking (which has been made infinitely easier with a years-long parking project now complete). Here, there may be rules, but you know how to break those rules, because this is your beach. So have another mimosa and let your dog fetch some driftwood. At least until the lifeguards show up.
Parks, we've got a few here in the Sunshine State — 161 state parks alone. But while plenty of states can boast of plenty of parks — some with giant redwoods and others with grand holes in the ground — in Florida, we have more of one thing than almost anyone else: beaches. So it only stands to reason that one of our best local parks would include a beach. The park is named after John U. Lloyd, who served as the Broward County attorney for more than 30 years — which isn't a particularly poetic origin story, but Johnnie was the guy responsible for securing the land for our public use, so he deserves to be commemorated. The park offers more than just miles of perfect South Florida beach with pavilions and picnic tables. Activities include fishing, surf casting, canoeing, swimming, boating, and kayaking. Enjoy the wildlife, including the manatee sanctuary at Whiskey Creek — just do not ride, touch, pet, or otherwise molest our precious sea cows.
Not all dogs are created equal. Some fit in handbags. Others stand taller than their owners. And some may very well consume as much chicken as their owner on Wing Night. At Happy Tails Dog Park, all dog's creatures — especially those in need of a good run — can frolic together in harmony in this five-acre mecca designed for man's best friend. There's an agility course where your Westminster-in-training terrier can practice his high jump. There's a huge pathway that Master can walk along while Fido plays fetch. And the park is divvied into weight-restricted sections to keep your two-ounce chihuahua away from the Rottweilers. A home-run slide in poo is rare here. Not only does the park provide bins and bags for the inevitable but visitors actually use them. And the only time you'll have to pay to get in is during Doggiepalooza, an annual event typically held in January where $1 gets you access to every kind of pet product you've never heard of but suddenly have to buy. Who knows? You might even adopt a friend for your man's best friend.
Surfing is a state of mind, they say. It's not so much a destination but a journey of the soul. But you do actually have to go to a destination to surf. No need to drive forever and wind your way to some secret spot when there are miles of coastline smack in the middle of the city. So wax up the deck and get riding here off A1A between Belmar Street and Viramar Street. This spot can get littered with tourists from time to time, but the way the wind kicks up and the waves rush in toward the shore, it's worth fighting them for parking. When a tropical depression hits, it's all yours.
Motors have ruined boating. There was a time when taking to the sea meant adventure — just you and your vessel, fighting nature together, working as one to tame that violent lover known as the ocean. Gone are those days. Now you just hit a button and let technology do all the work while Jimmy Buffett sings you a song about a hot dog or something. Damn you, Buffett. But all is not lost! There is still a way to capture that primal feeling of oneness with the water, to wave goodbye to land, just you and a paddle, floating inches above the water, staring manatees right in their cold, dead, vegetarian eyes. The kayak. A piece of technology seemingly tailor-made for South Florida's canals. And there is no better place in Broward to recapture your inner seaman than Middle River. Launch off at George English Park (it's free, though the iguanas will try to intimidate you) and begin your journey. Paddle north for a more residential and serene route. Feel free to judge everyone's backyard along the way. Or go south toward the bustling Intracoastal, where you'll experience wide-open canals and, if you go far enough, waterfront bars. But drink responsibly, and keep your head on a swivel. We've lost good people to sneaky pelicans.
You live where other people dream of taking their vacations. Sure you have to go to work during the weekdays and sitting in I-95 traffic with a broken A/C in the long summer months is sucktastic. But toss on a pair of rubber flip-flops and stroll down to a beachside bar and you're on instant vacation. If you're looking to get more away from it all in the middle of it all, there's the Coastal Hammock Trail at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. Smack in the middle of Fort Lauderdale, the park is literally "an oasis of tropical hammocks." Not the kind you lounge in with a daiquiri but the kind built over hundreds of years by cypress trees. For an entrance fee of just $2 to $4, here you'll find the few old-growth trees east of 95 that weren't ripped out for rabid development. That's because this pristine natural area was once part of Birch's estate. The park now is the destination for urban kayakers because of the milelong freshwater lagoon, but the Coastal Hammock Trail — another of the four distinct habitat "communities" within the park — is not to be missed either. The trail is a "native maritime tropical hardwood hammock ecosystem" offering signs along the way explaining the native vegetation. It's the perfect walk for the afternoon nature lover because it's conveniently located, and the entire trail is only a 20-minute walk. Afterward, you can visit the beach by taking the pedestrian tunnel that runs under A1A.
Trampolines were an exercise fad in the '80s. Every kid's mom had one sitting out in the garage completely unused. And a large percentage of those kids who lived in South Florida set it up next to the pool to use as a springboard. A percentage of those kids were grounded for life after jumping off the roof onto them. The trampolines at SkyZone are nothing like those, but for '80s kids who lived through such dangerous high jinks and now have kids of their own, the nostalgia will still be sweet. Fans of reality TV will also enjoy the fact that the Fort Lauderdale location was featured in the season finale of Undercover Boss. SkyZone claims to be the original trampoline park, with the Fort Lauderdale spot adding the boast of being the largest in South Florida. Let the kids tire themselves out or go childless for SkyFitness classes, and bounce those unwanted pounds away. See? Every trend comes full circle.
Diving with sharks is not for the faint of heart, and it's not for the faint of wallet either. But then again, there are some things in life you shouldn't bargain-hunt, and haggling with the guy who may soon be pulling you from the literal jaws of death is probably not a good idea. Wouldn't want him to choose that moment to renegotiate! OK, so Force-E leads dive trips to Bimini specifically to see hammerheads, but it's not actually all sharks down there. The company leads wreck dives and spearfishing classes as well as short and sweet beginner dives to look at fish and reefs and turtles. You live in South Florida near a patch of the most beautiful ocean in the world, and you should take advantage of it. Force-E has been a family-run business helping locals and tourists explore our underwater sites since 1976. Owners Skip and Kathy Commagere met while diving in the '70s and today are the proud owners of three Force-E locations, in Riviera Beach, Boca Raton, and Pompano Beach. They both sell and rent equipment and have 15 certified instructors on staff. Join up with the Force-E crew for one of their group dives, beach cleanups, lectures, lionfish hunts, or other events.
Your friends, family, and acquaintances will find their way to the beach. Just tell them to head east. But to make it through the urban sprawl to the oasis that is Butterfly World, they might need a guide. On ten acres of botanical gardens, you will find more than 20,000 butterflies representing 50 species — and they will not be afraid to rest on your shoulder. A wide variety of hummingbirds is on display also, and if you're feeling generous, you can buy a cup of nectar to feed the charming Lorikeets (just be advised not to wear a new shirt, as these birds ain't too proud to relieve themselves on you). Admission for adults is $26.95, but the website has a $3 coupon. If leaving Butterfly World brings tears to your eyes and sadness to your heart, it does have a fantastic plant shop where you can take home vegetation that will attract butterflies to your front stoop.
It's easy to forget that Fort Lauderdale is only a 90-minute drive to a different ecosystem. At John Pennekamp, the first undersea state park in America, you'll see fish of every size, shape, and color. For $29.95 (plus an $8 park entry fee per vehicle and equipment rental if you need it), take a relaxing boat ride to one of the most pristine snorkeling spots imaginable, then hop in the clear blue waters. The variety of fish and coral at a depth of only a few feet is incredible. Of particular note is the rainbow parrotfish, whose name is a misnomer, because the spectrum of colors on its scales puts to shame both rainbows and parrots. Snorkeling isn't the only way to enjoy the park: Glass-bottom boat tours, scuba dives, kayak trips, and powerboat rentals are options as well. Reservations are advisable for one of the four daily tours (especially on weekends), and it's always smart to call ahead about weather and to see if those pesky jellyfish are out.
Less than a three-hour drive from Broward County past Lake Okeechobee and west through the town of Arcadia, you cross Peace River. The name comes from the peaceful conditions of the flow of water, making it no trouble to paddle upstream through water that's reddened by the shallow conditions. If you bring your own canoe, you can park at many different spots along the river and paddle your way back. Otherwise, you can rent canoes from Peace River Campground or Canoe Outpost (with the price of rental dependent upon how long you choose to feel the Peace) — included in Canoe Outpost's rental price is bus service, so you need to paddle only one way, then hitch a ride back to your car. Campgrounds line the river to make it a true all-weekend experience you will never wish to forget. Live oak trees with the breeze whistling through their Spanish moss will serenade you. Turtles basking in the sun will wave hello. Stationary alligators will glare menacingly at you. But the greatest attractions are the rope swings you will come across. Who are the heroes who climb toward the sky and latch a knot on the tree's highest branch so that we river rats can feel brave for a moment?