Since the mid-1970s Benitez has been the sober, soothing Spanish voice of South Florida news on WLTV-TV (Channel 23), but we like him better as a standup comic whose shtick is broadcast on the radio. The local affiliate of Colombian media giant Caracol already boasts the most rollicking drive-time show in this market in any language. Each weekday from 4 to 7 p.m., "Regreso a Casa" (The Return Home) bubbles with the exuberant puns and parodies of talk-jocks Alfonso Quintero, Paula Arcila, and Saulo Garcia, as well as the dulcet tones and improvised rhymes of Eduardo Vasquez and Gabriel Cuartas, better known as Los Trovadores. But this show really gets cooking at about 5:45, when the motorcycle sound effect heralds Benitez's arrival live from the Channel 23 studios. (Benitez is a Harley-Davidson nut, famous for tooling around town on his Hog.) After exchanging pleasantries, he adds his basso profundo to the segment called "El Chiste de la Tarde" (The Afternoon Joke), as the group engages in the hallowed Colombian tradition of sitting around telling guy-walks-into-a-bar jokes. Benitez more than holds his own with the hosts, with such winners as: "Manola arrives at the airport counter with this enormous TV. They say to her, Manola, don't they have TVs in Galicia?' Yeah, but the thing is, I prefer the shows from here.'" Rimshot, please! Many of the jokes involve untranslatable puns, especially off-color ones. (Suffice to say that arepa has one meaning when applied to a tasty corn patty and quite another when referring to a woman's anatomy.) Whether or not the jokes make the audience laugh, the fact that every one elicits cacophonous guffaws from the assembled joke-tellers can't help but amuse listeners, even those with an imperfect grasp of Spanish. When Benitez gives a rundown of that night's news at 6 p.m., the hilarity settles down just a bit -- hasta mañana.

Hey, Bob, no one knows what you're doing right, but keep it up. Cherub-faced and perennially chirpy, Soper could probably announce the arrival of six simultaneous hurricanes with a smile and a cheery sendoff. In the face of gale-force winds, Soper keeps his chin up, warning us about the dangers of flying fruit from neighbors' trees with cautionary concern. Moreover, Soper's back-page column in the local section of the Sun-Sentinel (recently redesigned, much to our chagrin) is his forum to answer questions and dispense good-natured advice. Want to know when to plant broccoli? Or why it gets dark at night? Or what makes rain so gosh-darn wet? Or does it ever rain cats and dogs? Or frogs? Just ask -- no question is too big, small, or inane for Soper's genuine good humor to tackle. Moreover, and most important, Soper's predictions often pan out.
De Land offers a three-in-one package deal of Florida attractions: In one weekend (without excessive hours whiled away on Interstate 95) you can enjoy Spanish moss-strewn Old South, Disney-tinged commercialism, and lush natural beauty. Located about 225 miles north of West Palm Beach, De Land echoes Savannah, Georgia: Both towns boast graceful architecture and bona fide downtowns. But unlike the isolated Savannah, De Land sits conveniently between Orlando and the Ocala National Forest. While you're in De Land, have dinner at the Holiday House Restaurant, located at 704 N. Woodland Blvd., across from Stetson University. While you clean off your plate of Southern-style buffet samplings, members of restaurant cofounder Willa Cook's family watch: Family portraits, each painted by Cook herself, literally cover the walls. Cook, aside from starting a thriving restaurant in 1959 and working as a professional painter, also happens to be a three-time water-skiing world champion. Eating aside, the turn-of-the-century storefronts warrant a nice stroll through downtown De Land, and the university's architecturally diverse campus beckons. If you like hiking, the best section of the Florida Trail happens to cut right through the nearby national forest, where the trail weaves through gently rolling hills. And when you tire of the outdoors and sleepy Southern charm, the mouse awaits.
A specter is haunting CityPlace, and its name is Michael Monet. The actor, model, club kid, and all-around scene fixture died in 1995 of a heroin overdose in the old First Methodist Church that is now the centerpiece of the gaudy West Palm Beach shopping complex. In the early '90s, in the interval between the bankruptcy of one real-estate scheme and the construction of the current consumerist playland, Monet worked as caretaker of the then-abandoned church. While living in the church's warren of storage rooms and living quarters, he turned the place into an informal artists' collective, a drug-fueled hangout, and a nighttime rave club. It could have been an experiment in living -- what anarchists call a temporary autonomous zone -- but Monet's personal demons got the better of him, and he sank into the paranoia and depression that led to his suicide. Monet might have despised the fate of his haunt, a short-lived bohemian enclave now entombed in mainstream materialist frenzy. On the other hand, he might have appreciated the irony. Whatever else he was, Monet was both authentic and original -- two qualities sorely lacking at CityPlace.

Plenty of crackerjack reporters slave away at The Herald's Broward County headquarters. We think, for example, that Lisa Arthur, Dan de Vise, and Bill Yardley do some solid work -- given the constraints of daily journalism. But this award should go to someone unsung; thus our pick is Diaz. A general-assignment reporter with solid news judgment and a fluid writing style, Diaz has proven himself adept at both cops-reporting and feature-writing. He shies from sensationalism, writes with flair, and imparts his work with a rare sensitivity. Diaz's empathy for his subjects and sense of fairness distinguish him as one of The Herald's most promising up-and-coming scoops.
She writes one of those lifestyle columns you instinctively know you're going to hate. It's called "Real Life," but as any discerning newspaper reader knows, anytime a newspaper writer is set loose to write about "family issues," the column is going to be sappy, self-involved, and teeth-grittingly annoying. Emily Minor, however, rises above the my-life-is-so-damned-interesting phenomenon. Yes, her husband and her son are regular fixtures in the column she's been writing since 1995. But more often she leaves her family at home and writes about real people -- from parents watching their mentally handicapped adult child strive for independence, to a prominent doctor insisting that she didn't fully appreciate life until she got breast cancer, to a mother attending a Backstreet Boys concert to deal with her daughter's death. Minor isn't preachy, falsely modest, cloyingly familiar, or overly dramatic. "I'm such a beer-swilling slob," she writes. And you believe her and love her for it. In fact reading her column is a lot like having a beer with a friend who gives you something to think about but isn't offended if you disagree with her views. She's also not averse to stepping down from her lofty perch to write news stories. During the election melee that gripped Palm Beach County this past fall, she wrote profiles of elections supervisor Theresa LePore and county commissioner/canvassing board member Carol Roberts that depicted real women, not the monsters we saw in the national media. Moreover she's proof that in real life, stories don't always have storybook endings. Three years ago a New York literary agent contacted her about writing a book. The agent, Stephen Lord, discovered Jack Kerouac and, in so doing, gave the Beat generation its bible, On the Road. After getting an advance from Harcourt Brace, Minor took a six-month leave of absence to become an author. But when she was done, editors decided not to publish it. "My mom loves it," she says. That's real life.
The Sun-Sentinel television critic is not a man to suffer fools gladly. Therefore, when you write him a letter to ask him a dumb question -- like "When can I catch reruns of Touched by an Angel?" -- be sure to brace yourself. In his column in Sunday's On TV, he will publish your inane query, then he will administer the appropriate punishment. And if you're from the wrong part of town, watch out! Jicha's fond of rubbing your nose in it. "No wonder you're single," he berated one hapless writer. "You live in Weston." Don't even get Jicha started on political topics, especially global warming. He'll unleash a torrent of bile scalding enough to rival the surface of the sun. "It scares me that people still believe that nonsense," he recently testified. "Try talking about global warming to the people up in Canada." Jicha's anti-environmental theories are about as valid as Rush Limbaugh's, but that still won't get him to shut his pie hole. That's why we keep reading him.
When the Norton Museum of Art asked the West Palm Beach city commission to overrule the city's historic preservation board and OK the destruction of a 1920s garage to make way for the museum's latest round of expansion, the trustees expected to get their way. Not in Mango Promenade. The residents of this narrow peninsula of a neighborhood, less than 12 blocks long and a block and a half wide, have watched the well-funded cultural Goliath grow and devour their district's northernmost blocks through the years. Not this time. Mango Promenade was the city's very first automobile suburb, said the working folk whose sweat equity had revived the neighborhood in recent years, and those old garages are central to its character. The Mangoistas took that argument to a packed city hall hearing in February, outdueled a team of Norton lawyers and architects, and convinced the commission, for once, to do the right thing.
Boca Raton is notorious for symbolizing South Florida's anticulture: stuffy, platinum-pated, insufferably posh, and full of itself. We wouldn't want to grow up there. But if worse came to worst, at least there's one small pinpoint of hipness in this vast bad-jewelry-and-plastic-surgery capital. It's stuck behind a 7-Eleven off the corner of Palmetto Park Road and Dixie Highway. It's dark, dank, and about as unpretentiously pretentious as can be. For Boca's disaffected youth (or at least those of legal drinking age), it's nice to have a walk-to watering hole sans $13 chocolate martinis or dress-code elitism. What it does offer, besides reasonably priced cold frosty ones, is music of the live, local, and loud variety. How does such a bastion of anarchy survive in tanned, tony Tinselville? We haven't a clue, but we're sure glad the Boca Pub exists. Maybe there's hope for Boca Raton after all.

Who would have expected Japanese colonists in South Florida? Well, they were here, nearly a century ago, and although their Yamato farming community in Boca Raton didn't last, their legacy lives on in the form of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. Think of this 200-acre complex as an organic whole, the way a Zen Buddhist might, and you'll begin to appreciate the architectural splendor of the place, which is actually made up of two distinct museum buildings and an intricate series of gardens linking them. The original "Yamato-kan," which opened in 1977, is a replica of a traditional Japanese villa, wrapped around a starkly beautiful rock garden and set on a small island. Nearly a mile of carefully manicured trails winds through half a dozen styles of gardens, each magnificent in its own way, to take you up the hill to the new museum, which opened in 1993. It's a much grander structure, also inspired by traditional Japanese architecture, featuring galleries, a teahouse, and a 225-seat theater. Between the two buildings is a large lake stocked with turtles and big, colorful Japanese carp that gather at a feeding station on the island, where, by the way, you can take in a collection of bonsai trees, which demonstrate that, in Japanese hands, even nature can be transformed into architecture.

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