By Ciara LaVelle
Imagine Miami without the Everglades, the Florida Keys without coral reefs or Palm Beach without the beach; it’s impossible. The nature of South Florida is an intrinsic part of what makes this region of the world a spectacular travel destination. And that goes double for vacationers who like to get active and break a sweat while they explore new surroundings. But you don’t have to be an Everest-level mountain climber to get in on the action in South Florida. In fact, as the National Parks Service Centennial approaches in 2016, it’s easier than ever to discover the natural treasures here. Newbies, take note: the #FindYourPark outreach programme aims to connect would-be explorers with the national parks near them — and in South Florida, visitors have three to choose from: snorkel and scuba mecca Biscayne National Park in Miami; Everglades National Park, a sprawling habitat for manatees, alligators and the rare Florida panther, all set in an ecosystem unlike anyplace else in the world; and Key West-adjacent Dry Tortugas National Park, featuring a 19th-century fort surrounded by thriving coral reefs and marine life.
Whether you’re travelling as a single, with your better half or have brought the whole family, South Florida has enticing and active attractions galore.
Flying solo? You won’t have any trouble making friends in Miami. The city has a large percentage of residents who moved from other places in the world, and those outsiders have created a wide range of events designed as much for social interaction as for getting active. If you’re a runner, check out the weekly group runs organised by running stores like Coral Gables’ Team Footworks and iRun in Miami’s MiMo District. These runs take you through some of Miami’s most scenic areas, from the beaches of Key Biscayne to bustling Biscayne Boulevard — and, if you’re unfamiliar with the city’s layout, it will also ensure you don’t accidentally run into any potentially sketchy areas.
If you’re more of a zen master than a marathoner, South Florida’s yoga options are nearly endless. Check out free classes at Miami’s Biscayne Park or on the beach at Third Street in Miami Beach.
Looking for an adrenaline rush? Head to Homestead-Miami Speedway. When the track isn’t hosting high-profile auto races, it regularly offers events that let amateur car geeks get behind the wheel and fly at top speed. Its Fast Lane Fridays, held on the first Friday of each month, let participants legally drag race in a party atmosphere.
Romance isn’t just about roses and Champagne. Active couples can find love at the end of a hiking trail, the bottom of the ocean or the end of the fish line — any place that lets them explore new territory together.
Kayaking is a perfect activity for two. Most companies in South Florida rent tandem kayaks, built with two seats for pairs of paddlers to explore the waters. And throughout the region, there’s plenty to explore. In West Palm Beach, kayakers can head to Peanut Island Park; upon arrival, they can pull their kayaks up onto the sand and enjoy fishing, snorkelling and swimming. Miami’s Oleta River State Park is nestled alongside the Intracoastal Waterway, where kayakers can paddle through mangrove-lined waters. And the Florida Keys boasts the Overseas Paddling Trail, stretching all the way from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Key West — a distance of more than 100 miles. (You don’t have to go the whole way, of course.)
There’s just as much exploring to do on land here, too. Almost all of the dozens of parks in South Florida have nature trails that let visitors get closer to the tropical nature of the region. For a light stroll, check out the Barrier Island Nature Trail at John U. Lloyd Beach State Park just south of Ft. Lauderdale — its wide, wooden walkways make it easy to wander amongst the tall trees and local wildlife. Key Biscayne, the northernmost Florida Key sitting near Miami’s Brickell neighbourhood, boasts nature trails at Crandon Park, where hikers can spot heron.
Perhaps the best way to see South Florida is through the eyes of a child, with wonder at its exotic animals, delight in its salty waves and, most importantly for active vacationers, boundless energy. Many of South Florida’s sporty activities are appropriate for families, including kayaking and hiking. But hands down, the best place for active kids is the Everglades, where exotic nature meets exciting adventure.
Here’s where you’ll find Shark Valley, home to trails perfect for exploring. This isn’t an average nature walk — alligators, the Everglades’ most famous residents, often share the paths with visitors as they lay out basking in the sun. You could walk right up and touch them — but you shouldn’t, of course; these gators are far from tame, so you’ll want to keep young kids in check. But for older kids and adults alike, this is the closest you may ever get (and certainly the closest you’ll want to get) to encountering a gator in the wild.
Tour operators also offer airboat rides through the sawgrass marshes of the Everglades. Though these aren’t physically challenging trips, per se — mainly they involve travellers sitting in a boat — they do provide a thrilling trek into the heart of the nature here.
For more up-close-and-personal interactions with local wildlife, head to one of South Florida’s dolphin encounters. The Florida Keys is home to several facilities where you and your little ones can touch, interact and even swim in the same waters as dolphins themselves, including Dolphins Plus and Dolphin Cove in Key Largo, Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, and the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon. The Miami Seaquarium, located on Key Biscayne, also provides a Dolphin Odyssey programme that pairs education and interaction.
Visit Miami with Cayman Airways
Cayman Airways offers daily flights from Grand Cayman to Miami. To book your flight, call 345-949-2311 or 1-800-4-CAYMAN, visit caymanairways.com, or contact your local agent.