South Florida Beacon

By: Diane Lacey Allen

ADD TO FAVORITES
Nature and parks near Miami

I'd left late and the drive was turning into nothing short of an ordeal. I-95 simply wasn't behaving. To make things worse, I was lost in Coral Gables. I mean, I knew where I was, but I just couldn't figure out how to navigate the Miracle Mile and get to Hotel Place St. Michel.

So, I called the hotel, fully expecting to hear a recorded message. Instead, I found myself on the phone with an attendant at the front desk, a delightful man with a reassuring French accent. The confusion of a long night began to vanish with each block as I grew closer to the elegant, foliage-covered Hotel Place St. Michel. Our charming attendant refused to hang up until I arrived at the front door.

With a smile and a glass of red wine that appeared out of nowhere, the day was saved. I had dropped into a bit of Old World hospitality, complete with a brass elevator and fresh flowers. Next morning, complimentary coffee, juice and a croissant the size of a calzone ushered in the new day. Just the mindset for a scenic ride over the Rickenbacker Causeway.

I was back in south Florida. Cruise ships to the left, kayak rentals setting up to the right. An Ultralight seaplane seemed to guide my Jeep toward Key Biscayne and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, an urban jewel. The park is special because of where it is, tucked away from sophistication and civilization in an area with so many luxury cars that you have to wonder if you get a new Mercedes when opening a local checking account. The condos and couture end with the entrance to the park. South Beach may have its models and movie stars, but Bill Baggs has guys who fish in water the color of the Caribbean. It provides tranquility in a frenzied world.

Less means more at this Cape Florida park. There are bike and foot paths. Places to picnic. Raccoons you're not supposed to feed. And weddings. But, most importantly, there is that lighthouse. In the middle of a world where cars nearly navigate themselves, there is a beacon from another time.

The lighthouse was built in 1825 as part of a network of guiding beams. It remains the oldest building in South Florida. It has survived a fire, the Second Seminole War and a zillion school tours. It looks out into the waters that lead to the fierce Florida Straits and at the silhouetted stilt-houses that have commanded more headlines and aged not nearly as gracefully as this black-and-white landmark.

The lighthouse represents the Cape, which got its name from Spanish Explorer Ponce de Leon. He referred to the area as the Cape of Florida. And this cape is lush with sea grapes, rustic with wood walkways and intriguing with its towering lighthouse that presides over a stone jetty with aloof pelicans. The lighthouse is the pinnacle of the park. It rises from coarse sand above the palm trees and the joggers. It is a majestic backdrop for the aquamarine water.

If he were here today, Ponce de Leon might enjoy lobster and a fresh salad at the park's Lighthouse Café and then head to the north end of the park for solitude.

On the way to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and the lighthouse, you'll notice activity surrounding Crandon Park and Beach. Located on the northeast side of Key Biscayne, the area offers everything from a beach to jogging paths to volleyball nets. Bear Cut Preserve in the heart of Crandon Park is quieter and geared to the naturalist. At the other extreme, if sand and water isn't enough to keep the kids content, near the beach is a refurbished carousel at the Family Amusement Center.

But then, for that human touch, there's always the trip back to Coral Gables, with the blue awnings of the Hotel Place St. Michel. If you get lost, tell Pierre I told you to call.

More By Diane Lacey Allen

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