By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
The sand is a bed of coals under the searing summer sun. You are scampering barefoot across the beach, its every grain an ember scorching your soles.
The shimmering ocean taunts you. With every jumpy seaward stride, your feet feel like they are ready to ignite. Then, just before you despair that you cannot take another step, your heels sink into the cool, soggy silt of the shoreline.
You made it. As the chilly surf caresses your ankles, you breathe in deep the sweet sea air and take in the whole sanguine sweep of the blue horizon. And, claiming your reward — you dive in.
Metaphorically speaking, this is what it’s like to be in South Florida now.
* * *
Congratulations, South Floridians. We’ve arrived at absolutely the best time of the year — the peak of that six-month slice of subtropical paradise that makes the other six months’ worth sweating through. A season when daily high temps fluctuate in the mid-70s and lows hover around 60. A season so lovely, so lively, that it merits capitalization.
The Season is when South Florida really comes to life, as snowbirds and tourists swell our numbers and complete us like old family members returning home for a spell or new ones visiting for the first time. (I know — some of us consider them invading hordes, but, hey, let’s start the New Year off with a positive vibe.)
So, now that we’re all here, now that the summer storms have subsided and the bougainvillea is in bloom, let us count the ways that we love The Season — itself the foremost reason to be in South Florida now.
Hurricane hiatus: Go outside. Take a glorious breath of crisp, cool air. Taken for granted by most of the country, for us it’s a rare experience (and becoming rarer thanks to whoever’s screwing around with the big thermostat in the sky). But the cooler air has a deeper meaning for South Floridians. It confirms our blessed reprieve from hurricane season — those precious six month of not having to hear the phrase “percentage of tropical development” or suppress the daily, nagging anxiety that life as we know it (read: electricity) could be over forever (read: a few weeks if we’re lucky). And except for our close call with cat-5 Dorian, having evaded the worst of the gasoline-gouging, water-hoarding, hurricane-shuttering ritual last year offers no assurance that’ll be the case come June 1. But wait — forget I said anything. Go outside. Breathe. It’s not Hurricane Season.
Balls and benefits: South Florida may not be famous for having a lot of soul, but the millions of dollars raised for charitable organizations during The Season would say otherwise. For example, the eighth-annual Give Miami Day online event in November raised over $14 million in just 24 hours. Among other events still to come: Culinary Kickoff, Jan. 30, hosted by the Hard Rock’s new DAER Dayclub and funding scholarships to the Culinary Institute of America; Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance, Feb. 7-9, the automobile extravaganza benefiting the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County; and two can’t-miss parties on Miami’s social calendar — American Cancer Society Annual Gala, April 4, and Red Cross Ball, April 18.
Music festivals: The possibilities for taking in outdoor tunes are as multitudinous as the members of Snarky Puppy, the 25-musician group headlining the Groundup Music Festival in Miami Beach Feb. 14-16. Al fresco music ranges from monthly community showcases like Fort Lauderdale’s Sunday Jazz Brunch on Riverwalk to daylong blasts like 99.9 Kiss Country Chili Cookoff, Jan. 18 in Pembroke Pines. Then there are the multi-day spectacles: the way-out Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, March 5-8; the 15th Jazz in the Gardens Music Fest, March 14-15 at Hard Rock Stadium; Miami’s Ultra, March 20-22, the world’s premier electronic music festival; and Tortuga Music Festival, April 17-19 on Fort Lauderdale Beach, which despite its countrified bill kicks off its cowboy boots for the likes of Pitbull. As it has for 38 years, Sunfest closes out the season April 30-May 3 in West Palm Beach.
Non-music festivals: Hundreds of thousands soak up the sunshine and whatever strikes their fancy at annual congregations, ranging from South Florida Garlic Fest, Feb. 8 in Lake Worth, where stinking it up it is a good thing; to Coconut Grove Arts Festival, Feb. 15-17, where musical and culinary creations co-star at one of the country’s largest outdoor art festivals. The palate, not the palette, is the point of SOBE Wine and Food Fest, Feb. 19-23, which attracts a heaping helping of culinary luminaries. Las Olas Art Fair does a double take on Fort Lauderdale’s style-conscious boulevard, turning it into a stroll-worthy carnival of imagery by over 200 artists Jan. 4-5 and March 7-8.
Al fresco waterfront dining: Among South Florida’s winter bonuses is the self-satisfaction of subtropical privilege one feels being seated outdoors at a waterfront restaurant. Of course, it’ll probably take longer to get a table, but the natural AC and the Venice-of-America views are worth the wait — like at 15th Street Fisheries with its Lauderdale Marina scenery, Blue Moon Fish Co. (Intracoastal), Sea Level at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort (ocean), Marti’s New River Bistro (river), and the culinary-court-style newcomer The Wharf (river). And that’s just skimming the surface in Fort Lauderdale. Foraging farther north, the stylish Boca Landing at the Waterstone Resort is just one of the settings where daily specials include Intracoastal panoramas — like at Lantana’s rustic favorite, Old Key Lime House, and at Delray Beach’s Deck 84, regularly in Opentable’s Top 100 in the country for al fresco dining. Oh, and did someone say brunch?
Spring training: It may not be the Grapefruit League heyday of the last decade when cozy stadiums in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach and West Palm Beach welcomed the Yankees, Orioles, Braves, Rangers, dear-departed Expos and other Major League teams for our winter ritual of sunning, stretching and relative slacking. But this year South Florida can boast one distinction: The shiny new FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches will play home to both contestants of last year’s World Series. And whattya know, the Feb. 22 season-opener promises a Series rematch — with a decidedly non-Series vibe — as American League champion Houston Astros face-off against first-time Series champs, the Washington Nationals. Games are scheduled through March 22 at the 2-year-old park, whose amenities include lots of netting and shade, a 360-degree concourse, suites and party decks for enjoying baseball SoFla-style.
Primo beach-going: When visions of South Florida dance in the heads of most people, it’s the beach — or South Beach, perhaps — that they see. And at this time of the year, it’s often with goo-goo eyes. And for good reason. There are nearly 45 miles of coastal beaches in Broward and Miami-Dade counties alone — from SoBe world party headquarters to the funky Broadwalk of Hollywood Beach to the gentrified shoreline of Fort Lauderdale Beach and on up the coast. If you can find a place to plop, this is beach prime time. For starters, there’s less chance of becoming toast, the water is cool and the people-watching is cooler — not to mention the guilty pleasure of, um, marveling at thawing visitors from the frozen North.
Primo theater-going: Two venues — one a theatrical institution, the other a welcome substitution — are making the experience of being entertained more pleasurable this Season. Parker Playhouse celebrates its 52nd anniversary next month with just-completed renovations, including a stunning new lobby, that have given the 1,200-seat grande dame of Fort Lauderdale theaters a fashionable facelift. Thankfully retained were the Parker’s classical elegance and many architectural features, such as its distinctive continental seating; while upgrades like state-of-the-art equipment, advanced acoustics and new lounges elevate the audience experience. In October, as part of a spectacular $1.5 billion expansion, Hollywood’s Seminole Hard Rock Resort and Casino replaced its rectangular concert hangar with the seating, sight lines and aesthetics of an actual theater. The 7,000-seat, $120 million Hard Rock Live can accommodate Broadway tours and live broadcasts, and is being touted as the most advanced entertainment facility in the country.
Communing with nature: It’s dry season in the Everglades, prime time for wildlife (excepting mosquitos). The 1.5-million-acre national park is home to more than 360 species of birds, and through March, the largest variety of wading birds and their predators. Visitors can observe freshwater alligators and saltwater crocodiles in the only place on Earth where they are said to coexist. With cooler temps, there’s no better time to take a hike or a tram tour at the park’s closest entrance at Shark Valley in Miami. For those who prefer their nature-loving with a bit more acceleration, there’s always the airboat rides at Everglades Holiday Park in Broward.
Communing with culture: This isn’t known as the Arts Season for nothing. The bill is full from South Beach to Palm Beach, where Norton Museum of Art presents an appropriately distinctive look at the pictures, persona and wardrobe of Georgia O’Keeffe through Feb. 2. Speaking of pictures in West Palm, the 25th-annual FotoFusion International Festival of Photography and Digital Imaging is Feb. 11-15 at Palm Beach Photographic Centre. Jan. 30 and Feb. 1, Florida Grand Opera plays to the balcony in Puccini’s beloved Madama Butterfly at Broward Center. In Miami Beach, an unprecedented night of collaboration in and out of New World Center, as New World Symphony and Miami City Ballet come together Feb. 1 to celebrate collaborators Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine. The icons were also respective mentors of MCB and NWS artistic directors Lourdes Lopes and recent Kennedy Center honoree Michael Tilson Thomas. The concert is also a free Wallcast live-streamed on the Center’s facade. Back at Broward Center on Feb. 7, South Florida Symphony and Schola Cantorum of Florida sing “Ode to Joy” in place of “Happy Birthday” to Beethoven, performing “the Choral” Symphony No. 9 during the anniversary of his 250th birthday.
Stone crabs: South Florida’s singular seafood delicacy is in season only from October to May … so get crackin’. Virtually prehistoric by SoFla standards, Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach is famous not only for the chilled claws it’s been serving up for over 100 years but also as the place to see and be seen while you wait … and wait … for them. The country’s top buyer, Joe’s is the star of the stone crab experience, but there are plenty of co-stars — such as Truluck’s in Fort Lauderdale, which features live entertainment nightly, and Billy’s Stone Crab in Hollywood, where nightly entertainment is sunset over the Intracoastal.
Boater’s paradise: Whether sailing, diving, fishing or cruising, it’s almost always a good time to weigh anchor when you’re in the yachting capital of the world. There are over 300 miles of inland waterways in Fort Lauderdale alone, and the crystal blue waters of the Bahamas beckon from just across the Gulf Stream — a distance only half as far as Key West. During the winter months, Miami’s Biscayne Bay attracts sailors the world over for its challenging conditions, warm waters and competitive fleets. And though the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, the world’s largest, launched last October, the Miami International Boat Show is still on deck, Feb. 13-17 at Miami Marine Stadium. Visitors can take a complimentary water taxi ride to checkout over 1,400 boats and yachts in the custom-made marina, and even take their dream boat for a test spin — a unique feature of the Miami show. And, coming up, the Palm Beach International Boat Show in West Palm Beach, March 26-28 – which this year adds the high-end Superyacht Show Palm Beach across the Intracoastal behind the Flagler Museum.
Go outside and play: Ah, winter golf and tennis in South Florida — surely two of our most enduring and enticing rituals. Palm Beach County boasts more courses than any in the country, and there are more than 40 in the Fort Lauderdale area alone. At one of them, the venerable Fort Lauderdale Country Club, golfers are teeing off at the newly renovated, multimillion-dollar championship North Course. And keeping things interesting are tournaments like The Honda Classic, Feb. 24-March 1 at PGA Resort and Spa’s Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens. Top tour players will be among 144 golfers vying for the $1,224,000 Winner’s Share of a $6.8 million purse, all to benefit area charities through Children’s Healthcare Charity. Doubtless less-daunting but also charitable are the Red Door Classic, Feb. 28 at Miami Shores Country Club; the Make-A-Wish Polen Capital Golf Tournament, March 7 at Boca Raton Resort and Club; and the South Florida Golf Tournament, March 12 at Fort Lauderdale Country Club. Long the al fresco tennis event of the season on Key Biscayne, The Miami Open was a smash hit last year at its new home at Hard Rock Stadium, with big names, record crowds, better parking (finally) and an “elevated guest experience” (Moët et Chandon, anyone?). This year’s Open, presented by Itaú, returns serve March 23-April 5.
The Highwaymen return, sort of: When it comes to country supergroups, there’s really only been one — and three of the four members will visit (sort of) within the space of 14 days: country Shakespeare Kris Kristofferson, Feb. 4, and The Man in Black: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, Feb. 17, both at Parker Playhouse; and Willie Nelson & Family, Feb. 18, at Broward Center. The spirit of Waylon Jennings, of course, will be backstage.
The Guitar Hotel: No doubt you’ve seen it. It’s hard to miss the kaleidoscopic new star on the horizon — Seminole Hard Rock’s Guitar Hotel. If it hasn’t caught your eye yet, here’s a hint: The fact that it’s a 450-foot building in the shape of a guitar is not even its most dynamic feature. It’s actually a “dynamic sculpture,” whose facade is covered in 2.3 million LED lights that animate the west Hollywood sky twice nightly with dazzling, ever-changing light shows — including six laser cannons that shoot “guitar strings” of light nearly four miles high. Inside, the Winter Escape package through Feb 2 offers rooms from $567 to $601 including a $50 buffet credit. Among the amenities is … wait for it … guitar rental.
PHOTO: Al fresco waterfront dining at The Wharf on the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale. (Jennifer Lett)