Gulfstream Park
Finding the right picnicking spot in South Florida seems simple enough; all you need is a place where your ham and cheese sandwich won't melt inside its plastic bag -- if that doesn't melt too. You need shade, but the pavilion at your neighborhood park is always full of rambunctious toddlers and their scolding parents. And besides, pavilions aren't that great for picnicking anyway. Isn't the whole point to be in a natural setting, dining beneath a tree? At Gulfstream Park, there are enough trees to cover whatever party you have planned, whether it's a double date or a family reunion. Not to be confused with the Hallandale Beach horse track of the same name, the only stakes at this Gulfstream Park are the steaks you grill. The park runs along the west side of a naturally canopied hill, scattered with picnic tables and grills, as well as a play area to keep the kids busy. On the east side of the hill is a public beach, which means cool ocean air in lieu of the humidity of inland parks. If you're hot, you can take a swim; you have the option. After all, this is Florida -- why wouldn't you picnic at the beach?
Fern Forest Nature Center

Pileated woodpecker

Black-and-white warbler

Limpkin, mourning dove

Great-crested flycatcher

Glaucous gull, rock dove

Solitary vireo

Cattle egret, snowy egret

House sparrow, oriole

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Ovenbird, sandpiper

Screech owl, fish crow

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Binoculars, bug spray

Comfy shoes, half a day

Go slow, soak in

Fern Forest's aviary.

On the 37-mile stretch of sand between Lake Worth Beach and Fort Lauderdale Beach, you're pretty much dealing with blue herons and bluehairs. It's just nature interspersed with condos -- or the other way around. It's quiet. It's calm. It's pretty freakin' boring. Except for one shining spot of beach-worthy bodies and beachfront bars: Deerfield Beach. Of course, this spot has palm trees, turquoise waters, and beach umbrellas -- but so does every other beach from here to Jacksonville. What sets Deerfield apart is the action. You can tell from the bike racks and five permanent volleyball courts that this is not the destination for people who want to lie around and imitate a dying manatee. No, this is the beach for hot lifeguards, spring breakers, and surfers. Go-getters angle on the fishing pier, a blimp chills overhead, and a dude bangs on the steel drum at JB's on the Beach while the bartender doles out mojitos. Everything else you might want is available in the nearby cluster of shops. Need a glass pipe or 40 kinds of rolling papers? Cross the street and hit Lazydaze. A surfboard? Run over to Island Water Sports. A fish taco? Rattlesnake Jake's. A fanny pack, a mood ring, or a man bikini? Go to Wings. Gelato? You can get that inside the post office!

Carlin Park

On one of those days, when you're looking at all the traffic on I-95 and you're remembering that your Florida neighbors voted both George and Jeb Bush into office and you're thinking, "Why the hell do some people consider this place paradise?" all you need to do is mosey over to Carlin Park for a reminder. With its 3,000 feet of beach frontage, its Lazy Logger restaurant, its little-league baseball field, its tennis courts, its exercise course, and its amphitheater, Carlin Park offers the best of Florida living. A Pig Gig Rib Fest, a Shakespeare-by-the-Sea festival, and a Sunset at Carlin concert series give you all the more reason to spread out a blanket and hunker down on the sand. Treasure hunters sometimes find buried early-American silver coins on the beach, and some experts expect 2005 to be a record sea turtle nesting season.

South County Regional Park

So your doctor's been telling you to take better care of yourself, as always. And, as always, he uses the dreaded e word: exercise. However, running around your block means passing by that neighbor whose vacuum cleaner you borrowed and conveniently misplaced. But that's just as well, because what you need is a full exercise course with chin-up bars, steps, and various beams to help stretch all those neglected muscles. The course at South County Regional Park has 20 such stations. And when you're all done, you don't have to hurry home to shower -- the enormous Coconut Cove Waterpark is right there. Of course, if you skip both activities, you've still got 856 acres' worth of park to explore. That means baseball fields, tennis and volleyball courts, the Daggerwing Nature Center, a remote-control car track, a remote-control airplane field, and more open space than Wal-Mart would know what to do with.

Quiet Waters Park

Quiet Waters? Isn't that where all those weird medieval people hang out? Well, if you're thinking of the Florida Renaissance Festival, then, yes, that's one of the many events the park hosts. But if face-painting fairies, jousters, and jesters are all you know about Quiet Waters Park, then you've been missing out on the Holy Grail of outdoor recreation in Broward County. For those looking to relax, there are plenty of shaded picnic areas along the lake ripe for a barbecue. For you active types, there's mountain-biking, a nature trail, and a lot of open space to toss around a football, fly a kite, play freeze tag, or do whatever else tickles your youthful fancy. But if you want to turn the fun up to ten, try out the cable skiing/wakeboarding course, which comes complete with jump ramps and rail slides. If water sports aren't your thing, then grab your blades, skateboard, or bike and hit the ramps and rails. Of course, to do all this would take a couple of days -- why not stay the weekend at the park's campground? At $25 a day, it's a hell of a lot cheaper than some overcrowded Disney World resort. Oh, and if you happen to get there next March, be prepared to joust.

Tired of paying through the nose for an oceanfront view? Had it with crowded beaches and car exhaust? Try this rustic isle just a couple of hours' drive from South Florida. There are 30 tent sites and 12 cabins here. There's also eight miles of beach, much of it deserted, and a surfeit of herons, egrets, and inner peace. But beware. You have to plan ahead. There's running water and cold showers but no stores. No cars are allowed; a shuttle carries you the one mile from the dock to the campsites. The place was whacked by Hurricane Charlie; the winds knocked down most of the Australian pines, an invasive species, leaving intact the native palms and sea grapes. So there's plenty of wood for fires. Costs? A tent site goes for $18 per night and a cabin for $30. (The cabins have three sets of bunk beds.) The island, which is just north of Sanibel and Captiva, is a 45-minute ferry ride from Pine Island. The ferry costs $29 round trip for adults and about half that for kids 6 and under. For reservations, call 800-326-3521. Book ahead. The place is popular during the winter and spring.

For all their superstardom, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade can't hit a 24-footer to save their nicknames. Wade makes a three-point shot, on average, once a month. O'Neal has made precisely one NBA trey, nine years ago. Damon Jones, the Heat guard keeping defenses honest -- and freeing the lanes for the Diesel and Flash to savage the rim -- happens to be a guy who couldn't even make a CBA roster when he left the University of Houston after a passable junior season. Jones started his pro career in 1997 as a member of the Black Hills Posse in the International Basketball Association -- and even then was coming off the bench. He fought his way up to the CBA, then toured the NBA with the Celtics, Nets, Mavericks, Warriors, Grizzlies, Pistons, Kings, and, last year, the Bucks. When Rafer Alston left Miami for a $5-mil-a-year contract with Toronto, the Heat signed Aimin' Damon for half that, money well spent: This season, the bargain-basement bomber hit more three-pointers at a higher percentage than any other player in the NBA. He carried one of the highest assist-to-turnover ratios in the league, turning the ball over about a third as often as Wade while starting more games than in the rest of his career combined. Jones has finally arrived, and no coincidence, so has the Heat. As he told the Miami Herald, in reflecting on his meandering career: "I wouldn't change the script at all."

Rapids Water Park

With summer bearing down faster than a gaggle of elderly on an early-bird special, South Florida will soon be slightly hotter than the surface of the sun -- and that's after sunset. No need to even delve into how sweltering it gets in the daylight hours when heat indices routinely hit around 2 million degrees, and anyone foolish enough to step outside runs the risk of instantaneously bursting into flames. So you'll need to find a place to cool off till the weather becomes more amicable in say... December. The beach is nice if you don't mind the ever-present risk of shark attack or spending the next week picking sand out of various bodily crevices. And you probably trashed your Crocodile Mile long ago. So your only hope in this tropical inferno just might be Rapids Water Park. You can cool off while sliding down one of the park's 16 water slides. Or while bobbing up and down in its 25,000-square-foot wave pool. Or while drifting listlessly down its lazy river. For $28, you can explore all 22 acres of this waterlogged oasis, which will be open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting Saturday, May 14, through the end of August.

There's really no other way to judge a good dog park than the poop factor. Nothing will ruin your day faster than stepping in a steaming pile of doggy doo, especially if it came from somebody else's mutt. The courteous patrons of West Palm Beach's CityPaws dog park are good enough to regularly clean up their mutts' messes. Unlike many dog parks stuffed into the sans-shade section, CityPaws is well-shaded inside Howard Park, which is full of banyan and oak trees to provide a cool spot for your dog to wrestle in the grass. CityPaws also holds a Smooch Your Pooch contest on Valentine's Day and a doggy costume contest on Halloween. Just make sure to clean up when ballerina Fido makes a mess.

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