Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Despite the fact that he's been flying people up, up, and away in his beautiful balloons for the past 30 years, Don Caplan says matter-of-factly that South Florida is not a very good place for such activity; it's too windy, the weather is unpredictable, and mornings are usually the only time calm enough to launch. Caplan, owner of Balloonport of Coconut Grove, is one of a small number of loyal hot-air balloon captains for hire in Miami-Dade. Year after year they wake at the crack of dawn and put up with quirky weather patterns and demanding customers for an hour of magic. And what magic it is. Using the winds to take you into birds' territory, succumbing to invisible forces, you will experience flight in intimate, low-tech fashion. This Memorial Day weekend Caplan and about 30 others will take customers skyward at the Homestead Air Reserve Station in the Spitzer Dodge Sixteenth Annual Great Sunrise Balloon Race (a misnomer, as the balloons don't really race, they compete for accuracy in reaching a target). According to Caplan the past three years have provided unusually good weather. The event benefits Sunrise Community, a nonprofit organization for people with disabilities. For details call the race hotline at 305-275-3317. If you're willing to shell out about $200 to ascend 1500 feet in a wicker basket propelled by gigantic flames that shoot into a canvas balloon, you'll get the closest thing to a magic carpet ride this side of sobriety; if not, you can watch the colorful spectacle from the ground, where you belong.
It's been a strange morning. The kids are bored with their video games. In fact they're bored with everything. You're about to tell them to go out and play on the expressway. You feel as though you're a candidate for the funny farm. Well, why not go to one and take the kids along? Patch o' Heaven is a twenty-acre spread where owner Elaine Spear has been breeding goats, cows, deer, sheep, and emus, among other animals, since 1983. She's also devoted to providing children with an opportunity to pet and otherwise get personal with the creatures. She offers pony rides and two hayrides per day through fields that are scattered with deer and emu. Kids fraternize with ducks, geese, turkeys, parrots, pygmy goats, key deer, and some local celebrities such as Bernina Banana Capucha the monkey and Tiffany the dancing cockatoo. The patch is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Admission is $8.50 per person or six dollars a head for student groups if you call in advance. Huddle with your gaggle and quack at the ducks. It just might keep you from quacking up.
Here you are, jammed into overdeveloped, thickly congested, air-polluted Miami, raging at the idiots around you and choking on the toxic fumes of urban life. There it is, the outback, where porpoises frolic in the shimmering flow and hawks soar against the glow of the cirrostratus. You can get there from here. First pack up your camping gear, some food and beverage, your favorite bug repellent. Next drive south to Flamingo, where the park rents canoes ($40 overnight). Reserve one of the chickees or space at the other campsites (about ten dollars in season, free during late spring and summer) along the clearly marked mangrove-lined trail leading to nirvana. Then begin paddling. Hell's Bay is heavenly, like Florida before freeways, one of the last refuges for nature lovers, a place where you can awaken to a dawn bristling with color and life (devoid of those darn humans). Be aware that canoeing this route is not an endeavor of sissies: Hell's Bay is a narrow, twisting half-day paddle from Flamingo. That's what it takes to get from Miami to paradise these days.
Greynolds has received a bum rap in recent years. True, its once-teeming bird rookery has fallen victim to marauding raccoons, feral cats, and extensive development near park boundaries. Yet this park/golf course/ picnic ground is still a magnificent oasis from hectic urban life. Dirt and paved trails meander through oak and palmetto stands. Wooden bridges cross over water and red mangroves. You can view fish jumping, birds feeding, and kids flying kites here. A large playground and a stone fort on a hill are great diversions for small children. Adults can stroll the grounds and enjoy a natural serenity all-too-often forsaken in modern living.
Feel free to frolic like the mythical gods and their favorite mortals in the Elysian Fields at Fairchild Tropical Garden. These 83 acres of tropical botanical rarities provide a delightful backdrop for your meal: flowering trees, palms, mangroves, bamboos, and vines. Throw down a blanket and become enchanted by a giant African baobab tree. Relax in the cool, moist rain forest or feast on fresh fruit near the still waters of a lily pond. A couple of caveats: 1) No grills allowed; and 2) No Dionysian-style debauchery -- kids are a common sight here. The garden is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and admission is eight dollars. There's no charge for children twelve years old and under. Tread lightly and don't wake the gods.
The hotshots are playing on this court, running the floor like gazelles, connecting on impossible alley-oop passes, and nailing honey-sweet jumpers that would impress even Tim Hardaway. But the action isn't quite as intense just one court over, where some tykes are swarming around a bouncing ball, occasionally heaving shots that barely reach the rim, and drawing proud applause from a few moms on the sideline. Every day at Cagni, from sunup until 10:30 p.m. when the park closes, you see the kids, the superstars, and everybody in-between. So come one, come all. Whether you want to measure your skills against some of the best playground competition in Miami or you're just looking for a way to shed those extra pounds, these four courts are the spot for you. Excellent lighting and a helpful park staff keep the peace. It's safe and fun for the whole family at this little slice of hoops heaven.
Once among the sports of the affluent, tennis still evokes images of manicured grass courts, sparkling white togs, and exclusive racquet clubs. But the era of starchy tennis "whites" is long gone. These days tennis is being embraced by the common man. And when the common man has laid out a hefty sum for a sophisticated titanium racquet that's supposed to improve his game exponentially, he wants a lot of choice and a great deal. At the Sans Souci Tennis Center in North Miami, that's what he'll get. A dozen well-maintained hard courts (and one clay court) provide a pick of surfaces available from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on weekdays and from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on weekends. Those who can't tell the difference between forehand and backhand can take group or individual lessons from several pros. And loners who want to work on their serve have the option of whacking balls on a two-sided practice wall. All this comes for the pittance of $2.50 per hour during the day and $4.50 per hour at night, or $1 and $2 respectively for North Miami residents. First-class facilities for ordinary folks.
Ever since Cloverleaf Lanes opened in 1958, the scuffed Lustre King custom ball conditioner has been sitting there next to the cranky Art Deco vending machine that dispenses wrist supports, rosin bags, and tinfoil packets of Smooth Slide, which is guaranteed to fix sticky soles. And then y'got'chur baggies full of cracked ice floating in a thousand pitchers of beer. Y'got'chur teams of hair-netted cooks all dressed up like frazzled Little League mothers, slapping fresh meat patties on a grill, slicing tomatoes, and building $2.95 burger baskets. Y'got'chur Hank Williams, Jr., sharing jukebox real estate in the Emerald Isle Bar with Lauryn Hill and various hip-hop crews. There's also karaoke on Fridays and Saturdays. Y'got'chur pool tables, your arcade, and your video games that pay off in Bowling Bucks, which buy anything on the premises except booze and tobacco. Y'got'chur 37th Annual Tournament of the Americas scheduled for August, featuring bowlers from as many as 26 countries. They'll compete for trophies, not cash. Y'got'chur 50 lanes, all nicely rebuilt in 1997, and fancy graphics that keep your score and even show you how to make your split. And you can get your ball drilled at the pro shop.
But what you've really got is a community atmosphere full of cheerful, sweaty camaraderie that fits as comfortably as an old bowling glove. The Romaniks , who bought the place in 1977, encourage a friendly, family- run atmosphere. It's a good advertisement for Miami: a peaceful ethnic stew where everyone is shooting either for a place on the south wall's Hall of Fame or for one of those plaques scattered hither and yon that honor both living and dead local bowlers.
As a life form, humans have the singular advantage of experiencing wonderment. No, we can't flap our wings and soar into the great beyond. But we can imagine what it must be like. Thus great bird watching should combine two elements: one, the spiritual elevation of vicarious adventure, and two, birds. The well-worn Anhinga Trail, a wooden walkway stilted above the swamplands of the Taylor Slough, has oft been cited as the most reliable spot to spot the usual South Florida favorites: the gnarly, snail-eating swimmers called limpkin; the ubiquitous nonpasserine namesake anhinga; the underwater-hunting cormorants; a variety of members of the ardeidae family including the great blue heron (the largest local heron) and the virginal snowy egret; red-shouldered hawks; vultures; plus common passerines such as grackles and blackbirds. Visiting the trail at the right time (weekdays just before dawn are best) helps facilitate the experience. The crowds are thin then, allowing space for your spiritual transformation into winged freedom. While tripping thusly, just be careful not to step on any alligators.
Some intransigent people are of the unwavering belief that a genuine day trip requires meticulous planning down to the last detail. For them a complete change in scenery from one's everyday surroundings is in order. We're a little more relaxed. A leisurely drive is nice. So is an alternate ambiance. But we aren't particularly enamored of rigid schedules. We prefer an unhurried, casual outing like Biscayne National Park's three-hour boat tour to Boca Chita Island, which is offered from January to April for a mere $19.95 plus tax ($9.95 for kids under ten years old). In the early afternoon, you and 47 other adventurers will zoom off in a glass-bottom boat to the 32-acre island. Owned by the wealthy Honeywell family from 1937 to 1945, it was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once you disembark a guide will chat about the history of the onetime playground for the moneyed set, that still includes ten structures built in the Thirties, coral-rock walls, and a cute but useless 65-foot coral-rock lighthouse. After all that structured activity, you're free to roam, snap photos, picnic, or just hang out. (If you dock your own boat on the key, you can camp overnight, but the facilities are rather austere.) After your brief, invigorating visit to a quieter place in time, you'll be ready to hop back into your car and return to hectic civilization.
Motorists speeding eastward on Gratigny Parkway might not know that behind the wall of pine trees to their right, mountain bikers are hard at work. If you bring your stump-jumper there, you'll find a frondescent labyrinth winding through the woods on the park's northern edge (or "undeveloped" side, as county employees call it). The course isn't hilly, much less mountainous, but it does have a sufficient number of drops and curves over coral rock and through dense flora to provide a distinctly South Floridian challenge. Maybe we should call it jungle biking. The foliage is tunnel-like in places, so don't forget to duck! The course is home turf of the twenty-member South Florida Dirt Dobbers racing team, which hosted the second round of the recent Sandblaster Mountain Bike series.
Tourist: "What's the name of that there river?" Local guy: "Pardner, that there's no river. That's a canal." Tourist: "Well, it sure in hell looks like the gol dang Mississippi." It's true. South of Florida City, a stretch of the C-111 canal does resemble a river. It even bends and flows alongside a dusty, unpaved road. Several years ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tore down the C-111's earthen walls as part of an effort to restore the natural flow of the Everglades. That opened up quite a vista. The fourteen-mile, canalside pathway is called the Southern Glades Trail and it's the newest installment of the South Dade Greenway Network. Bordering farmland and saw grass expanses, it connects to three other paths that were created by the Redland Conservancy. The Southern Glades Trail has two starting points. One of them is about twelve miles south of Florida City, where U.S. 1 crosses over the C-111 canal. The other is on State Road 9336, about a mile east of the Everglades National Park entrance. You can travel on foot or horse, but we suggest biking. That way you can cover ground more quickly and likely see more wildlife. Local guy: "That there's no cute little beaver. That there's an alligator head."