The Miami area is a great place for outdoor types, with beaches, parks, nature preserves, and gardens galore.
Although South Beach is more known for its sand than its greenery, South Pointe Park, 1 Washington Ave. (tel. 305/673-7730), reopened after a $22.4-million renovation that transformed the formerly shabby spot into 17.5 waterfront acres of green space, walkways, playground and observation deck. It is also home to Smith and Wollensky (tel. 305/673-2800), which is one of the best spots from which to view the departing cruise ships in Government Cut.
The Amelia Earhart Park, 401 E. 65th St., Hialeah (tel. 305/685-8389), is the only real reason to travel to industrial, traffic-riddled Hialeah. The park has five lakes stocked with bass and bream for fishing, playgrounds, picnic facilities, a skate park, and a big red barn that houses cows, sheep, and goats for petting and ponies for riding. There's also the Bill Graham Farm Village, a re-created Miami-Dade County homestead housing a country store and dozens of old-time farm activities such as horseshoeing, sugar-cane processing, and more. Parking is free on weekdays and $4 per car on weekends. The park is open daily from 9am to sunset, but all the attractions close at about 4pm. To drive here, take I-95 north to the NW 103rd Street exit, go west to East 4th Avenue, and then turn right. Parking is 1 1/2 miles down the street. Depending on traffic, Hialeah is about a half-hour from downtown Miami.
Newly reopened in 2009 is the historic Hialeah Park, 2200 E. Fourth Ave. (tel. 305/885-8000; www.hialeahparkracing.com), primarily known for horse racing but also for its legendary flock of neon-pink flamingos, which still roam the property and are definitely worth a photo op. After decades of decay, the park is back and spruced up for the most part although experts say the restoration of the National Historic Landmark to its former glory will take years and $100 million to complete. Open only for races for now, admission is free.
At the historic Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, 1200 Crandon Blvd. (tel. 305/361-5811), at the southern tip of Key Biscayne about 20 minutes from downtown Miami, you can explore the unfettered wilds and enjoy some of the most secluded beaches in Miami. There's also a historic lighthouse that was built in 1825, which is the oldest lighthouse in South Florida. The lighthouse was damaged during the Second Seminole War (1836) and again in 1861 during the Civil War. Out of commission for a while, it was restored to working lighthouse condition in 1978 by the U.S. Coast Guard. A rental shack leases bikes, hydrobikes, kayaks, and many more water toys. It's a great place to picnic, but there are also two restaurants on-site: the Lighthouse Café, which serves homemade Latin food, including great fish soups and sandwiches, and the Boater's Grill offering casual waterfront dining. Just be careful that the raccoons don't get your lunch -- the furry black-eyed beasts are everywhere. Wildlife aside, however, Bill Baggs has been consistently rated as one of the top 10 beaches in the U.S. for its 1 1/4 miles of wide, sandy beaches and its secluded, serene atmosphere. Admission is $8 per car with up to eight people (or $4 for a car with only one person; $2 to enter by foot or bicycle). Open daily from 8am to sunset. Tours of the lighthouse are available every Thursday through Monday at 10am and 1pm. Arrive at least half an hour early to sign up -- there is room for only 10 people on each tour. Take I-95 to the Rickenbacker Causeway and take that all the way to the end.
Fairchild Tropical Garden, at 10901 Old Cutler Rd., in Coral Gables (tel. 305/667-1651; www.ftg.org), is the largest of its kind in the continental United States. A veritable rainforest of both rare and exotic plants, as well as 11 lakes and countless meadows, are spread across 83 acres. Palmettos, vine pergola, palm glades, and other unique species create a scenic, lush environment. More than 100 species of birds have been spotted at the garden (ask for a checklist at the front gate), and it's home to a variety of animals. You should not miss the 30-minute narrated tram tour (tours leave on the hour 10am-3pm weekdays and 10am-4pm on weekends) to learn about the various flowers and trees on the grounds. There is also a museum, a cafe, a picnic area, and a gift shop with edible gifts and fantastic books on gardening and cooking. Fairchild often hosts major art exhibits by the likes of Dale Chihuly and Roy Lichtenstein. The 2-acre rainforest exhibit, Windows to the Tropics, will save you a trip to the Amazon. Expect to spend a minimum of 2 hours here.
Admission is $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, $10 for children ages 6 to 17, and free for children 5 and under. Open daily, except Christmas, from 9:30am to 4:30pm. Take I-95 south to U.S. 1, turn left onto Le Jeune Road, and follow it straight to the traffic circle; from there, take Old Cutler Road 2 miles to the park.
On Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove (4013 Douglas Rd.; www.ntbg.org/gardens/kampong.php), the Kampong is a 7-acre botanical garden with a stunning array of flowering trees and tropical fruit trees, including mango, avocado, and pomelos. In the early 1900s, noted plant explorer David Fairchild traveled the world seeking rare plants of economic and aesthetic value that might be cultivated in the United States. In 1928, Fairchild and his wife, Marian -- the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell -- decided to build a residence here (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places) surrounded by some of his findings, and named it after the Malaysian word kampong, meaning "home in a garden." In the 1960s, the Fairchilds sold the Kampong to Catherine Hauberg Sweeney, who donated it to the National Tropical Botanical Garden to promote and preserve this South Florida treasure. It's a must-see for those interested in horticulture. Admission and tours are by appointment only, from Monday to Friday. For tour and price information, call tel. 305/442-7169 from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday. Take U.S. 1 to Douglas Road (SW 37th Ave.). Go east on Douglas Road for about a mile. The Kampong will be on your left.
Named after the late champion of the Everglades, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, 6767 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne (tel. 305/361-6767; www.biscaynenaturecenter.org), is housed in a $4-million facility and offers hands-on marine exploration, hikes through coastal hammocks, bike trips, and beach walks. Local environmentalists and historians lead intriguing trips through the local habitat. Call to reserve a spot on a regularly scheduled weekend tour or program. Be sure to wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes for hikes through wet or rocky terrain. Open daily 10am to 4pm. Admission to the park is $5 per person; admission to the nature center is free. Special programs and tours cost $10 per person. Call for weekend programs. To get there, take I-95 to the Rickenbacker Causeway exit (no. 1) and take the causeway all the way until it becomes Crandon Boulevard. The center is on the east side of the street (the Atlantic Ocean side) and about 25 minutes from downtown Miami.
Because so many people are focused on the beach itself, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach (tel. 305/673-7256), remains a secret garden. The lush, tropical 4 1/2-acre garden is a fabulous natural retreat from the hustle and bustle of the silicone-enhanced city. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 5pm; admission is free.
The Oleta River State Recreation Area, 3400 NE 163rd St., North Miami (tel. 305/919-1846), consists of 993 acres -- the largest urban park in the state -- on Biscayne Bay. The beauty of the Oleta River, combined with the fact that you're essentially in the middle of a city, makes this park especially worth visiting. With miles of bicycle and canoe trails, a sandy swimming beach, kayak and mountain bike rental shop, Blue Marlin Fish House Restaurant, shaded picnic pavilions, and a fishing pier, Oleta River State Recreation Area allows for an outstanding outdoor recreational experience cloistered from the confines of the big city. There are 14 air-conditioned cabins on the premises that sleep four people. The cost is $55 per night, and guests are required to bring their own linens. Bathrooms and showers are outside, as is a fire circle with a grill for cooking. For reservations, call tel. 800/326-3521. It's open daily from 8am to sunset. Admission for pedestrians and cyclists is $2 per person. By car: Driver plus car costs $4; driver plus one to seven passengers and car costs $6. Take 1-95 to exit 17 (S.R. 826 E.) and go all the way east until just before the causeway. The park entrance is on your right. Driving time from downtown Miami is about a half-hour.
A testament to Miami's unusual climate, the Preston B. Bird and Mary Heinlein Fruit and Spice Park, 24801 SW 187th Ave., Homestead (tel. 305/247-5727; www.fruitandspicepark.org), harbors rare fruit trees that cannot survive elsewhere in the country. If a volunteer is available, you'll learn some fascinating things about this 30-acre living plant museum, where the most exotic varieties of fruits and spices -- ackee, mango, Ugli fruits, carambola, and breadfruit -- grow on strange-looking trees with unpronounceable names. There are also original coral rock buildings dating back to 1912. The Strawberry Folk Festival in February and an art festival here in January are among the park's most popular -- and populated -- events. The best part? You're free to take anything that has naturally fallen to the ground (no picking here). If the ground is bare, don't worry. The Mango Café in the park's historic Bauer-Mitchell-Neill House features indoor and outdoor garden seating and is open for lunch and late afternoon dining and serves "Florida Tropical" cuisine -- fruit salads, lots of dishes with mango, smoothies, shakes, and, our fave, Florida lobster roll. You'll also find samples of interesting fruits and jellies made from the park's bounty, as well as exotic ingredients and cookbooks in the gift store.
Admission to the spice park is $8 for adults and $1.50 for children 12 and under. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm; closed on Christmas. Tours are included in the price of admission and are offered at 11am, 1:30pm, and 3pm. Take U.S. 1 south, turn right on SW 248th Street, and go straight for 5 miles to SW 187th Avenue. The drive from Miami should take 45 minutes to an hour.
Tropical Park, 7900 SW 40th St. (tel. 305/226-8315), is remotely located out in West Miami, but it has lots to offer, especially if it's during the holiday season when the place is all decked out in millions of holiday lights, with attractions such as Santa's Enchanted Forest. Enjoy a game of tennis or racquetball for a minimal fee, swim and sun yourself on the secluded little lake, rent bikes, or try horseback riding. You can use the fishing pond for free, and they'll even supply you with the rods and bait. If you catch anything, however, you're on your own. Open daily from 7am to 10pm; admission is free. To get there, go west on Bird Road until you reach the overpass for the Palmetto Expressway (826). The park is on the left side immediately after the overpass.
A Japanese Garden
If you ask someone what Japanese influences can be found in Miami, they'll likely point to Nobu, Sushi Siam, Sushi Rock Café, and even Benihana. But back in the '50s, well before sushi became trendy, Kiyoshi Ichimura became obsessed with Miami and started sending people and objects from Tokyo, including carpenters, gardeners, and a landscape architect, to design and construct the San-Ai-An Japanese Garden. Originally located in the Jungle Island space, the garden was dismantled during construction and re-created adjacent to the park. The completed 1-acre garden was renamed Ichimura Miami Japan Garden in honor of its original benefactor, and its sculptures and Japanese artifacts are managed by a coalition of city organizations. Japanese holidays and festivals are celebrated here.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.