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.
We like our swimming pools on two levels, thank you. The pool at the Westin Diplomat features a top level, with water spilling over the sides (travel agents call this an "infinity edge"), a submarine porthole with a swimmer's-eye view of the lower level, and more than 100 feet of glassy-surfaced water, which is a lap-swimmer's dream. Then there's the bottom, which crosses underneath the infinity pool and is more than twice as long. The spillover from above feeds a pair of head-rattling waterfalls, and you can look up through that porthole to see swimmers ogling you from above. The hotel still hasn't taken our advice and connected the two levels with a spiraling water slide (you have to use a landlocked stairway to go from one level to another). But the total effect is still mind-blowing. One big drawback: You have to be a guest at the hotel to use the pool. We like to get Mom and Dad to stay there when they visit, so we can claim a name and room number when we ask for one of those fluffy towels they hand out.
Come on -- the beach is way too obvious. Instead, how about indulging in an age-old pastime that, thanks to a legal loophole, remains somehow technically aboveboard in Florida. For decades, hippies living in the Gulf Coast states have known in which fields to find the hallucinogenic psilocybe cubensis 'shroom, which tends to grow right around the fragrant patties deposited by grazing cows. It's an elaborate ritual, finding the white-capped mushrooms after a heavy rain, avoiding gopher holes, rattlesnakes, roaming bulls, armed farmers, and the like, clipping the little blue stems with scissors, creeping back over the fence unseen... but since the fungus is so literally among us, Tallahassee can't really bust everyone who has them growing on their property. So having a small amount of fresh 'shrooms isn't a crime. Drying them out, however, is (so is trespassing), so it's sort of a stealth activity. That fresh mushroom taste isn't for everyone, though.
Dania Beach Jai-Alai
When poker skyrocketed in popularity a few years ago, games sprouted around South Florida like mushrooms. Poker fans can pick up games anywhere from pubs to megacasinos. Amateur players delight at the large number of games around town, but old, salty poker dogs aren't so thrilled. Where to go for a more authentic experience? The forgotten halls of Dania Jai-Alai's Cardroom are as real as you can get around here. The tables are small and intimate, live simulcast betting is a glance away, and jai alai balls crack against concrete in the background all night. The players know the game all too well and keep a close eye on their cards. Every day but Monday, from noon to midnight, games of Texas Hold 'Em, Seven-card Stud, and Omaha Hi/Lo keep the cards turning. But there isn't the crush of the bigger gambling palaces, with a hundred waiting players queued up to take your place. As soon as a table fills, it's a mini-tournament. On the weekends after 5 p.m., no-limit Texas Hold'em cranks up. But the real night to play is Wednesday, when the beer flows for a buck a cup and $1 chicken wings fill paper bowls.
One of only two shuffleboard courts in Broward County used for official Senior Games play, Hollywood's shuffleboard facility is where the aging Québecois masters of the sport come to practice. And unlike most deserted shuffleboard venues in the area, Hollywood is both well-maintained and packed. With the aura of a temple, the 36 covered courts in the heart of downtown hum nonstop from morning to siesta with the soft swooshing of cues on concrete and gentle French bantering, just as they have for the past 75 years. But don't be intimidated -- the loyal snowbird clientele is eager for non-Francophone guests to slap down $2 for a day of play alongside them (all equipment included). There's plenty of space to go around, and they say it'd be nice to have more "English players." Just be sure to get your shuffleboard fix before summer -- the courts close when the players flock back to Canada in April and stay shut until September.

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