A Day at the Beach

How many places are there where you can actually go to the beach in March? We South Floridians don't like to gloat, but we do have dibs on the great weather this time of year. I always try to be compassionate when I talk to people like my brother, for instance, who lives in Saskatchewan, Canada. While he is just beginning to thaw out from an icy cold winter (and still enduring temperatures that are way too low for my native Floridian blood), I've already enjoyed several chances to work on my tan.

That said, I don't get to the local beaches often enough. The thought of packing up the kids, the chairs, the umbrella, and all the other paraphernalia sometimes seems daunting. Yet every time I do, it is so worth it.

I have learned that the trick to getting the most out of your day at the beach is knowing where to go. With some tips from South Florida Parenting readers, we have found several beaches that have that little "something extra" that make them great for family outings. Whether it is a playground, pier, proximity to restaurants, or the all-important public restrooms, the details can make the difference in your family's enjoyment of the beach. Here's a county-by-county list of South Florida Parenting readers' favorites:

PALM BEACH COUNTY

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park
10900 State Road 703, North Palm Beach
(Interstate 95 to PGA Boulevard east)
561-624-6952
If you are looking for a full day of nature that includes much more than the beach, John D. MacArthur Beach State Park is a great choice. Within the park, a 1,600-foot boardwalk takes you through a scenic estuary and brings you to a wide open, typically uncrowded 1.8-mile stretch of beach. In addition to the traditional beach activities, fishing, snorkeling, and surfing are permitted. Kids and adults can snorkel and explore around a rock reef close to shore. There are restrooms and showers at the beach. There are no lifeguards, however, so beachgoers swim at their own risk.

When you are ready to take a break from the beach, enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the picnic pavilions, take the children to the playground, take a kayak ride through the estuary, or visit the park's nature center, which features live animal exhibits. You can see fish, hermit crabs, snakes and even a baby sea turtle that was rescued last year.

The beach here is home to approximately 1,000 sea turtle nests each year. During the nesting season, between April and September, the nature center offers nighttime turtle walks. The park also offers family programs on the second Saturday of each month (call for a complete schedule or pick one up while you're there). The park is open every day of the year, including holidays. The entrance fee is $4 per vehicle.

Ocean Inlet Park
6990 N. Ocean Blvd., Ocean Ridge
(On A1A about one mile north of Boynton Beach Boulevard)
561-966-6600
This Palm Beach County park has a little of everything for the family. On the Intracoastal side of the park, there is a jetty with boat slips, a picnic pavilion, picnic tables, a snack bar, restrooms and showers, and a playground. The beach, which is directly across the street, has lifeguards on duty daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m."We usually park in the huge parking area and walk across the street to the beach," says Kelly Palmieri of Lake Worth. "When we've had enough, we go over to the playground until it's time to go home."

Palmieri likes Ocean Inlet Park so much that she held her daughter's second birthday there. "I had about 40 people there and there was more than enough room for everyone," she said. "It was a lot of fun because the little ones really loved the playground."

Another big plus at this beach spot is that there is usually plenty of parking and it is free. Palmieri just advises getting there before noon when the parking lot starts to fill up. The park is open sunrise to sunset.

Atlantic Dunes Park
1600 S. Ocean Blvd., Delray Beach
561-243-7352
561-27-BEACH (for beach conditions)
Did you know that the waters at Delray Beach are just a bit warmer because it is closer to the Gulf Stream than other South Florida beaches? Still, that is probably not what draws so many families (and tourists) to the beach in this area.The popularity of Delray's beaches may have more to do with the fact that they are extremely well kept, have lifeguards on duty, and are easily accessible with plenty of public metered parking available along A1A and in three public lots. And if you have driven down Atlantic Avenue lately, through Delray Beach's revitalized downtown, you know that the town is booming with activity, restaurants and shops.

For a quiet, family-friendly locale along the beach, check out Atlantic Dunes Park, one block north of Linton Boulevard. Michelle Davidson of Delray Beach says she and her family prefer this beach because it is "never crowded."

"We're always able to find a good spot near the water so we can watch the kids. There's lots of beach space, thanks to the beach renovation that took place not too long ago."

The park has other advantages, too. It features a boardwalk, nature trail, picnic tables and covered benches, as well as showers and restrooms. (If you go to the Delray Municipal Beach a little farther north, you will have to cross the street to use the restroom.)

The park is still close to the downtown area, as well as to the Sandoway House, a hands-on nature center that makes a great stop-off either before or after your beach visit.

One more note: If you opt for the Delray Municipal Beach, make sure to select a spot at either the south end or north end, where recreational activities are permitted. No ball throwing or beach games are allowed in the other areas.

Red Reef Park
1400 N. State Road A1A, Boca Raton
561-338-1473
(Gumbo Limbo Nature Center)
Red Reef Park has been a favorite of the Kozar family of Boca Raton for nearly 20 years. Manola Kozar says she and her husband, Jim, came to the park early on in their marriage and then started bringing their son, James (now 16), when he was just 2 years old. What they love most about the beach are the artificial reefs found both in shallow and deeper waters along the shore.

"The best thing is that you have this reef where you can go snorkeling in shallow water and see hundreds of tropical fish and barracudas," Kozar said.

Children who are not ready to snorkel can still get close enough to stand in the shallow water and look at the fish. Young kids also enjoy watching and playing with the tiny crabs that inhabit the exposed rocks at the beach. Lifeguards are on duty from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Red Reef Park has much more to offer, too. There are restrooms, shaded picnic tables, grills, play areas, and a playground. The boardwalk is a great place to observe plants and animal nature.

Just across the street is the Gumbo Limbo Environmental Education Center with a nature center, more nature trails, and ongoing programs that take place both at Gumbo Limbo and Red Reef Park.

The only drawback at Red Reef Park is its hefty entrance fee of $16 per vehicle Monday through Friday, and $18 per vehicle on weekends and holidays. Residents of Boca Raton can buy a yearly permit to save on entrance fees. Red Reef Park is open every day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

BROWARD COUNTY

Pompano Beach
On A1A from Atlantic Boulevard to Northeast 16th Street
954-786-4111
954-786-4005 (For beach conditions)
Pompano Beach is a fun and lively beach that active families enjoy. You'll find personal watercraft zipping around and people kayaking, sailing, scuba diving, fishing, and playing beach volleyball. There are picnic grounds, a playground right on the beach, a boardwalk, restrooms, showers, changing rooms, cabanas for rent, and several nearby restaurants.

One of the main attractions here is the pier, which has a concession stand, bar and restaurant and is always lined with fishermen, pelicans, and gulls. For $1 per person, you can walk on the pier to sightsee and watch the fish get reeled in. Of course, you can also bring your poles and try your luck at fishing.

The beach is roomy and has lifeguards on duty from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are two metered parking lots close to the beach.

John U. Lloyd Beach State Park
6503 N. Ocean Drive, Dania Beach
954-923-2833
John U. Lloyd is another one of those all-in-one beach and park experiences. In this large state park which borders on Port Everglades at its north end, you'll find a 2.5-mile stretch of beach (no lifeguards) that sits right next to an abundance of shaded picnic areas. There are seven large pavilions available for rent, as well as more than 300 picnic tables located throughout the park on a first come, first served basis.

At the north end of the park, the Loggerhead Cafe not only provides refreshments but also rents canoes and kayaks that can be taken through the park's Whiskey Creek, a mangrove-lined waterway where you can view plant life and wildlife and maybe even see a manatee.

Cary Alfonso of Pembroke Pines says she and her family like to pick a spot close to the concession, then enjoy a leisurely day. "You have the opportunity to stay all day, lounge around the beach, pack a cooler, and just hang out under the shady pine trees," she says. "We usually make a full day out of it and Andy, our littlest one, ends up taking a nap under the trees. Another big plus is that you get to see the cruise ships leaving Port Everglades on the weekends."

For a change of scenery, you can also take a 45-minute self-guided walk along the park's nature trail. John U. Lloyd beach is another popular spot for nesting sea turtles and nighttime turtle walks are offered on Wednesdays and Fridays between April and September (call ahead to reserve a spot).

The entrance fee for the park is $5 for a carload of up to eight people; $3 for a single person in a car; and $1 for a pedestrian or bicyclist.

Hollywood Beach
A1A at Garfield Street and North Beach Park
954-921-3334 (For beach conditions)
The Hollywood Broadwalk is probably one of the most popular beach destinations in Broward County for tourists and locals alike. Even if you don't do any inline skating or biking, it's fun to watch all the other people rolling and strolling by. There are plenty of restaurants and fun touristy shops along the path, and a bandshell at Johnson Street where live music is often playing. In addition, there are lifeguards and ample showers and restrooms in the area. Additionally, the beach happens to be incredibly wide and beautiful along the Broadwalk.

For families, it is especially key to know where to go along the Broadwalk. According to Randi Fischer and Jodi Wilkof, both of Weston, the place to be is at Garfield Street (north of Johnson). Fischer, an avid beachgoer, likes the spot because it's away from the crowds and close to pizza, ice cream and a park with a playground. "There's even a miniature golf course nearby," she says.

Wilkof says her family loves the spot for its shade and proximity to Angelo's restaurant. "There is a beautiful old tree on the beach that provides lots of natural shade in the evening. We pick up pizza from Angelo's, bring it over to our wonderful shaded spot and enjoy the sunset for the few minutes we can keep our toddler on the blanket before he decides he must head back down to the water," she said.To park, you'll have to hunt for a metered spot either on Garfield or a nearby street.

Hollywood North Beach Park
3501 N. Ocean Drive, Hollywood
954-926-2480
Another family-oriented location along Hollywood Beach is Hollywood North Beach Park, a Broward County park at Sheridan Street and A1A. This park offers picnic areas, a 60-foot observation tower, a sea turtle hatchery, access to the beach and the Hollywood Broadwalk. There is also a boardwalk along the Intracoastal Waterway, where fishing is permitted. The cost to park is $4 per car or $2 after 2 p.m. For beach conditions, call 954-921-3334.

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY

Gilbert Samson Oceanfront Park
17425 Collins Ave., Sunny Isles
305-947-0606 (city of Sunny Isles)
In the North Miami Beach area, hotels and condominiums occupy much of the beachfront. Some hotels will allow you to use their beach and facilities if you purchase a beach membership or rent a cabana for the day. The trouble is this can get a little pricey.

One great option that is both free (except for metered parking) and family-friendly is Gilbert Samson Oceanfront Park in Sunny Isles. You can park at one of two nearby public lots, then cross the street. On the beach are a picnic pavilion, restrooms, vending machines, a playground, showers, and a volleyball net. Lifeguards are on duty along Sunny Isles Beach.

From the park, you can take a short walk down the wide beach to see the Newport Pier. The pier has a restaurant and is a fun place to take in the sights of all the beach, water and fishing activities.

Matheson Hammock Park and Marina
9610 Old Cutler Road, Miami
305-665-5475
What families love most about the beach at Matheson Hammock is that the water is shallow, making it easy to supervise little ones while they splash and play. The reason is that the beach is actually a manmade atoll that surrounds a small lagoon fed by Biscayne Bay. The advantages include no big fish (they are kept out by screens), no waves to knock down small children, and water that is warmer than the Atlantic Ocean. The only downside is that on hot summer days and busy weekends, the water may feel a little too warm and can get murky.

Matheson Hammock Park is a tried-and-true Miami-Dade County park, having been the first county park to open. It celebrates its 75th anniversary on March 6.

Julie Gagnon of Coral Gables loves taking her children to Matheson Hammock. "It is especially idyllic on a weekday afternoon when there may be only half a dozen other young families there," she says.

In addition to the shallow water, Gagnon says they love the clean, white sand, palm trees that offer shade, the on-duty lifeguards, and the beautiful views of downtown Miami and Key Biscayne. The park also has picnic pavilions, showers, restrooms, walking paths, and a full-service marina. The Red Fish Grill, a top-rated restaurant for dinner, also provides excellent food from a take-out window for daytime beachgoers (the dining room is only open in the evenings).

Gagnon says there are plenty of things to keep children entertained. "There are lots of small fish, so kids can fish with nets in the shallow water and with rods along the walking path," she said. "Kids also enjoy watching the windsurfers using the windy, shallow shoreline next to the parking lot."

Matheson Hammock Park and Marina is open daily, 6 a.m. to sunset. Lifeguards are on duty from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The cost to park is $4 per carload. To prevent the beach from getting too crowded, groups of more than 20 are not permitted.

Crandon Park Beach
4000 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne
305-361-5421
The natural beauty of Key Biscayne, the pristine beaches, and the abundant recreational activities make Crandon Park Beach a popular destination for locals and visitors. The lagoon-style beach lined with lifeguards is also a big draw for families. While there are some spots where the water is deeper, much of the beachfront is shallow and dotted by sandbars.

"It is ideal for families with small children because the majority of the water is shallow with a gentle grade as you go out," says Kevin Kirwin, park manager. "At high tide, you can go out approximately 300 meters and the water may be just 3 feet deep."

If you are making a full day of it, you may want to consider renting one of the park's cabanas at $20 for the day. These are not just chairs on the beach, but rooms in a building that have their own changing rooms and showers. There are also chairs and umbrellas available for rent on the beach.

For kids, one of the highlights at Crandon Park will certainly be the Family Amusement Center, which features a vintage, restored carousel ($1 for three rides), a wet play area, a large tot lot, a picnic shelter (available by reservation), and picnic tables and grills.

The park also has concession stands and rents skates, bikes, kayaks, and canoes. You can explore on your own along the biking and walking trails or sign up for a biking, canoeing or kayaking Eco-Adventure Tour. The cost to park is $4 per carload.

Families also like the beach at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, where there's a captivating view of the Cape Florida Lighthouse and shallow water at the tip of Key Biscayne.

Whatever beach you choose, remember to make sure you have enough sunscreen and water for the day, check for swimming conditions, and keep a watchful eye on your little ones. Then relax, revel in the sunshine, and be thankful you live in South Florida.

Ellen Wolfson Valladares is freelance writer and mother of two. She lives in Weston.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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