John U. Lloyd Beach State Park
Covered in mangroves and tucked away from major roads, John U. Lloyd State Park has that going-to-the-end-of-the-world feel and a sense that what happens there is secret. Its history reinforces that vibe. During Prohibition, smugglers used the land as a drop point for importing rum from the Bahamas. Its thick mangroves sure do look like an inviting place to dump a body, and indeed the corpses of two secretaries were found here in 1967, killed by a surfer named Murf the Surf who had already infamously heisted gobs of jewels from New York's Museum of Natural History. Today, if you pay the entrance fee and then take the road all the way to the end of the long, narrow park, you'll still find people doing top-secret stuff -- at FAU's oceanographic lab and an adjacent Coast Guard station. Unfortunately, big, intimidating warning signs advise you not to trespass. That's OK; there are plenty of other ways to amuse yourself here. Like, by bringing a pair of binoculars and looking into the cabins of massive cruise ships that float by just a few feet away. Or by bringing a Jet Ski and putting in at the boat ramp. Or fishing off the jetty. Or swimming in the ocean. Or renting Hobie cats, surfboards, or giant floating tricycles (!!!) from a beachside trailer. Getting hot? Walk along the boardwalk through the shady, mangrovey nature trail and look for pelicans. Hungry? Bring charcoal and cook on the grills. Thirsty? Grab a beer at the concession. Don't have a car? Boat in and out of the park on its Intracoastal side. Don't have any friends? Says a boy who visits frequently, "The squirrels will dine with you." And if they won't? Look for the "Red-Eyed Lady," the ghost of Murf the Surf's victim, who is rumored to hang around and keep visitors company.
We were thiiiiiis close to naming Red Reef Park in Boca as the county's best beach, considering the fact that it has a golf course, a pristine snorkeling reef, and the seemingly well-funded Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. But when we saw the $17 entry fee, we were like, Whaaaaat? "It certainly keeps the riff-raff out," said a cocky lifeguard who works there. But, um, what if we are the riff-raff? Which is why Lake Worth beach rules. Lake Worth Beach will always rule. It ruled when we were 15 and got really excited to steal our mom's car and drive in circles around the parking lot and flirt with 17-year-olds until the cops booted everyone at 9 p.m. It ruled when we first started surfing and had to put up with locals' show-me attitudes and pay our dues and get better. It ruled when it had a pier (pre-2004 hurricanes) and the fishermen would throw smiles and chat. Lake Worth Beach hasn't changed that much over the years. It still has Hispanic guys yelling "Hey Mami" and old folks who will strike up a conversation as they wait for the bus. It has an amazing breakfast place in John G's (note the line around the building), a great pizza place, a shop where you can buy cheap towels and sunscreen, a swimming pool, a playground, and bonfires during winter months. Drinking a beer at Benny's on the Beach as you watch the sun set and lick the salt off your lips is heavenly. With its aging façade, its broken pier, and even -- no, especially -- with its riff-raff, this is a place to flip-flop your way down the boardwalk and feel beautifully, democratically alive.
If there's a Huntington Beach of the East Coast, Jupiter is it. All the girls are cute, all the boys are rippers, and scores of little grommets crowd the surf. Everyone, it seems, is friends! Everyone is in a surf band! MILF-y moms drop their kids at the beach, while old longboarders with beer bellies plaster their cars with stickers that say, "Surfing Impaired: Too Old, Too Fat, Don't Care." If you can already shred, paddle out and prove it -- just show the locals some respect. If you're just learning, be content with your status as a whitewater ranger and it'll all be good. The pier is a beach break -- meaning that waves break when they hit sandbars and if you go over the falls, there's no danger of hitting your head on a reef. But, oh... just one thing... You're not scared of sharks, are you?
For years, kids have been coming to this wooded spot on the New River to hang out, party, and soar over the water on a rope swing. But residents of this peaceful Fort Lauderdale neighborhood have hated the cars and the kids roaming through the 3.42-acre parcel, and after a high school sophomore drowned last August, the rope swing came down for good. Now Shady Banks activists are working with Broward County to discuss turning the tangle of Australian pines into a waterfront park, which seems the best way to preserve the sweet spot of undeveloped land just a stone's throw from downtown.
Better late than never. Originally scheduled for a 2002 grand opening, construction delays kept Riverland Woods from opening until late 2005. Finally, Fort Lauderdale has more than one free public boat ramp, and it's thanks to the tireless efforts of residents of Lauderdale Isles -- at one point, the land had been promised to a machine shop firm that wanted to build its noisy headquarters there. Now, this thin green strip along the New River bustles with sunup-to-sundown traffic and boat trailers, kids hang from monkeybars, and the parking lot is full. If the county would just follow through on its plan to build a bike-and-pedestrian ramp across the river, connecting with the new bike path along the waterway, Riverland Woods could become a nexus for all sorts of outdoor recreation.
Tradewinds Park & Stables
A butterfly festival, a farmhouse museum, a model steam railroad... When did Disney open a park in Broward County? Um, it didn't. Those are just a few of the various attractions you'll find at Tradewinds Park. Situated on nearly 700 acres on both sides of Sample Road, Tradewinds is home to a hodge-podge of leisure and sports amenities (ball fields, batting cages, boat rentals, fishing, golfing), as well as the world-famous Butterfly World. And that's just on the south side. The north side is all about rides -- whether on the back of a pony, atop a bale of hay, or on a steam train. That doesn't mean your feet can't get a good workout too (and we're not talking just a quick tour of the Tradewinds Educational Farm, fun though it may be). There are miles of ample pedestrian paths. And hey -- once you're comfortable with the terrain, the park's annual Holiday Festival of Lights 5k run/walk will seem like a cakewalk.
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park
The marketing tag line for this state park is "More than just a beach... but wow, what a beach!" And in this rare case, reality matches the PR. Part of the allure of this park is simply getting from the parking lot to the sand. Walk up a shaded path, go past the massive nature center, look at the butterfly garden, and venture across a wide, 1,600-foot-long boardwalk that crosses a lively estuary full of fish and birds. The approach creates a drama, so that when you hear the waves crashing, you can't help but run over the dunes... to find the most vast, pristine, majestic stretch of shoreline in all of South Florida. It's pretty cool that the park offers yoga, surfing lessons, kayak tours, and butterfly walks... but this is the kind of magical beach where you should take a child, who will find you a seashell, which you should take home, put on a ribbon, and keep in a special place forever.
Credit Dr. Steven G. Paul, a Coral Springs vet, with organizing a community building project of Florida's first dog park nine years ago. In a manicured suburb where people outnumber dogs only about two-to-one, the two-acre park provides agility equipment, water stations for drinking and bathing, a paved running track, and a gazebo and is open 7:30 a.m. to dusk daily. Get over the seven-word name already. After all, it's free, and unlike some other parks in the area (we're looking at you, Boca Raton Dog Park), it's open to residents of any city.
Grassy Waters Nature Preserve
Several miles removed from the suburban sprawl of eastern Palm Beach County is Grassy Waters Preserve, a 20-square-mile chunk of Everglades land untouched by development. Needless to say, it's a bird watcher's heaven. The preserve runs across both sides of Northlake Boulevard. And while you can catch plenty of the feathered beasts at either location, the south side is where it's at. Simply take a stroll down to the Charles W. Bingham Wilderness Pavilion, find an empty spot on the boardwalk, and put those binoculars to work. You'll get an eyeful of the Everglades' finest (ospreys, spoonbills, herons, egrets) as well as the sense of calm that comes with standing over our beloved River of Grass. If you're a newbie who's looking for pointers, take part in master naturalist Kurt Gebhart's Birding Swamp Tromp program. It's a good introduction to the lifestyle of South Florida's true natives.
A giant billboard on Sample Road claims that this sprawling butterfly sanctuary in Coconut Creek has been "voted South Florida's #1 Attraction." That, coupled with the whopping $18.95 it costs for an adult's entry into its netted inner sanctum, puts Butterfly World squarely in the tourist-trap category. Happily, the three acres of aviaries deliver on the hype with hordes of iridescent moths waiting to swipe a hopeful proboscis at any passing Hawaiian shirt. There's a core of solid science to the place: Founder Ronald Boender dreamed of combining his butterfly hatchery business with a tourist-friendly interface, and as a result, the complex has a laboratory, hatchery, museum, and research facility on the premises. But like any tourist trap worth its snuff, Butterfly World has thoroughly mixed spectacle with scholarship: There's a gift shop (which sells live butterfly pupae along with the expected stuffed animals and kitsch), a simulated rain forest complete with waterfall, exotic birds ranging in size from hummingbirds to macaws, and one of the largest collections of hanging passion vines in the world. Which means that Butterfly World is well-equipped to make both armchair lepidopterists and their bored hangers-on happier than Monarchs on milkweed.

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