BEST PLACE TO KAYAK Virginia Key Marine Sanctuary Put in either at Crandon Marina on Key Biscayne or from the Virginia Key beach. Your destination is the northwest quadrant of Virginia Key's offshore waters, an area from which all powered vessels are banned. What you'll see once you get there: rays lounging on patches of sandy bottom, manatees year round, all manner of wading birds, a decent variety of fish, and the occasional pack of cruising sharks. You'll also discover (sooner or later) the natural lagoon that penetrates deep into the key. It's startling to look up from this pristine marine environment and gaze across the water toward the mainland. Brickell high-rises loom as if from a different world. Note: Avoid low tide if possible -- and please don't tell anyone about this secret place.

BEST BEACH Virginia Key Beach Once the playground of the unwanted, Virginia Key has been a refuge for nudists and, during segregation, African-American bathers. The island is also home to a landfill and a big, stinky water-treatment plant. It was an environmental ghetto just a hop, skip, and jump from some of the fanciest real estate in the world, but the past few years have seen dramatic changes. A vast revitalization plan has begun to do wonders for the filthy beach. The usual exotic suspects like Brazilian pepper and Australian pine are gone, and with the tender care of naturalist Juan Fernandez and his team, the native habitat has been reborn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also begun shoring up the beach itself to fight dreaded erosion. That effort has far to go: The war in Iraq siphoned off money earmarked for restoration, and debate rages on about how much development would be a good thing and how much would be too much. But the improvements, the sense of history, the ecology, and the genuine wonderfulness make this place special.

Readers´ Choice: South Beach

BEST BEACH Virginia Key Beach Once the playground of the unwanted, Virginia Key has been a refuge for nudists and, during segregation, African-American bathers. The island is also home to a landfill and a big, stinky water-treatment plant. It was an environmental ghetto just a hop, skip, and jump from some of the fanciest real estate in the world, but the past few years have seen dramatic changes. A vast revitalization plan has begun to do wonders for the filthy beach. The usual exotic suspects like Brazilian pepper and Australian pine are gone, and with the tender care of naturalist Juan Fernandez and his team, the native habitat has been reborn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also begun shoring up the beach itself to fight dreaded erosion. That effort has far to go: The war in Iraq siphoned off money earmarked for restoration, and debate rages on about how much development would be a good thing and how much would be too much. But the improvements, the sense of history, the ecology, and the genuine wonderfulness make this place special.

Readers´ Choice: South Beach

BEST PLACE TO HIKE Big Cypress National Preserve Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) approximately 54 miles west of downtown Miami

239-695-1201

www.nps.gov/bicy/sandytrail Why drive more than an hour just to find a place to hike? Because the drive across the Everglades is itself engrossing, and because Big Cypress boasts far more hiking trails, and a greater variety of trails, than anywhere else in South Florida. The Website address above will take you directly to the preserve's hiking page. You'll be surprised what you find, not least of which are the warnings: difficult terrain, waist-deep water, disorientation. There are a number of trail options for light hikers, including some that stay high and dry all year. But you know you're in marvelously challenging territory when park service experts practically scream at you to carry a GPS unit with extra batteries -- and you'd better know how to use it!

BEST PLACE TO HIKE Big Cypress National Preserve Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) approximately 54 miles west of downtown Miami

239-695-1201

www.nps.gov/bicy/sandytrail Why drive more than an hour just to find a place to hike? Because the drive across the Everglades is itself engrossing, and because Big Cypress boasts far more hiking trails, and a greater variety of trails, than anywhere else in South Florida. The Website address above will take you directly to the preserve's hiking page. You'll be surprised what you find, not least of which are the warnings: difficult terrain, waist-deep water, disorientation. There are a number of trail options for light hikers, including some that stay high and dry all year. But you know you're in marvelously challenging territory when park service experts practically scream at you to carry a GPS unit with extra batteries -- and you'd better know how to use it!

BEST NATURAL HIGH Rollerblading toward a sunset For those who live in Miami, developing a chemical dependency comes as naturally as developing a taste for black beans and rice. Overindulging in such pleasures can be seriously detrimental to your health. That's why it's a good idea to satisfy your jones for hallucinogenic-style visuals while deploying a healthy weapon in the battle of the bulge. As dusk brings an end to the day, strap on those Rollerblades and head west. After a few minutes of rigorous skating, your brain will begin releasing chemicals that will create an effect similar to an acid trip. It's only a bonus that plenty of calories will melt away as you glide along. No matter what part of town you're in, the westward roll should provide a vivid vista, but there is one place that really accentuates the euphoric bliss that accompanies communing with the kaleidoscopic color scheme of the Miami skyline at sunset. The Kendall Lakes area near SW 137th Avenue and Kendall Drive is far enough from the city that the view is not blocked by towering buildings. While you're shedding pounds, a virtual rookery of birds will perform aerial acrobatics against the fiery backdrop for your viewing pleasure. This particular area also has an excellent bike path that circles a lake, offering a great view of the sun going down behind a golf course riddled with oddly shaped trees. Perfect for a peaceful trip toward a healthy body and stimulated mind.

BEST NATURAL HIGH Rollerblading toward a sunset For those who live in Miami, developing a chemical dependency comes as naturally as developing a taste for black beans and rice. Overindulging in such pleasures can be seriously detrimental to your health. That's why it's a good idea to satisfy your jones for hallucinogenic-style visuals while deploying a healthy weapon in the battle of the bulge. As dusk brings an end to the day, strap on those Rollerblades and head west. After a few minutes of rigorous skating, your brain will begin releasing chemicals that will create an effect similar to an acid trip. It's only a bonus that plenty of calories will melt away as you glide along. No matter what part of town you're in, the westward roll should provide a vivid vista, but there is one place that really accentuates the euphoric bliss that accompanies communing with the kaleidoscopic color scheme of the Miami skyline at sunset. The Kendall Lakes area near SW 137th Avenue and Kendall Drive is far enough from the city that the view is not blocked by towering buildings. While you're shedding pounds, a virtual rookery of birds will perform aerial acrobatics against the fiery backdrop for your viewing pleasure. This particular area also has an excellent bike path that circles a lake, offering a great view of the sun going down behind a golf course riddled with oddly shaped trees. Perfect for a peaceful trip toward a healthy body and stimulated mind.

BEST PUBLIC SWIMMING POOL Miller J. Dawkins Olympic Pool Complex Charles Hadley Park

1300 NW 50th Street

Miami

305-634-5791 When you are looking for a public pool, you want it to be clean -- clean water, clean deck, and especially a clean locker room. The Dawkins Olympic Pool Complex sparkles, plus it has three pools and no charge for admission. With an Olympic-size swimming pool (that's 50 meters for you nonaquatic types), a 33-meter pool, and a wading pool for the toddlers, this swimming center is an amphibian's dream. There are six diving boards and a high-dive platform for the daring, designated times for adults and aqua-aerobics classes, a swim team, and swimming lessons for the kids. Parking is plentiful, the staff is friendly, and did we mention it's clean? The pool is open seven days a week, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Grab your (clean) trunks!

BEST PUBLIC SWIMMING POOL Miller J. Dawkins Olympic Pool Complex Charles Hadley Park

1300 NW 50th Street

Miami

305-634-5791 When you are looking for a public pool, you want it to be clean -- clean water, clean deck, and especially a clean locker room. The Dawkins Olympic Pool Complex sparkles, plus it has three pools and no charge for admission. With an Olympic-size swimming pool (that's 50 meters for you nonaquatic types), a 33-meter pool, and a wading pool for the toddlers, this swimming center is an amphibian's dream. There are six diving boards and a high-dive platform for the daring, designated times for adults and aqua-aerobics classes, a swim team, and swimming lessons for the kids. Parking is plentiful, the staff is friendly, and did we mention it's clean? The pool is open seven days a week, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Grab your (clean) trunks!

BEST BASKETBALL COURT Flamingo Park Fourteenth Street and Meridian Avenue

Miami Beach

305-673-7760 Kendall and Pinecrest; Hialeah and Overtown; West, North, and South Miami. Wonderful basketball courts can be found all over, but for sweaty street hustle in a well-appointed setting, Flamingo Park is hard to beat. This Miami Beach gem attracts a dazzling variety of players: awkward teenagers, trash-talking gangstas, and out-of-shape regular Joes with memories of high school glory dancing in their heads all mingle freely on the asphalt surface. If you want to play, it isn't difficult to find yourself a fast, friendly game out here. There are occasions when it can be a challenge to get in one. Sometimes -- when the park's lighted up at night, all of the benches are taken, and a crowd is cheering around the perimeter -- the only option is to cheer on the players already out there. Simply watching can make for a good time, like when the OG steps onto the court with his Michael Jordan kicks and his baggy shorts and meets up with an enigmatic, energetic gentleman. The older guy might look to be approaching 70, but he has no problem taking some time to school the young baller on the finer points of the game.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®