If she could be anywhere, Elizabeth Rahe says she would be outside. Running at the beach. Kayaking on the ocean. Walking around the block. Even mowing the back yard, if it justifies the escape. She doesn’t suppose that makes her an expert on alfresco locales in South Florida, but it does explain why her favorite places feature some combination of water, wildlife and tropical vegetation. There are so many natural wonders in South Florida, Elizabeth says, she could have gone on and on…but the front lawn beckons.
Bonnet House Museum & Gardens
Bonnet House Museum & Gardens is a 35-acre anachronism in the middle of Fort Lauderdale Beach, and it’s one of my favorite places on earth. Built in the 1920s, the property seems to hold the spirits of its artistic inhabitants, Frederic Bartlett and his wife Evelyn, as it preserves a precious barrier-island habitat. The Caribbean plantation-style home, which Frederic designed, is filled with the Bartletts’ paintings and collections, and highlighted by the couple’s colorful, quirky style. The lush grounds contain several ecosystems – beach, dunes, a fresh-water slough, mangrove wetlands and maritime forest, plus desert and hibiscus gardens and orchids from Evelyn’s abundant collection.
Although Frederic died in 1953, Evelyn continued to winter here nearly until her death in 1997 at age 109. She is responsible for giving Bonnet House to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983, so visitors for generations could enjoy her subtropical sanctuary. Today, I can still imagine her feeding toast points with strawberry jam to her beloved wild monkeys and watching her swans glide across the bonnet lily-filled pond.
Hollywood Beach Broadwalk
I have run the 2.5 miles of this brick-paved, oceanfront promenade as the sun was rising and strolled it as the sun was setting. I have watched seniors dancing under the stars at the Hollywood Beach Theater at Johnson Street and bought fresh fruits and vegetables at Josh’s Organic Garden at Harrison Street (Sundays 9 a.m.-5:31 p.m.). With friends and family I have shared elegant dinners, beer-and-pizza lunches and morning coffee at the Broadwalk’s fresh-air eateries.
My history on the Broadwalk goes back 20-some years, but the wide walkway has been around since the ’20s, the brainchild of Hollywood developer Joseph Young, who transformed mangroves and farmland into his grand, planned city. Today the Broadwalk still retains a bit of Old Florida ambience – just as it harbors my hometown memories. I hope it always does.
Anne Kolb Nature Center
What I find most amazing about Hollywood’s Anne Kolb Nature Center at West Lake Park is that it is here at all – that it has not been obliterated by high-rise condos and canal-streaked neighborhoods. Instead, thanks to the late Broward County Commissioner Anne Kolb and other forward-thinking environmentalists, it is a 1,500-acre mangrove preserve that holds South Florida’s true coastal roots. I have enjoyed walking its nature trails, climbing its five-story observation tower, exploring its exhibit hall, riding on its guided pontoon boat tour.
My favorite activity, however, is renting a kayak at West Lake Park and paddling the labyrinthine mangrove trails, floating so close to the teeming wildlife in the mangled roots and twisted branches. This natural treasure should not, by reason, be here, but I am so grateful that it is.
Everglades National Park
On the drive into Shark Valley Visitor Center one January morning, I leaned out the window to photograph several alligators sunning themselves on the shoulder. I need not have bothered. After renting bikes for the 15-mile loop ride, we realized that the ’gators – while not quite as plentiful as sawgrass – were just as close to the paved road, if not actually on it. Yet they were docile, almost statue-like. (Park rules say to stay 15 feet away, which is sometimes impossible.) We also saw a variety of birds, turtles, fish, a snake – and no sharks. The name comes from the Shark River Slough, which is a natural drainage channel.
To make it a perfect Everglades afternoon, we got caught in a cloudburst and rushed for cover at the 45-foot observation tower. There, we took in the spectacular, 360-degree vista of our unique-in-the-world River of Grass. On the ride back the tram passed us, and even though we were still damp, we would not have traded places with the drier tour patrons. The memory of being so close to the Everglades wildlife and ecosystem was too sweet.