The mosaic ribbon of mugs, saucers, ceramic suns, and glints of mirror that wraps around the front wall is the first hint that Tropi Rock is a world away from the neighboring cookie-cutter motels on the blocks extending west from Fort Lauderdale beach. The exterior of each room is painted with a colorful window border and an animal scene above the door, and the interiors are outfitted with modern Mexican or rustic Caribbean furniture and artwork set against sherbet-color walls. Manager Markus Schaerf says his father, an interior designer and former Latin music producer, describes the two-year-old resort motel's decorating theme as "Latin fusion." The Tropi Rock asserts its individuality in every nook: a sun deck with crocheted hammocks; a fountain with large, broken pottery at its bottom; a small orange bar embedded with photographs, postcards, a Pulp Fiction CD cover, and a condom wrapper; and several party areas outfitted with barbecue grills and other eclectic accouterments. In addition to two tennis courts, a shuffleboard court, and Ping-Pong table outside, Tropi Rock has a basement -- a rarity in South Florida -- with a fitness room, game room, and laundry facilities. Even the concrete border of the pool is painted charcoal, rather than left plain. Now that's attention to detail.

This is not a road AAA wants you to know about. Nor does it appear on most maps. But there it is in all its potholed glory, a hidden gift from the South Florida Water Management District that has long been a favorite of bird buffs, hunters, canal fishermen, and drug smugglers looking for an out-of-the-way landing strip. A Jeep or truck is preferred but not required. Head west from Fort Lauderdale on I-595 and turn north on U.S. Highway 27. Stock up on strawberry Yoo-Hoo and pork rinds (or the drinks and snacks of your choice) at the Sawgrass Recreation Park. Then proceed to the Palm Beach County line and pull a U-turn where the sign says "Holey Land/ Rotenberger Wildlife Management Areas." From here head west again on a road that stays paved for the first five miles and turns to gravel for the next ten. When a big pump station appears, you have reached the Miami Canal, a hydrologist's wet dream that runs from the Magic City to Lake Okeechobee. Stick to the road on the east side of the canal and shoot north for the next 30 miles, enjoying sawgrass and sugar cane vistas, big clouds and multitudinous bird life. When at last you arrive in Lake Harbor, drive up on the levee and look out over Florida's inland ocean. Do not, like some careless reporters, forget to top off your gas tank before leaving civilization.
In a state stuffed with butterfly jungles, alligator wrestling, acrobatic dolphins, and human mermaids, the Swap Shop stands alone as the Florida theme park par excellence. That's because it doesn't have a theme, aside from the unvarnished worship of commerce. Looking for a preowned set of metric socket wrenches? It's there, next to that copy of Jaws II published in Mandarin. There's fresh produce, cheap perfume, a free circus complete with elephants, and by night the biggest drive-in movie theater left on planet Earth, 13 screens in all. Call it tacky, call it tawdry, but 12 million people a year think it's nifty.

Thank God for local news anchors. When the world is cold and alien, they brighten us up with an artificial smile and a sterile quip, carefully stripped of any edge or actual humor. WFOR-TV (Channel 4)'s Angela Rae is our best friend. WSVN-TV (Channel 7)'s Rick Sanchez is our idealized version of a real man -- big and, uh, shameless. Tim Malloy is -- wait a second. Malloy's definitely not our best friend. He's not big either. He's a little wooden, even kind of geeky. Deadpan stare, steady delivery. His "happy talk" isn't all that happy. He doesn't jump out of his seat when a story breaks. Malloy doesn't want us to like him; he just wants to tell us the news. He doesn't try to hype a story or dose it with some sort of forced humanity; and that's precisely why we believe him. The man has credibility because he knows that news, like revenge, is best served cold.
The Sunrise Musical Theatre is more spacious, the Carefree in West Palm Beach more intimate, and, for that matter, West Palm's Kravis Center has comparable facilities. So what makes the Broward Center so special? Location, location, location. No other South Florida venue has a site as well integrated into its surroundings as this two-theater complex perched on the north bank of the New River near Sailboat Bend, with views magnificent enough to make Fort Lauderdale seem impressively urban. The building and grounds are snazzily designed, and the facilities -- the 2700-seat Au-Rene Theater and the cozy, 590-seat Amaturo Theater -- are versatile enough to handle all sorts of concerts and theatrical productions -- from Steve and Eydie to David Copperfield to Rent. Within minutes a leisurely stroll along the Riverwalk will take you to the bustling new Las Olas Riverfront center, with its restaurants, bars, shops, and movie megaplex, or you could opt for the row of smaller, funkier restaurants that are contributing to the rejuvenation of SW Second Street. And if you're fortunate or flashy enough to be arriving by water, you can dock your boat on the river and head up the hill to the Broward Center.
Beauty, brains, cash, and a career. That's what we're looking for, right? All rolled into one package, without hang-ups or "issues"? Surely that kind of catch was lurking somewhere on the dance floor at the recent "Howl at the Moon" bash, one of a series of themed fundraising parties sponsored by the Young Professionals For Covenant House (YPFCH), a nonprofit organization that raises money for the home for runaway teens. The "Howl" bash had the feel of a house party thrown by somebody with interesting friends. The age range was twenties to midthirties, the dress business-casual, the music made for boogying, the dance floor full. Conversation was mainly of the light-bantering, flirtatious variety, but you could find a serious debate or discussion if you wanted. Judging by the business cards being handed out, the organization could as well be named "Young and Hungry Professionals For Covenant House." YPFCH also sponsors some cool vacation packages throughout the year, such as the upcoming Young Professionals Ski Trip (March 25 to April 2) and the Lost at Sea Weekend Bahamas Cruise (September 24 to 27). An extra benefit: One tends to feel less guilty about partying up a storm when it's all for charity.

The main function of weathercasters in South Florida is reassurance. We want them to remind us again and again -- every single night, in fact -- just how lucky we are to be living in this slice of sunbaked paradise. On top of that, we want them to spell out in explicit detail exactly how horrible the weather is in every other godforsaken part of the world: tornadoes in Oklahoma, mudslides in India, earthquakes in California. We want somebody who is enthusiastic about the weather, a cheerleader for our good fortune. (Never mind the occasional hurricane.) Chris Dunn, Channel 7's weekend weatherman, fits the bill. He's goofy in a likable way. With big, bushy eyebrows, a fleshy face, and reddish hair, Dunn moves about the weather map with barely controlled glee. He's just the kind of weather geek we need.
Hemingway had the right idea. Key West is paradise in the state of Florida. As long as you avoid the tourist madness of lower Duval Street, the place is pure Caribbean-style bliss. A four-hour drive in the middle of the ocean is a small price to pay for the regenerative powers of a weekend with no worries, mon. Find a little gingerbread inn on a lushly shrouded side street. Rent a bike (they're available on every corner) and bump down the cobblestones to the beach, or the bar (we like the Blue Parrot or Hog's Breath Saloon), or the drag show at Diva's. Even the testosterone-fueled frat party at Sloppy Joe's doesn't annoy us. Still, we'd probably avoid the Hemingway Hammer, the hot-pink frozen goo that is Joe's special. Key West is best experienced faceup in the sunshine, not facedown in the porcelain.

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