Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Want to chase around some albino peacocks, feed a fish to a pelican, or adopt a disabled box turtle? If so, look no further than Flamingo Gardens — a wildlife preserve that exists to rehabilitate and support injured animals. This is the best place to see Florida wildlife up-close and personal and also to make a difference in preserving our great state's animal habitats. It has the largest collection of native Florida animals, 3,000 species of rare and exotic plants, and some of the largest trees in the state. Many of the birds and other wildlife have been hit by cars or are just too dependent on humans to be released. But some of them, like the otters Fast Eddie and Patches, are doing their part to repopulate their species. Since 1989, Flamingo Gardens has helped release dozens of otters into the wild through a breeding program. This is made possible by an $18 entry fee and by unique fundraisers like the adopt-a-flamingo program ($50 to sponsor one). Warning to new visitors: Even though they're not fluffy in that traditional way, these critters are addictive. You might whimper because you can't take Winnie — the disabled turtle who used to live in a Winnebago — home. You will, however, get the assurance that with such great care, the little critter won't be eaten by alligators.
The photographers of Florida's postcard industry could go on holiday after taking a few snaps at this piece of scenic Boca Raton coastline, its white sands constantly beaten by waves of crystal-clear saltwater. Sure, the shutterbugs would have to go elsewhere for the novelty postcard shots of obese sunbathers and hot babes, as South Beach Park is rarely crammed with people. It may not have the easy access to bars and restaurants of the same-named beach in Miami-Dade, but neither is it littered with empty bottles and cigarette butts. If you're longing for a vista that might inspire you to write something on the blank side of that postcard and make a faraway friend jealous, this is the spot for you.
Readers' Choice: Delray Beach
Nestled right off Mile Marker 37, about an hour from Key West, you'll find a little piece of paradise called Bahia Honda State Park. The three beaches that make up the park stand under the shade of the old Flagler Railroad and look out over crystalline, snorkel-friendly waters. Bahia Honda is the perfect place to just chill on the sand with your toes in the water. And if you're feeling adventurous, you can hike along the Silver Palm Trail or ride along the winding bike path. The Bahia Honda Bridge is a great place for pictures or for spotting the nurse sharks that swim underneath the railroad. The park also offers kayak rentals and boating excursions. Overnight lodging is available for campers if you don't want to go back home right away. Park entry costs $8 per vehicle.
Anyone who's tried surfing in South Florida knows they don't call it Lake Atlantic for nothing; the only thing tubular in this town is the New River Tunnel. But fewer than three hours north, on the Central Florida coast, there exists a rustic slice of surf-town heaven. Start north at Cocoa Beach and score a cheap waterfront room on Airbnb (well, cheap by Fort Lauderdale standards). Wake up early, rent a board, and surf the sunrise. Plan it right and you can be packed up and in Indiatlantic for a late-afternoon lunch. There are tons of surf spots all along the coast — in Melbourne, Sebastian, Fort Pierce — all within an hour of each other (or less!). For those of us who are used to sitting in traffic at the Golden Glades Interchange for 45 minutes a day, that's nothing. Surfline.com offers a pretty good detailed guide (and beach cams) that will explain which spots — like the Streets — are good for beginners and which, like Hangers, have hazards like underwater pilings. Pit stop at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and Ulumay Wildlife Sanctuary, which will make you forget the chaos that exists a few hours south. Grab a board and a brew and spend a weekend slowing down. Just, uh, ignore the sharks.
What, pray tell, makes a great pool? Who can describe the Platonic Ideal of the Pool? Should the water be salt-treated or chlorinated? What is the perfect chair-to-umbrella ratio? Kids or no kids whizzing in the water? For us, the slam dunk is simple: a lazy river. Any pool with a lazy river equals automatic badass. The Pelican Grand on Fort Lauderdale Beach offers exactly this sort of entertainment. The hotel's lazy river loops languidly around the pool proper, which is situated just steps from the sand. The hotel provides inner tubes so you can take a relaxing tour down the lazy river. Oh, and that pool proper ain't no slouch — a no-frills peaceful blue lagoon with steps leading down to the waves.
Readers' Choice: The W Fort Lauderdale
Parks were created because even before modern "green" movements to preserve the environment, humans innately craved natural space in the middle of civilization. Most parks these days, however, feature unnatural, brightly colored plastic playgrounds set atop artificial, shock-absorbent turf. But nature still reigns at Tradewinds Park & Stables, a huge 626.7-acre retreat and one of the few places in South Florida where you can ride horses. The park has the usual amenities: jogging path, picnic shelters, athletic fields, and playgrounds. You can fish, rent a bounce house, walk the Cypress Trail Boardwalk, and play disc golf all in the same day. But the stables also host kids' summer camp programs and equine-assisted therapy for the disabled. There's an educational farm where you can learn about Broward's agrarian past as well as model-steam-train rides. And, of course, there's always Butterfly World; this park within a park is a breathtaking botanical garden that breeds butterflies and is home to the country's largest free-flight hummingbird aviary.
Readers' Choice: Quiet Waters Park
There's one part of music festivals that sucks: the bathrooms. Whether you're squatting in a hot porta-potty or waiting in a poorly ventilated concrete fortress for 30 minutes, small bladders and big concerts don't mix. But this year, West Palm Beach's SunFest music festival revolutionized the concert toilet with its VIPee restrooms. If you have $5 and a stomach full of Coors Light, you will thank the heavens for this development in concertgoing technology. The bathrooms featured wood floors and individual stalls, but by far, the best part of the VIPee toilets was the mind-blowing foot-flush feature. Basically, it's an attachment at the bottom of the toilet that lets you flush with your foot like a brilliant little gas pedal. Once you pay to get in, you receive a wristband and can return anytime nature calls. Plus, a portion of the proceeds from the VIPee bathrooms went to the Palm Beach County Food Bank. VIPee, we'll see you in 2016.
Whiskey Creek got its name from the bootleggers that used its winding, shallow waters to hide from authorities back in the day. Today, the creek remains undeveloped and pristine, snaking around a white, soft beach that curls into a nature preserve connected to John Lloyd Park. What makes it the perfect kayaking spot is that both beautiful extremes of Florida are found here. The creek itself is flanked by shallow swamp water and deep ocean. On one side, the view is sandy beach with tall palm trees swaying in the breeze. On the other, it's mangroves and sea-grape leaves flapping in the wind. You can kayak the tepid waters of the creek, paddling in the shade of the seemingly endless mangroves, and then wind around the beach before looping back into the open waters of the Intracoastal Waterway. Next, head over to Port Everglades to catch a glimpse of the massive cruise ships in the distance. It's an entire South Florida kayaking experience in one shot.
Of all the things South Floridians can do in and around the ocean, fishing might be the easiest. Then again, if you have no idea what you're doing, it can also be the toughest. That's where Flamingo Deep Sea Fishing comes in. This 65-foot boat and its crew provide the best way for an amateur South Florida fisherman to get out on the open water and learn the ropes. They provide everything you could possibly need while trying to pull in the big catch, and it won't cost you an arm and a leg. Flamingo runs boats multiple times a day and has a long track record of finding fish. Hell, their slogan is "Fish Can't Hide From the Flamingo." Everything from kingfish, snappers black fin tuna, bonito, mahi-mahi, barracuda, grouper, and wahoo to cobia and sailfish are routinely pulled up onto their deck, making the $40 price of admission a deal, seeing as you are likely to take home many meals. Regulars boast of shark sightings on deep-sea trips, and photography — something not all boat crews are fond of — is encouraged.
South Florida presents ample fishing destinations, but fishing off a good, well-set-up pier is one of the best. The fishing pier at Deerfield Beach is the best of the best. The 976-foot structure, which costs just a buck to walk on, provides amateur fishermen a place to get their feet wet. At the bait and tackle shop, novices can purchase an entire kit for less than $20 that will get them through an entire day of fishing, and judging by the pictures of recent catches on the pier, they can expect to bring home dinner worth at least that much. Group and private lessons are available too. The destination doubles as a terrific place to take a date, with views stretching to Pompano Beach on a clear night.
In 2012, authorities used 600 tons of limestone boulders to build an 800-foot-long underwater snorkeling trail over two acres on the south side of the Blue Heron Bridge. Six to ten feet deep and marked off from boat traffic by buoys, it's enough to be adventurous yet not too intimidating. The underwater rock trail was built with little ledges and crannies in which sea critters love to hide. On a calm day, you might encounter squid, octopus, spotted rays, tarpon, starfish, and even cute lil' seahorses. Free parking, outdoor showers, picnic tables, and a lifeguard make this a near-perfect place to while away a beach day.
Warning: Do not try this at home. Now, with that out of the way... swimming with alligators is probably the biggest wildlife thrill out there. We know. Earlier this year, New Times went along with Hal Kreitman — AKA the Haligator — as the former chiropractor paddled around the water with a pack of hungry gators. This was Kreitman's thing, and he was offering to take people along with him for a fee, calling the adventures "wildlife photo shoots." It was intense, watching him park kisses on the noses of wild reptiles. The initial investment in this kind of thrill-seeking might be just the gas out to the 'Glades, but the cost comes down the line. If you try it, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will come after your ass. A few weeks after our story ran, Kreitman was busted by Fish and Wildlife agents and charged with a felony for playing with the gators. So swimming with alligators may be thrilling, but it's gonna cost you some lawyer's fees after the fact. Kreitman is fighting the charges against him.