A sliver of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal, Coral Cove Park isn't just for snorkeling. It could have easily been named Best Picnic Spot or Beach. It's just that good. And if you feel the need to venture out in the water for a little aquatic sightseeing, it's got the goods. And you don't have to swim far. Just off the shoreline, there's a giant artificial reef made from limestone boulders that magnetizes a wide variety of beautiful tropical fish. This isn't heavy-duty stuff -- it's something the family can do, especially since the beach is protected by professional lifeguards. But watch out -- there have been several shark sightings there, prompting numerous closings of the beach. But hey, nobody's been bitten yet. And if there's a shark sighting, there're worse things than having to hang out on the rock-strewn beach.
Plantation Heritage Park
Sure, you can drive all the way out west to Markham Park. Or you can make a big to-do and hit one of the area beaches. Not telling you not to. But sometimes you want a place nearby. And that's one thing about Heritage Park: Nobody's too far away from it in Broward County. The park is located smack dab in the middle of the county. And its rolling acreage and large duck pond soothes the savage breast. There are plenty of gazebos to sit under, but it's preferable to cozy up next to the pond. Hell, bring a fishing pole and throw out a line. Do a little bicycling. And before you mosey on home, let the kids play in the big playground on the eastern end of the park.
Getting your picnic on isn't just about plopping your rump down under a tree and noshing on a turkey sandwich while sipping iced tea. It's all about ambiance. Relaxation is tough in a world run rampant with cell phones and PSPs. What's needed in a picnic spot is a place with plenty to delight the eye and keep the mind off modern distractions. John Prince Park is just the place to bring the picnic basket, the kids, and the boat. With 726 acres of grass and 338 acres of lake, it's a veritable mind eraser. Take a break from the potato salad and get dragged around the lake at 30 knots on a kneeboard, or bring the bike and ride the five miles of trails. Too lazy to pack a sandwich? Hit up the Publix around the corner and get some beefy hot dogs to drop on the dozens of grills sprinkled around the park, or if that's too much of a hassle, just go to the snack bar. The park is so huge that if any rude picnic disrupters show up, just walk a few feet to another spot -- there are hundreds to choose from.
Getting to Janes Scenic Drive is easy. Just take Alligator Alley west and head south on Highway 20 about 12 miles until you see the sign marking the road. Finding your way out of the heart of the dense swamp it leads to -- unless you go back the way you came -- is not. The 11-mile gravel road takes drivers, cyclists, and hikers through some of the finest wildlife-spotting turf in the state. Fakahatchee Strand, of course, is also home to numerous species of colorful bromeliads and orchids, including the Ghost Orchid of Adaptation fame. The road ends at one corner of the massive maze of Golden Gate -- the grid of streets planned for a huge subdivision never built (this is where the "Wanna buy some land in Florida?" scam was hatched). Enter this labyrinth with less than a full tank of gas and a good sense of direction and you're in big trouble. The intersections are mostly unmarked, the lonely streets indistinguishable, and all but a couple dead-end at alligator-choked canals. The only way out is to find (through trial and error) either Everglades or Desoto boulevards somewhere there in the godforsaken muck and head north. By the time you stumble upon civilization again, you're damned near Immokalee, and you've had a day not soon forgotten. Miamians have Loop Road to find backwoods adventure that flirts with peril. But out in the real Everglades, you just better hope that cell phone works.
Rainy days: don't they just make you want to climb the walls? Well, at Coral Cliffs, you can! This indoor rock-climbing gym ($15 for a one-day pass) may not be Mount Everest, but with routes rated from 5.5 to 5.13, there's plenty of challenging terrain as well as climbs for beginners. One route requires you to ascend using itty-bitty handholds and do a Spider-Man over a giant arched doorway. If you make it to the top, we salute you. If you fall (which we like to do on purpose, 'cause it's fun), you swing like a pendulum until your belayer lowers you to the ground. They have some free weights lying around and a little bouldering area with a roof. A couple of pointers: one, it's OK if you don't know how to tie a figure-eight follow-through -- but you'll look cooler if you do. Two, don't talk smack to the 15-year-old kids who work there. These homeboys are stronger than you! And they have the authority to boot anyone who acts aggro or ignores the rules. Safety first, people!
So you're desperate to see that movie everybody's talking about, the one where the naked guy does pig noises while the girl underneath him in the bed prays to the Virgin Mary and makes like pinwheels with her eyes? Oscar-winning performances all around, of course, but not exactly family fare. What do you do with Junior while all of this is going on? Muvico Theaters, with multiplexes in Pompano Beach, Boca Raton, and Davie, has a civilized solution. They have children's playrooms where, for a modest fee, trained child-care specialists will watch your kids, aged 3 to 8, while you're satisfying your aesthetic needs. Junior gets crayons, games, a computer zone, a reading corner, and a chance to see free movies in which the pigs act not like farmyard beasts but like kids. They'll even equip you with a beeper so that, if Junior flames out over the lame entertainment menu, you can be summoned to try to set things right. The service is available Fridays through Sundays, 5 to 10 p.m., and it costs $5. Get there early; slots are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The service is also available at Muvico's Palace 20 in Boca Raton and Paradise 24 in Davie.
Manor Lanes Bowling Center
Bowling alleys are falling faster than tenpins as cities chase after the fast buck of redevelopment. Built in an era when land was cheaper than cable TV, bowling alleys took up city lots that turned out to be worth far more as shopping centers or condos. These days, the hallmark of a great bowling alley is as much a matter of location as anything, and for central Broward County bowlers east of I-95, Manor Lanes is the only thing resembling a city alley. The games are cheap (as little as two bucks on Sundays); air hockey, pool, and shuffleboard tables dot the premises; and the 20 lanes ensure that you can generally get in a couple of games, even on a weekend night. Weekdays are crowded with leagues, but when a team of women arrives with pink-on-black shirts embroidered with the name "Guttersluts," you know you're in the right place.
Pass by Fort Lauderdale Beach on a Saturday morning and you can't help but notice personal trainer Bob Weinstein, a.k.a. "The Health Colonel," in full camouflage regalia and combat boots exercising with his "troops." On the home page of Weinstein's website, www.nomorecrybabies.com, there's a link that says, "Here's why Bob trains on Fort Lauderdale beach." Click it and it leads to a picture of the sun rising over the horizon -- no words required. But we can scribble a whole list of reasons why this long stretch of sand, with its wide brick path, should keep you motivated. First of all, there's free parking at the corner of A1A and Sunrise Boulevard. From there, you can choose to run north and watch the surfers, run south to Las Olas Boulevard (1.5 miles), or run west and tack on a couple of loops in shady Birch State Park. For a challenge, go barefoot on the beach sand. Along the way, shoppers at BeachPlace, drinkers at the landmark Elbo Room bar, and even the colonel himself will be cheering you on -- and checking out your hot legs.
Nature, schmature. The best paddling route around here takes you through a uniquely urban jungle via Fort Lauderdale's New River and its adjoining system of man-made canals. If you've got $65, you can take a three-hour guided tour with the knowledgeable staff from the Full Moon Kayak Co. (954-328-5231; www.fullmoonkayak.com), who will be sure to point out the boathouse where gangster Al Capone used to stay. If, however, you have your own boat, put in at Cooley's Landing Marine Facility (450 SW Seventh Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-828-4626), where metered parking is the only thing that'll cost ya. (The office staff will even give you a free area map.) Paddle away past multimillion-dollar mansions and luxury sailboats and yachts. Birds (including the species known as "flamingo yard ornament") and fauna are omnipresent; four-foot-long red and green iguanas sun themselves on docks; and lazy manatees sometimes make cameo appearances. As you wrap up your trip and return to downtown, wave to patrons on the banks at the Riverwalk shopping complex or the Downtowner Saloon. And be sure to smile when the Jungle Queen paddlewheel boat goes by -- for the camera-happy tourists on board, you are the scenery.
Dang hurricanes. Not only did last year's batch of storms flood our yards, close our businesses, and leave us without electricity for, like, ever but they chewed up and spat out big chunks of public parks. This was especially problematic for mountain bikers in Broward or Palm Beach counties, who never had much in the way of challenging terrain to begin with -- just Quiet Waters and Markham parks, really. Now here we are in the spring, and only half of the trails at Markham have reopened; a park attendant at Quiet Waters says groundskeepers "haven't even gotten to [the bike trails] yet. They're still cleaning up the campground." That leaves people who want to ride, and ride hard, heading out to a place simply known as "the levee" -- essentially a long, flat gravel road on top of a mound of dirt that holds back the swampy Everglades. The route begins at Markham Park (16001 W. State Rd. 84, Sunrise; go west on the trail near the entrance and walk your bike around the concrete barriers) and you can either ride north until you get tired (Loxahatchee State Park is about 20 miles away) and then turn around or make a 27-mile loop using about three miles of State Road 27 and five miles of State Road 84 (which gets exciting when those Mack trucks fly by!). Although you might spot deer and gators, one rider calls the punishing adventure "not fun at all" but considers it great for endurance training; another described it as "a spinning class with mosquitoes." So, yeah... it's not for pansies. Newbies should contact the friendly folks at Synergy Outdoor Adventure Racing (www.soarteam.com), who won't mind you tagging along on their weekly ride -- and won't laugh if you turn back early.

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