By Janet K. Keeler
A day at the beach brings the promise of relaxation. Warm sun on shoulders, palm trees swaying in the breeze and sand so white you have to wear shades to finish that romance novel. The cooler of cold drinks is beside you and the tropical fish swimming across your beach blanket signal you’ve settled in for the day in style.
But beaches aren’t always welcoming to wheelchair users because wheels and sandy surfaces don’t get along. Non-motorized beach wheelchair rentals at Crandon Park Beach on Key Biscayne and Haulover Beach in Miami allow easy travel over not-so-easy terrain thanks to big balloon wheels. These two barrier island beaches show off the best of tropical Florida, not the least of which is the glittering blue water of the Atlantic on one side and Biscayne Bay on the other.
And here’s the good news: beach wheelchair rentals are free at Crandon and Haulover, though you’ll have to leave something of value as a deposit (keys, identification cards, money) to ensure you’ll return the chair. It’s best to call ahead and check availability, too. If staff knows you are coming, they will have a chair ready.
A look at the two beach parks:
Crandon Park Beach, Key Biscayne
Travel across the Rickenbacker Causeway from mainland Miami to Key Biscayne, a place that feels a world away from the bustling city. Oh, that’s not to say that the two-mile long beach doesn’t get crowded sometimes. There are a lot of people in South Florida, including tourists, and the edge of the Atlantic Ocean is where they want to play. Large picnic shelters for parties are available as are cabana rentals that allow visitors to get out of the sun for a while. There are nearby picnic tables in the sand.
Crandon is at the north end of Key Biscayne, separated from Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park by an area of private homes and hotels. At the tip of the island is the Cape Florida Lighthouse, built in 1825. Crandon sits on land that was once the largest coconut plantation in the United States. You can celebrate this fact by ordering a pina colada at the RumBar or Dune Oceanfront Burger Lounge, both at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Key Biscayne. (You might want to dry off and put on some clothes over your suit before you venture into this upscale hotel.)
The beach at Crandon is two miles long and rows of palm trees line the walkways. Lifeguards sit in 13 elevated towers along the beach, keeping later hours April through October when the sun stays up longer. In South Florida, the sun may not drift below the horizon until well after 8:30 p.m. leaving plenty of daylight to explore the area.
When you have had enough sun, venture over to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, also called the Biscayne Nature Center. The center’s namesake is an iconic Florida writer, whose 1947 The Everglades: River of Grass, drew attention to the delicate and unique ecosystem of the Everglades.
The nature center has exhibits and lectures, plus naturalists lead tours along seagrass beds and coastal hammock. Some of the paths are traditional wheelchair accessible, and the seagrass bed tour could be for beach wheelchairs if the water doesn’t exceed about 6 inches. Call ahead to check schedules and for accessibility questions.
Haulover Beach, Miami
As the crow flies, it’s not far from Crandon Park Beach to Haulover Beach, on a shoal north of Miami Beach. But we aren’t crows so we have to head back to mainland Miami then cross back to the barrier island. There are several ways to get to Haulover, and their attractiveness depends on your schedule. Do you want to get there quickly, or meander up Collins Avenue through Miami Beach? The Miami Beach route will certainly give you a taste of South Beach and the Art Deco buildings. Pack your patience, because the traffic just bumps along here. Roll down the window and enjoy the view.
Once you get to Haulover and are settled into a rented beach wheelchair, you can start to explore the 177-acre park that fronts 1.4 miles on the Atlantic Ocean. As you travel north on the beach, you may notice the bathing suits getting skimpier and skimpier until they finally disappear. The north end of the beach has been clothing optional by county approval since 1991. Signs will alert you to where the nude beach starts but you will likely notice exposed tan lines first.
Lifeguards are on duty up and down the beach, and there are several parking lots with handicapped spaces. On the bay side of the park is a marina with charter boat rentals and boat launches. A 9-hole golf course separates the beach from the bayside attractions.
A mostly constant breeze at Haulover makes the beach attractive to kite flyers, whose colorful kites dance across the sky. An annual kite festival draws flying enthusiasts and spectators.