José Martí Park
The trash-talking begins around the office water cooler. "Your players are so blind, they couldn't hit the broad side of chickee hut!" "My arthritic grandma can take you to the hole, do a 360-degree spin, and dunk!" comes the retort. Then it's agreed: The challenge will be settled on the court after work. When you reach the nearest lighted park, there are too many slick sixteen-year-olds. So try José Martí Park. The well-lit courts are rarely used, so you will have the time and privacy to settle your score. Sure there are some peccadilloes, such as the roaring traffic of I-95 and the occasional large freighter floating down the river. And maybe the backboards could use reinforcement. But the striped surface with a college-style three-point line is devoid of the usual cracks and slippery spots found on most outdoor courts. And the wonderful views of the downtown skyline can't be beat. Street parking keeps the cars in plain view. And if you need a little water recharge, the fountain occasionally works.
Five times since 1992 we've tooted the horn for Biscayne National Park, always for the right reasons. Mind if we do it again? (1) Unlike John Pennekamp Coral Reef and State Park in Key Largo, this national park severely restricts the number of commercial operations carrying people to the reef. In fact only a single concessionaire (Divers Unlimited) is allowed to launch one boat per day with a maximum of 45 people. Compare that to the estimated one million divers annually who swoop down on Pennekamp. (It's the same reef system, by the way.) So you'll never have to fight sunburned tourists for reef space at Biscayne. (2) Because Pennekamp is essentially unrestricted, it has suffered badly at the hands (and flippered feet) of well-meaning but ignorant novices. Not so Biscayne. Dive operators there are fond of saying their reef looks like Pennekamp 20 or 30 years ago. And a healthy reef means lots of sea life: clown fish, triggerfish, parrotfish, barracuda, eel, the occasional shark, and much more. (3) The total Biscayne experience is simply more pleasant than Pennekamp. Departing daily at 1:30 p.m. sharp, the boat cruises across the bay toward its passage between Elliot and Boca Chita keys, then out to the reef and the open Atlantic. It's a relaxing and beautiful journey, both ways. You arrive back at park headquarters between 4:30 and 5:00. (4) At $27.95 the price is right and includes rental of all equipment: mask, snorkel, fins, and safety vest (wet suit extra). You can also bring your own, of course. (5) Biscayne National Park is much closer to Miami than Pennekamp, which makes for a leisurely day trip, and you don't have to hassle with traffic heading to the Keys. Note that reservations are strongly recommended.
Next time the urge to leave town strikes, hop on Tamiami Trail and head west. That's what Joanie Griffin did, and she didn't bother to return. Twenty years ago she took over an old restaurant in the swampside hamlet of Ochopee, about 70 miles west of downtown Miami. You needn't repeat her experience, but we recommend this arrow-straight little journey into the Everglades. Griffin's lunch menu features steamed blue crabs as well as alligator fritters laced with chopped onion and three kinds of peppers (red, green, and yellow). To ensure you have enough time for a couple of scenic detours before you eat, hit the road by 9:00 a.m. Once you cross Krome Avenue, you'll find several options for pulling over and viewing the wild and weird life. First are the airboat tours. The Anglo operators along the southern edge of the road wax profusely about animals and feds. Their Miccosukee counterparts, stationed further west on the north side, loquate less but locomote more as they buzz you to a traditional camp. (We recommend obeying the reduced speed limit while driving through the reservation, or you may not have lunch at all.) Don't tarry because you still have another half-hour haul to Joanie's. Note the Dade-Collier training runway on your right; it was the first slab of a planned commercial airport until conservation-minded souls spoke up in the late Sixties. Once you reach Joanie's, you will join the ranks of other exotic visitors who have made the trek. Among them: the elderly Northerner who left a collection of plastic bottle-art hanging from the rafters and the Sioux-Eskimo gentleman who gave the proprietor a spirit arrow that hangs on the wall. After lunch head a quarter-mile west and check out the pride of Ochopee: a tiny post office. Then it will be time to head back toward the Magic City. But you won't want to miss swamp photographer Clyde Butcher's Big Cypress Gallery (open Wednesday through Saturday), about twenty miles east of Joanie's. If you're in the mood for more amusement, visit the Miccosukee Cultural Center on the reservation. There you can witness a man wrestle an alligator in an ersatz traditional village for a measly five bucks. About a mile east you can stalk birds, ride bikes, and jump on the trolley at the Shark Valley Visitor Center in Everglades National Park. If you putz around long enough before getting back into your automobile, you'll arrive just in time for supper at the psychedelically decorated Miccosukee Resort & Convention Center at Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail, where employees will be waiting to serve you in any of three dining areas.
Think of this potholed byway as a very wide hiking trail through an expansive swamp. It is one of the only consistently dry pathways for hoofing available in the preserve. About a half-hour west of Miami, the Tamiami Trail swerves northwest, a curve known as 40-Mile Bend at the eastern frontier of the Big Cypress preserve. If you are traveling west from the Magic City, take a left (south) here on to State Road 94, the Loop Road Scenic Drive. Follow the pavement until it ends, then park your vehicle and lace up your walking shoes. So peaceful is this zone you can hear the trickling of water as it flows through culverts beneath the road, er, trail. Alligators great and small like to lounge in the pools, while egrets and herons hang out nearby. Gilded garfish also frolic here. It is possible, but less likely, to spot deer, otter, and wild boars. For a little structure, hikers can start out with a walk on the very short Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail, which offers an educational overview of plants and animals in Big Cypress. For a more adventurous and soggy experience, continue west for five more miles in your automobile (or on the bicycle you hauled out) and find the southern end of the Florida National Scenic Trail, which heads north into the stately saw grass and magnificent muck of the Roberts Lakes Strand. Don't forget bug repellent.
Two people barely fit side by side in the tiny cockpit. The engine roars to life as the propeller spins to an invisible blur. The pilot taxis the Cessna 172 to the runway while speaking to the control tower in techno-babble. After lining up his aircraft, he revs the engine, gains speed, and lifts off the ground. The slow, bumpy climb continues to 1000 feet, where the macho guy levels her off. Look out the window for a bird's-eye view of Miami and notice the hundreds of lakes and canals that fill the landscape. A seemingly endless stream of cars traverses a crisscrossing maze of asphalt. The Atlantic Ocean looks bluer from this altitude. If macho man is brave enough, he might let you take control, an experience both thrilling and scary. A half-hour later the airplane glides toward the ground, softly touches down on the runway, and you leave a wiser person. Most flight schools offer the short trip, called an introductory flight, as bait to reel in new students. Cost: $20 to $60. A reservation is recommended. Be careful. Once you're hooked, it will cost $4000 to $5000 to log enough time to get a license.
If you want to do more than weave in and out of the pedestrian obstacle course on South Beach -- a thrill in its own right -- Key Biscayne's Crandon Park Beach offers a chance to spread your skates. Children may do well to begin at the roller rink that's accessible from parking lots three and four. A nearby carousel offers a welcome diversion while a fountain with water-spewing sea horses is the perfect finish to a hot day's activities. Between the rink and the beach there is plenty of smooth pavement and shade. Coast along the pavement adjacent to the sea wall while you take in a soul-calming view of white sands, palm trees, and lulling ocean. Long-distance skaters seeking a breathtaking vista at a higher elevation may want to begin skating on Virginia Key. These explorers should take the Rickenbacker Causeway to the parking lot at Mast Academy Drive, then blade southeast over the bridge between the University of Miami Marine Lab and the Crandon Park Marina. From there you can enter a shaded park path or continue along the causeway's bike lane all the way into Key Biscayne village and Bill Baggs State Park. This circuit, from parking to Bill Baggs and back, is about twelve miles. Only the truly expert should try skating the bridge between the mainland and Virginia Key.
Imagine standing on a boardwalk, looking out upon a vista of pristine Florida bayfront. You see scores of roseate spoonbills foraging through the sand, sweeping their beaks from side to side while emitting low grunting croaks. Nearby are other avian waders, such as herons and white pelicans. These sights and more await you at the end of the 1.6-mile-long Snake Bight Trail in Everglades National Park. Although you may see more birds on the Anhinga Trail, you will also have to see and hear more squawking children and tourists jabbering in foreign tongues. Walk a little way down the Snake Bight Trail, which is located four miles north of the Flamingo Visitor Center, and nine-tenths of the people are left behind. They are not committed birders willing to withstand the feeding frenzy of mosquitoes on this path, which cuts through tropical hardwood and mangrove forests. You are.
South Florida's topography does not lend itself to extreme sports. It's flat, flat, flat. But don't give up. This 12,000-square-foot Kendall warehouse has been converted into an air-conditioned climbers' paradise. The faux cliffs, boulders, and rock ledges are arranged into everything from a novice, 30-foot climb to an ascent that requires hanging upside down from the 45-foot-high ceiling. Safety ropes and mats help prevent serious injury, but not that next-day burning sensation in the muscles. The entrance fee is $12. Rookies are required to take a $30 training class. X-TREME is open seven days a week. On weekdays you can start suffering at 3:00 p.m. On weekends doors open at 10:00 a.m. Why drive to the suburbs to scale a fake mountain? Because it's there.
When kids go to the arcade these days, they aren't thinking flippers, bells, and bumpers; they're thinking video. But there are plenty of middle-age men out there reliving the era of pinball madness during their lunch breaks. Just go hang out at Grand Prix in Dania Beach, and you'll see cashiers change dollar bills for tokens faster than cars whiz past the place on I-95. The addicts position themselves for the game just as they would at the urinal, hips pressed against the pinball machines. They undo their nine-to-five ties and slam their hands against the glass when they fail to score. The featured pinball games at Grand Prix, by the way, are awesome. They aren't just equipped with a few flashing lights. Most of the machines are computerized. Star Wars Episode 1 offers scenes from the movie, Godzilla vibrates, and the four South Park games feature obscene language. That's enough to arouse even the most arcade-savvy traveler. Or maybe not. If you need more than pinball to motivate you for a trip north, consider this: At Grand Prix there's an authentic replica of Old Sparky, the electric chair that has put many a Florida felon to death. The Grand Prix arcade is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
At this school you'll learn to tango like a porteño (a native of Buenos Aires) by taking cues from a Colombian milonguero (a social dancer). Indeed Jorge Nel has been dancing most of his life. "I learned my first steps from my parents," he says. His padres also taught him how men and women relate: In dance, as in life, the man decides everything, he proclaims with a laugh. Nel uses many metaphors to describe tango. "Imagine the trunk of a tree; that is the basic structure of the dance," he explains. The love affair that results, says Nel, occurs between a man, a woman, and music. "The man interprets the music, and the woman must execute the man's interpretation." Kind of like follow the leader, only the female has to predict her partner's movements as she becomes an extension of his desires. A delicate balance, one that Nel and his partner, Mara, can show you during hourlong classes or private sessions. In fact Nel is such a great instructor that our sexy Mayor Alex Penelas declared May 15, 1998, Jorge Nel Day.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®