Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
We're talking about way up at the northern tip of the park near Bear Cut, the swift-moving channel that separates Key Biscayne from Virginia Key. This is the very essence of serene. Outside of adventurous nudists and the occasional school science class trolling for sea specimens, few people explore this last vestige of Miami's natural coast. Get there early on a bright morning and you'll think you've stepped into a travel brochure, shuffling through virgin sand and splashing in crystalline water. Looking to the east you'll see nothing but open sky and ocean. Turn your gaze northward and you can pity the poor souls trapped in traffic or attached to cell phones in the big city. But move quickly if you want to enjoy the place. Fashion photographers increasingly use the beach's vistas and lush backgrounds, and the county parks department recently completed a boardwalk that will deposit too many visitors.
Without doubt this park is the greatest gift ever bequeathed to the public in Miami's history. Back in 1940 the Matheson family, which had owned most of Key Biscayne since early in the century, agreed to a deal proposed by Dade County Commissioner Charles Crandon. The family would donate the northern two miles of its holdings for use as a public park. In exchange the county would construct a causeway from Miami to the island. As Crandon later wrote, the Mathesons "recognized that it would make the remaining land they owned immensely valuable once the causeway was built and in use, which is exactly what happened." The 975-acre park, named in honor of the commissioner, opened along with the causeway in 1947. Since then the Mathesons have been vigilant in protecting their gift from commercial exploitation by government bureaucrats hungry for revenue. Stretching from the Atlantic to Biscayne Bay, Crandon Park comprises more than most people realize: a marina, boat ramps, moorings, and a dive shop adjacent to Sundays on the Bay restaurant; Crandon Golf Course and its driving range, clubhouse, pro shop, and restaurant; the sprawling tennis center and its associated facilities; various storage and maintenance yards; Calusa Park and its tennis courts, playground, and recreation center; a county fire station; the lovely Crandon Park Gardens (the old county zoo); the new Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center; an extensive kids' play area featuring a grand carousel; rental cabanas, concession booths, and many picnic areas and athletic fields along the park's eastern half; three significant archaeological sites; three ecological preserves of several hundred acres; and of course the world-famous beach itself. Need we say more?
For the uninitiated: Those people dressed in white and huddled together on the grassy area over by the south bank of the Miami River are not health-care workers on a break. They are students and practitioners of Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion whose spiritual emissaries, or orishas, rule all facets of man and nature. Believers can call upon these deities for guidance and assistance. It's no surprise that Miami, with its large Cuban population, should have lots of Santería devotees, but what is it about Sewell Park that draws the faithful? Look no further than the Miami River and its orisha, Oshún. Here's what OrishaNet, a comprehensive Santería Website (www.seanet.com/~efunmoyiwa/ochanet.html), has to say: "Oshún rules over the sweet waters of the world, the brooks, streams, and rivers, embodying love, fertility. She also is the one we most often approach to aid us in money matters.... All who are to be initiated as priests, no matter what orisha rules their head, must go to the river and give account of what they are about to do." Down near water's edge, hidden among the large rocks that form the bank, you can often find offerings to Oshún: candy, fruits, candles, and other favored objects.
Tucked away behind the exquisitely funky American Legion Post No. 29, this Miami city park is little more than a ramshackle public boat ramp and dock. But it's quiet. And it's always kissed by a soothing breeze. And it provides a lovely view of several of the spoil islands made famous by their role in Christo's 1983 conceptual project Surrounded Islands. If you have a vessel of some sort, you can navigate over to the islands for a picnic. If not, you can simply enjoy gazing at them from the mainland. Accessible from Biscayne Boulevard at NE 64th Street, the park is open every day from sunrise to sunset.
If Kendall Drive is the clotted artery of southwestern unincorporated Miami-Dade, the neighborhood of Calusa is an oasis amid suburban sprawl. Pull off Kendall at SW 133rd Avenue and head south one block. All of a sudden the strip malls fall away, the blank-block apartment buildings disappear, and you're in a haven of green space and single-family homes built around the Calusa Country Club golf course. Wrapped around the course is Calusa Club Drive, a three-mile thoroughfare that sees its share of family-laden SUVs, especially just before and after school, but is more frequently traversed by dogs, ducks, recreational walkers, joggers, and kids on bikes. With its smooth sidewalks and low-density traffic, the circle is especially suited to inline skates. No need to fight for parking or dodge idlers on South Beach. No bumpy boardwalks, no sudden drifts of sand that can make it a hazard to skate too near the beach. Just the scent of fresh-cut grass, the kiss of the sun through flowering dogwood, the sound of your wheels whizzing over sparkling pavement.
If you live anywhere near the center of Miami-Dade County and you find yourself overcome with the urge to go snorkeling, we suggest you head to the rock jetty at the southern tip of Miami Beach. (Metered parking available at South Pointe Park.) When the water is relatively calm, the north side of the jetty offers surprisingly good snorkeling, especially out toward its end, in deeper water. Lots of colorful reef fish, some barracuda, the occasional moray eel, even a shark now and then. But for the real thing -- namely, snorkeling on beautiful coral reefs -- we once again recommend Biscayne National Park. The big advantage: Only one snorkel boat per day, carrying a maximum of 49 people. No other commercial dive boats are permitted to operate within the park's watery boundaries. That sure beats John Pennekamp Coral Reef and State Park in Key Largo, which is so crowded you'll see more people than fish. The Biscayne National Park snorkel boat departs daily at 1:30 p.m. For $32.95 you'll get all the equipment you need (including wetsuit if desired), more than one hour in the water, and a delightful cruise to and from the reef. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends.
The staff at this sprawling facility takes meticulous care to ensure that the courts are top quality. No wonder. This is the site of an internationally recognized professional tennis tournament, the newly rechristened NASDAQ Open, which brings top-ten players and their entourage to town each year. Venus and Guga and Anna and Andre may battle and preen here for a fortnight, but management maintains the courts at professional levels all year. Even though Crandon's seventeen hard courts are exposed to the unforgiving South Florida sun, the surfaces are free of cracks. The lines are well marked. The nets are not dotted with holes, and they never droop. If you're one of those players who depend on bad calls or a little help from a sagging net, this may not be the place for you. But if you're an advanced player and want to adjust your game to the same surfaces as the pros, Crandon's courts are a must. Eight clay courts are also available. So you've always wondered what playing at Wimbledon is like? Rent one of the two grass courts, always firm and trim. For the ultimate tennis fantasy, take your best-hitting partner to the stadium court, where for eight dollars per person you can live out your grand-slam dreams. Hard-court play is three bucks per person hourly, five per person hourly at night. The grass and clay courts are available for day use only at six dollars per hour.
Fancy a game of cricket or 301? Check out the lounge in this otherwise unprepossessing hotel in the welter of bustle and noise just upwind from the jet runways. For several years the serious dart scene revolved around another bar nearby. But the scene has moved. So what happened to those players who carry their own feathered missiles and can fire three arrows into triple nineteen faster than you can get your wallet out to pay for the beer? They are often right here, where you'll find five regulation dart boards. And if you need advice or a game, look for weekend bartender Jesus Cabrera or regular Paula Burdelsky Flohr, a former state champion. Bull's-eye!
During the daytime it's often only the breeze that stirs the nets hanging over the two full courts, not jumpers. With the sun overhead, it is just too hot on these shadeless slabs of asphalt green. And besides, the players are in school or at work. But once the sun starts to slide down, activity picks up in a hurry. South Miami parks department supervisor Lorenzo Woodley oversees leagues for players from ages six to adult. But there is plenty of pickup action here, too, after 5:00 p.m. daily. Charlie Miller got his game here, as well as enough moxie to survive Bob Knight and star for Indiana University. You wanna run? Lace 'em up.
With all the water around these parts, there are plenty of places to paddle. Everglades National Park is best, though, because -- duh -- it's a national park. No high-rise condos blocking the horizon. No screaming beerheads in go-fast boats about to swamp you. No polluted water seeping in from city streets. We're talking pristine. That means virtually any spot in the park where you can launch a canoe you'll encounter serene natural beauty unmatched in South Florida. Stop at the visitor's center at park headquarters and ask as many questions as you can. The rangers will help you select a route to fit your skills and interests. Rental canoes (and kayaks) are available at Flamingo, the end-of-the-road settlement 34 miles from the park entrance. From there you can paddle out on Florida Bay or up the Buttonwood canal toward vast Whitewater Bay. They'll also rent you a canoe stashed at Nine Mile Pond, a delightful trail featuring a variety of waterscapes, eleven miles up the road from Flamingo. If you have your own canoe, you already know this and more about the dozens of great paddling adventures that beckon throughout the park.
We'll save for another time our recommendations for a paddle that highlights natural beauty and wildlife. This is urban kayaking at its gritty best. Launch at the public boat ramp on Watson Island, access to which is obscured by construction of the new Parrot Jungle. (It's on the east side of the island between the Miami Yacht Club and the Miami Outboard Club.) Circle north around Watson, carefully cross the Intracoastal, follow the shoreline south toward downtown Miami, then head upriver and get ready for adventure. As people like to say, this is a working river, and the activity increases the farther upstream you go. The action constantly changes, so it's impossible to predict exactly what you'll see, but you can be guaranteed some close encounters with a wide variety of cargo vessels, from tramp steamers to surprisingly large modern freighters, next to which you'll feel really tiny. (The entire river is a no-wake zone, so all these encounters are gentle.) Also guaranteed: a fascinating look at residential life along the river from a perspective you'll never get on dry land. There's much more of it than you might imagine, and it's very colorful. Pack a picnic lunch and take it ashore at lovely Sewell Park, just upriver from the Dolphin Expressway overpass. You won't get sick from having river water splashed on you, but it's a good idea to rinse off when you get home.
These lakes are constantly buzzed by airplanes taking off and landing at Miami International Airport, but that doesn't seem to bother anglers who swear this is one of the hottest spots in South Florida for the feisty peacock bass. Not a true relative of the largemouth bass, peacocks are actually cichlids, a huge family of fresh-water tropicals native to Central and South America. Several species have become established here, and the peacock is among the most colorful and aggressive. They can range up to seven pounds. Fishing from shore in the park is prohibited, but there is a boat ramp here and free parking.