By Jodi Mailander Farrell
As a rural farming community 35 miles south of Miami, Homestead is rightfully known for its fresh produce and authentic Mexican food. But South Florida’s “fruit basket” also has a secret sandy spot: Homestead Bayfront Park, which has its own swimming lagoon, man-made beach, and a seafood restaurant overlooking the water.
On weekends, the wheelchair-accessible park bordering Biscayne National Park at 9698 SW 328th St. is filled with families grilling and hanging out at the picnic pavilions, volleyball court and children’s playground.
On quieter weekdays, boaters putter in and out of the full-service marina along Biscayne Bay and visitors to the atoll tidal pool snap photos in front of the colorful lifeguard stand painted by Brazilian-American neo-pop artist Romero Britto.
On a clear day, visitors can see downtown Miami’s skyline to the north and Key Largo to the south. The best view? From the second floor of La Playa Grill, the 6,000-square-foot casual eatery that doubles as a seafood restaurant and sports bar.
The 142-seat restaurant and bar has a breezy, screened-in dining room and an open-air, wrap-around balcony. Snapper, mussels, scallops and American classics like burgers, steaks and wings are on the menu. There’s also live music, from steel pan calypso to acoustic guitar, depending on the day. The grill regularly hosts “Movies at the Bay,” a night-time event showing films such as “The SpongeBob Movie” and others on a 20-by-26-foot inflatable screen on the beach.
On-site Superstar Productions (866-571-9289, ext. 8) rents fat-tire beach bikes, chairs and umbrellas, kayaks and paddleboards. For a treat, rent a tandem, clear kayak and watch the marine life and stunning ecosystem glide by under you. The concessionaire also hosts periodic light-up, clear kayak night tours of Biscayne Bay under the moonlight ($90 per couple), with a bonfire afterward on the beach.
With a $7 per-car entrance fee, Bayfront Park is one of Miami-Dade County’s Heritage Parks. Its 1,200 acres were originally deeded to the county in 1938 by James Sottile, owner of South Dade Farms.
The park’s development stalled during World War II, when the U.S. Air Force leased the space. After the war, the park was built on 90 acres, leaving the remaining land as protected natural areas and coastal wetlands. The county carved out the tidal pool and created an artificial beach. The two-story building now occupied by La Playa Grill was originally created for the park superintendent. The children’s play area, “funbrella” canopies, picnic tables and ADA accessible shelters came later as part of a $4.75 million renovation project.
Homestead is uniquely situated at the gateway to two national parks and the Florida Keys. After splashing around Homestead Bayfront Park, explore the watery wonderland of nearby Biscayne National Park, which offers guided eco-adventures, kayaking and canoeing, or simple strolls along the boardwalk. Among the many diving, seaplane and other tours offered is an Island Boat Tour that takes visitors across the bay’s crystal clear waters to Boca Chita Key.
Interested in South Florida wildlife? Start at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Homestead to access the many walking trails inside Everglades National Park, where alligators, wading birds and other wildlife are easily spotted. Homestead is one of the entry points to the 1.5 million-acre watery wilderness, a World Heritage Site.
One of the best ways to explore the area is on the free Homestead National Parks Trolley, with guided tours provided by national park rangers and volunteers from late November through mid-April. Catch it Saturday and Sunday at Losner Park, 104 N. Krome Ave., in historic downtown Homestead.
Many of the city’s original buildings from the 1900s stand preserved today, a rarity in ever-changing Miami-Dade. The one-time, small railroad town provides an online map and self-guided tour through its historic downtown churches, hotels, schools and residences. Mexican downtown dining anchors Casita Tejas, 27 N. Krome Ave., and El Toro Taco, 1 S. Krome Ave., helped establish Homestead’s reputation for authentic Tex-Mex cooking if you want to savor tacos, burritos or margaritas during your tour.
The Historic Seminole Theatre, a downtown Art Deco movie house at 18 N. Krome Ave., has been restored to its original glory for live theater and events. It’s worth checking the schedule to see what’s playing. In the past, the theater has presented everything from the Shanghai Acrobats from China to a concert by the legendary Art Garfunkel.
Another blast from the past: The Tea Room at Cauley Square, 12310 SW 224th St., a lace-curtained lunch spot with dainty finger sandwiches, homemade banana nut bread, ambrosia fruit salad and Southern pecan pie. It’s in the middle of a historic village of South Dade pioneer homes turned into antique and crafts shops on the Historic Redland Tropical Trail, a cluster of far-flung, agro-tourism sites worth visiting.
The trail includes the quirky Coral Castle, an outdoor collection of sedimentary rock (oolite limestone) at 28655 S. Dixie Hwy. that was quarried and sculpted into walls, tables, chairs and other furniture by a love-struck Latvian immigrant between 1923 and 1951, and Monkey Jungle, a 30-acre wildlife park for hundreds of cage-free, endangered monkeys at 14805 SW 216th St.
Between November and April, no trip to Homestead is complete without a stop by Knauss Berry Farm, 15980 SW 248th St. The family-owned, u-pick strawberry and tomato farm is famed for its handmade cinnamon rolls and strawberry fruit shakes. (Bring cash; Knaus does not accept credit cards.)
For another rural treat, stop by Robert is Here, at 19200 SW 344th St. outside of Everglades National Park. The open-air produce stand is popular on winter weekends, when city folk make the drive from Miami for passion fruit, papaya, mamey and other tropical fruit, as well as local jams, jellies, chutneys and honey. There’s a petting zoo and splash pad to keep the kids happy.
The fertile region’s fondness for exotic fruit is on full display at Schnebly Redland’s Winery & Brewery, a sprawling complex at 30205 SW 217th Ave. that owner Peter Schnebly calls an “escape from normal life, cell pones, traffic, noise pollution and cement.” Known for its tropical fruit-based wines, the winery offers a tour and tasting room for sampling 22 varieties sourced from mangos, lychee, passion fruit, guava, star fruit, coconut and even avocado. The estate hosts weekend concerts, yoga sessions, beer festivals and a daily restaurant.
For another exotic adventure, head to R.F. Orchids, a lush tropical nursery open to the public at 28100 SW 182nd Ave. Specializing in flowering orchids, including award-winning exotics and rare hybrids, the generations-old nursery and its owner, Bob Fuchs, were dubbed orchid royalty by the writer Susan Orlean in her 1998 book, “The Orchid Thief.”
“There’s a peacefulness and serenity in the country,” said Fuchs, whose nursery sits on a homestead that was a wedding gift from his great grandparents to his grandparents in 1921. “People come here to get away.”
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