Ocala National Forest
Photo by Bill Lea / USDA Forest Service

There's something supremely gratifying about driving straight toward Disney World and then promptly passing right by the House of Mouse in lieu of the great outdoors. That feeling is especially true when your final destination is Ocala National Forest and its more than 600 lakes, rivers, and springs. Established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, it's the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi and the southernmost in the nation. Located just four and a half hours from Miami, Ocala National Forest will make you want to swap Fantasyland for a subtropical fantasy: swimming or snorkeling in the chilly, clear waters of springs that bubble out of crevices in the earth. There are also plenty of paddling and hiking options. At the most frequented destinations, including the Juniper, Alexander, and Salt springs, camping costs about $21 per night. Though you won't meet Mickey and Minnie, you may see bears, alligators, boars, coyote, and bobcats. The forest is a land of adventure and discovery too.

If you're a 65-year-old with a homemade costume of a Schlitz beer can in the back of your closet, you've probably heard of Stan's Idle Hour. If you're not that person, well, consider this your introduction. Two hours from Miami, straight west on U.S. 41, this colorful dive bar defines Sunday Funday. In the small town of Goodland — which bills itself as a drinking village with a fishing problem — the live music at Stan's kicks off around 11 a.m. with an elaborate recording of the National Anthem, including several verses you didn't know existed. Lunch is simple and usually fried: shrimp, scallops, oysters, soft-shell crab. Though this place isn't technically a biker bar, you'll see your fair share here. But you'll also find Marco Island condo dwellers, vacationing Midwesterners, Florida crackers, and, if you're lucky, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, a friend of the late owner, Stan Gober, who raised his family in Miami before moving to Goodland in 1969. Don't leave until the band plays "The Buzzard Lope," a sort of bastardized version of the chicken dance penned by Gober before his death in 2012 ("Looks like they're on dope/They are doing the Buzzard Lope"). If the song alone doesn't have you flapping your arms like an idiot, the signature Buzzard Punch rum drink sure will.

Like to climb walls? Enjoy testing yourself and your body? How do you feel about trampolines and the NBC series American Ninja Warrior? If those questions tripped your need for adventure, there's a place for you. Opened in 2015, North Miami's Ninja Lounge includes 40,000 square feet of space — a full quarter of that covered by trampolines. About 20,000 people use it each month — and 5,000 to 8,000 on "a slow weekend," says marketing manager Jessica Albert. There are three basketball hoops, two dodgeball courts, and an elevated ropes course. The main attraction is the ninja warrior obstacle course, a replica of the consistent features of the course used in the Ninja series. (It is also the only gym in South Florida certified by the show.) The place costs from $10 to $54.50 per hour, and monthly memberships start at $49 per month. There are also creative fitness classes, including ninja warrior boot camp, ballroom dancing, and hip-hop. "We get a lot of people training for the show," says Albert, who lists athletes such as former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada and NBA star Dennis Rodman among clients. "There's even a diner where you can eat after you work out," she says.

Best Reason to Stay in Miami for the Summer

Venetian Pool

Venetian Pool
Photo courtesy of the GMCVB

When summer temps threaten to hit triple digits, there's one place in Miami that stays a consistent 76 to 78 degrees: the historic Venetian Pool in Coral Gables. Fed by a natural spring and drained nightly, the 820,000-gallon pool built in 1923 is ideal for a midday soak if your backyard is waterless or you find yourself terrorized by obnoxious drunks when you venture downstairs to your apartment's pool. This isn't just any neighborhood pool, either — with waterfalls, rock features, and faux Mediterranean ambiance, it's the only swimming hole in America on the National Register of Historic Places. For $13 for adults and $8 for kids (with extra discounts for Coral Gables residents), you'll get the most bang for your buck if you get there early and make a day of it. Bring your own snacks to avoid the lines at the concession stand, and put the money toward a chair rental so you'll have a place to sprawl out and stash your sunscreen. Take one last dip before the pool closes (around 4:30 to 6:30, depending upon the day and time of year) and ride home with the windows down so you can feel the hot wind against your wet hair. And if even that fails to shake your stubborn summertime blues, you have full permission to pull into the nearest parking lot and rock back and forth in the air conditioning.

Sure, you can take your non-Miami friends club-hopping in South Beach or exploring the artsy streets of Wynwood, but let's face it — that's so cliché. Though the 305 takes pride in its hard-core party rep and burgeoning arts scene, to really give out-of-towners a taste of the area, you have to show them the weird side. And Coral Castle Museum is the epitome of all things strange in these parts. Constructed by Edward Leedskalnin — a five-foot-tall, 100-pound Latvian man with a fourth-grade education — using nothing but his bare hands and simple tools, the coral-rock fortress is rumored to have been built as a tribute to Leedskalnin's love, Agnes Scuffs, whom he referred to as his "Sweet Sixteen" because she was 16 years old, a full decade younger than he was. Leedskalnin and Scuffs had planned to get married, but she called it off the eve of their wedding. With a broken heart and crushed spirit, Leedskalnin left Latvia. He lived in Canada, California, and Texas for some time but, after developing tuberculosis, ended up in Florida in 1918. He had begun construction of the castle in Florida City in 1923, a few miles south of its current location. But after hearing of a ten-acre site for sale, he moved to Homestead in 1936 and took the colossal stone pieces with him. It is said to have taken Leedskalnin three years to move the rocks. Construction at the current site began in 1936 and was completed in 1951, the year Leedskalnin died. However, no one really knows how he erected the castle. Some people say aliens helped, while others contend the whole backstory is a sham. He swore he "knew the laws of weight and leverage well," which is how he precariously balanced multi-ton rocks atop one another. Regardless of how Coral Castle was built, your out-of-town buddies will definitely have one hell of a story to tell back home.

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There's a better way to see Miami than from a traffic jam on I-95 in your Ford Focus. A sunset helicopter tour will set you back about 200 bones per head, but it's the fastest and prettiest way to see Miami Beach and the surrounding area. TourHelicopter.com's choppers can fit up to six guests, but you need at least two to book a flight, so bring a favorite long-distance friend in town or that impossible-to-please love interest you have yet to wow. If you call ahead and time it right, you can catch the last bit of sunset and then transition into a nighttime tour of the city's lights as you head back on the half-hour excursion (which is also by far the dopest way to check out Christmas lights if you book around the holidays). If you're celebrating, and why wouldn't you be, it's A-OK to bring a bottle of champagne or your beverage of choice. But keep it classy — you're on a helicopter, not a frat party bus.

There's nothing better after you've smoked a tree than to be surrounded by them. West of Brickell, a soft mist lingers above the Roads. Just below sits one of Miami's best-kept secrets: Simpson Park Hammock. The Garden Center's coral-lined cottage entrance gives way to a true urban oasis, where a winding nature trail's seashell-lined path offers a blissful reprieve from the traffic roaring just a block away. There's silence — nothing but verdant humidity and rustling leaves. Miami's blue sky is engulfed by trees. In the distance, a family of raccoons rushes into red stopper bushes, shrouding the speeding Metrorail. Even sober, the place is magical.

Matheson Hammock Park
Photo by Chris Garcia / Courtesy of the GMCVB – MiamiandBeaches.com

Sometimes all you need is a blanket, a leafy tree casting some delicious shade, and a few minutes to contemplate life's great mysteries while munching on a bologna-and-cheese sandwich. That may sound like a simple enough demand, but with all the sweating crowds, echoing traffic, and endless uhntz-uhntz madness that defines Miami, finding some peace and quiet in the Magic City can be a daunting task. But there's a lush green oasis right in the middle of it all. In fact, it's the first county park in the 305: Matheson Hammock. In 1930, industrialist William J. Matheson handed 85 acres of tropical hammock to the county and asked it to create a botanical garden. Four years later, the county bought a huge adjacent stretch of land to create more than 500 acres of oasis on the waterfront. Today you can find all of your picnic essentials, from massive banyan trees to pavilions and the occasional squirrel. There's even a manmade atoll pool that empties and fills with the tides. There's plenty of grass to pitch a picnic lunch, but there's also a sandy beach with views of the downtown Miami skyline.

Just south of the trendy Upper Eastside, where Russian billionaires are plotting the next wave of luxury condo towers, an older Miami holds out. Banyans line the streets of the historic Morningside neighborhood, where snow-white ibises roam freely, heading east toward the spot where Miami's best-rounded park hides nestled along the bayfront. This is not a cleverly designed concert venue or a hole-in-the-wall pop-up park. Morningside is a space conscious of its natural surroundings. On weekends, families barbecue near loved ones renting kayaks and paddleboards. Basketball courts and soccer fields brim with bustling, sweating players. But for those slow Thursday mornings, there's also a quiet bench and a sunrise waiting over Biscayne Bay.

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Dog parks can be stressful for humans. You want to let your dog explore freely, meet new friends, and romp around. But how do you know if the other dogs there have been trained properly? What if they have fleas or aggression issues? These are the neuroses of a dog owner with severe attachment anxiety. But there's a place in Miami that can help — for a lot less money than the therapist's couch you probably need. Just over the Rickenbacker Causeway, next to the graffiti-covered Miami Marine Stadium, sits Hobie Island Beach. Cubans call it "Los Espinitos" because the beach is filled with mangroves popping up along the sand. It's not an ideal beach for people, but for dogs, it's a natural playground of adventure. Some dogs are afraid of water, flailing their paws as they try to walk across the swampy expanse. Others are natural-born swimmers. With the wind in their fur, dogs paddle across the shallow shoreline, discovering a new world — much to their relaxed owners' delight.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®