Extreme Florida: 5 South Florida Adventures
Five must-do experiences for those who live in our little slice of paradise.
Written by Eric Barton.
One thing you hear living in South Florida is that we simply don’t have the outdoorsy activities you find elsewhere. New Englanders will say they miss the hiking, and those who grew up with the Rockies will say they can’t live without the mountain peaks on the horizon.
Luckily, though, we have far better options. Our tropical waters offer world-class snorkeling for those who need only to wade in. The Everglades features daylong adventures, with modern-day dinosaurs and creatures that birders wait a lifetime to spot.
Where, you might ask, can you find these treasures? Read on for five of the best South Florida adventures.
1. The Surprisingly Approachable Jet Ski Racing
This year, Amanda LeCheminant might just be a champion Jet Ski racer, rewarding her sponsors for their support with a Florida Series trophy. But last May? LeCheminant didn’t even own a Jet Ski.
That’s just how accessible her sport is, LeCheminant says. For her, it began when her now-boyfriend and racing partner, George Holmquist, bought a couple Jet Skis and invited her along for a trip to the Keys. She couldn’t get enough, and soon she was researching how she might get into racing.
Entering Jet Ski racing begins by taking a required classroom and water training course—LeCheminant can still recall all those times practicing how to fall and get back on her ski. A month later, there she was, on the starting line of her first race. For LeCheminant, Jet Ski racing just fit her personality. She has always been a risk-taker, speed demon and athlete, back to her days at St. Andrew’s high school in Boca.
Now, it’s all she can do to not think about it every moment of her day. Her day job is in-house counsel for an engineering firm in Hollywood, but every weekend she’s on the water, either practicing for a race or competing.
For a newbie, the sport is surprisingly easy to enter. A Jet Ski and trailer might cost 12 grand, with another thousand required for safety gear. The league restricts Jet Skis to nearly stock parts, meaning racers won’t be constantly spending money on upgrades.
Instead, LeCheminant says the trick is mastering the stamina it takes to run a Jet Ski for the 30-minute races. Sometimes the sport is a smooth coast on flat water, Caribbean blue zipping past at up to 63 mph.
Things get tricky in the turns. Jet Skis have no brakes, and they won’t maneuver without applying the throttle. “You need to really know how to read the water, and that doesn’t come until you’ve actually done it,” LeCheminant says.
Other times, though, the sport can be a slog through rough water. During a race in six-foot seas in Daytona in April, the ski jumped up and caught LeCheminant right in the helmet. She didn’t realize how bad it was until she stopped and discovered her helmet was full of blood from her broken nose. Yet she managed to capture first place, hanging on when other racers simply couldn’t finish or let the waves best them. Work was interesting that week, what with her two black eyes.
Being up on that podium in Daytona was addicting. “You definitely are going to like the feeling of being up there,” she says. “You just want it again so much.”
To find out where you can see LeCheminant race, follow her on Facebook.
2. Gliding Through the Glades
Jack Shealy stands in the stern of the pole boat as it glides over the top of the Everglades. In his hand is a pole worn smooth over the years. He dips it into the water, pushes off the muddy bottom, and heads through the grass. There’s barely a sound, just the rustle of Everglades grasses, crickets, the chirps of birds and the throaty calls from a gator.
You, you’re up front, in a row of four seats, listening to Shealy tell stories. His grandfather came to the place where southern Florida fades into the sea in the 1850s, and the Shealy boys have called themselves Gladesmen ever since. He learned how to construct pole boats from his father, and someday he’s hoping to teach his son. Unlike the Seminoles, who hollowed out trees for pole boats, Shealy uses plank wood now. But the serene feeling of gliding across the glades in a 35-acre preserve is the same.
Sure, you could travel into the Everglades by gas-guzzling swamp buggy or airboat, with its fan billowing like a 747. But in the pole boat, you’ll see all the creatures scared away by the machines. Gators, of course. Be on the lookout also for snail kites and wood storks and limpkins—at least 325 species of birds.
“The quiet, transcendent communing with nature, that’s what you experience out here,” Shealy says. “There are some intangible things about being out there that people don’t know until they do it.”
Everglades Adventure Tours, 40904 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee, 800/504-6554, evergladesadventuretours.net;
$109 for a two-hour pole boat tour, or rent a tiki hut for $200 per night
3. Biking On Top of the World—From Sea Level
The tourists line up early morning for the airboat rides and alligator wrestling at Everglades Holiday Park. You’ll be leaving them behind. Lift your bike over the metal railing that keeps out vehicles and head south, to a place where you will likely see nobody else.
Beyond civilization, pedal along the earthen levee that keeps the glades from swamping all of South Florida. To the east you can see the highway in the distance, the last sign of civilization. To the west there’s grass, to the horizon, swaying in the breeze, reflecting the sun like whitecaps. The wheels below you crunch on the gravel and flatten grass that comes up kneehigh in spots. Sometimes you’ll see lanky deer and wise-looking cranes watching you pass.
But mostly it’ll just be you, for as long as you could possibly want. Heading south from the park is a loop of about 13 miles. It cuts through a rustic fish camp on its way back. For those who want more, there are hundreds of miles of bike-friendly levees, cutting through western Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
The view through most of it is a stunning, humbling expanse of Old Florida. At dawn, the sunrise reflects between lily pads in the wade pools. Rain clouds look like burned marshmallows, drifting in the distance, and the sun becomes a whiteout at midday. Sunset brings about a new adventure, traversing the levee by headlamp or even moonlight, nothing visible but the small stretch of path in front of you.
At times, riding the levee can be frightening or painful, like when a busted tire means getting devoured by bugs. Then there are moments where you stop for water and realize you’re not far from the sprawling metropolis of South Florida, yet you seem to have the world all to yourself.
Enter the Everglades Conservation Levee at several spots, including Everglades Holiday Park, Atlantic Boulevard and the Sawgrass Expressway, the Bluegill Trail in Palm Beach Gardens, and Lox Road on the border of Broward and Palm Beach counties.
4. A Slice of the Caribbean From Cato’s Bridge
Let’s take a minute to feel sorry for the Northerners who work all year to spend one week near tropical waters. For us, there’s just a short drive to Cato’s Bridge, a place that’s like swimming in an aquarium, right from shore.
Technically, the bridge is just an unnamed expanse of State Road A1A as it passes over the Intracoastal, just east of the Jupiter Lighthouse. But locals named the bridge for the tender who started working there in 1947 and became a fixture for the kids who used to wade in from the sandy shores nearby.
It’s still just as popular, a snorkeling and free-diving spot to rival many Caribbean islands. In high tide, the ocean waters rush in from the nearby inlet, flooding the Intracoastal with tropical fish, striped and spotted and a rainbow of color. They duck between the barnacle-crusted pylons of the bridge, seeking refuge in the shadows. In warm waters, sometimes you’ll find squid and octopus and starfish the color of citrus. In cooler months, manatees might drift by, searching for warmer waters upstream.
Perhaps you’ll spot the invasive lionfish, with its wild plumes, or bizarre puffer fish, or crabs scurrying across the rocks nearby.
No matter what you happen to spot on the day you go, no doubt it’ll be like a vacation trip to somewhere tropical, right here in our backyard.
Cato’s Bridge, just east of the Jupiter Lighthouse, with limited parking along the street and from the nearby lighthouse park; free.
5. Free-Falling, With Four Walls Around You
It is undoubtedly a cliché to say something takes your breath away, but that happens in the first seconds of stepping into a wind tunnel. Below you is a net and then beyond it a fan that’s literally blasting the air right from your lungs. You start to wonder if you’ll actually be able to breathe at all.
Finally, you take a breath, and then the guide urges you into position, a superman pose. Legs slightly bent. Chin up. Hands out in front, a horizontal version of the pose you assume in one of those TSA body scanners. And you fly—float really, like a bird. Or maybe more like a skydiver, except right here, inside a wind tunnel.
This is an entirely new sport that has taken off in the last five years or so, as wind tunnels make indoor skydiving a thing. In South Florida, there’s iFLY in suburban Broward County, where about $70 will give you a few minutes in a simulated free-fall. Founder Alan Metni opened the first iFLY in Orlando after being frustrated that he couldn’t take his kids skydiving with him. Wind tunnels don’t carry the adults-only restrictions of skydiving, so it’s common to see birthday parties of preteens in the simulated free-fall.
But even experienced skydivers can find the wind tunnel a challenge. Any slight change in the position of your hands or a crane of your neck can make you spin or fall or climb. The guide, however, catches you, yanking at your flight suit to keep you level. Almost nobody can follow the rules about keeping your head up, meaning you’re constantly dropping toward the netting below. There are those who have mastered this. Private lessons teach the experienced flyers how to backflip, coast upside-down, climb and fall, and plummet headfirst, like a scene from“Point Break.”
For most who try it, though, it’s a few minutes of fighting the wind, failing to remember to keep flat and just let the air pick you up. But then there’s a moment, maybe on your second or third attempt, when you get control of your body and assume the exact correct pose. Then the guide lets you go. You’re actually floating on the wind. For a minute, you’re flying, inside.
iFLY, 11690 W. State Road 84, Davie, 954/280-4359, iflyworld.com; $70 and up.
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