Far out trips close to home

Summer is when the stream of tourists to South Florida slows, deterred by hot, wet weather and the threat of hurricanes. It’s when rates at beachfront hotels plummet, spas and restaurants offer special deals, traffic eases and locals can enjoy discount staycations.

But how can we spend those leisure days when we’ve logged out of the office email and need an alternate source of entertainment? Many tourist attractions, especially in the outdoors, close or cut their hours in summer. Sure, you can spend your time circulating among air-conditioned bars, museums and movie theaters, but why not take advantage of our only-in-Miami venues?

The team and I went looking for fun and not-so-obvious things to do on a summer staycation. We got sunburned, rained out, bug-eaten and blistered, but we’ve come up with a week’s worth of distinctively South Florida activities. Grab your sunscreen and your comfortable shoes and follow along, from south to north.


Cruise canals on the African Queen

Two matters needed to be resolved at the outset of our ride on the African Queen: What was in the wood box labeled Gordon’s Gin? And was I about to occupy the same bench where Humphrey Bogart once sat?

Alas, the box was a cooler that contained only bottled water. And no, Bogart had never sat on this particular bench — the wood had been replaced since the movie starring this very same boat was made in 1951. But the tiller is the one that Bogart, as the cranky drunk Charlie Allnut, used to pilot the African Queen, Capt. Wayne tells us. And if I wanted to sit on the same surface Bogart had sat on, he had spent a lot of time stretched out on the old mahoghany planks at the bottom of the boat. I declined (although my answer might have been different if there had been enough gin in the cooler).

The African Queen (the boat) is a 30-foot steel-hulled steamship that was built in 1912 as the S/L Livingston to navigate the upper Nile River. It was leased by John Huston for the making of The African Queen (the movie) and subsequently renamed. Later, the boat was brought to the U.S. and used for charters, abandoned, rediscovered, given a makeover, used for rides, then put on display when the engine died.

Last year, Lance and Suzanne Holmquist rehabbed the boat — including replacing the broken steam engine and boiler with a 1896 model as noisy as the one in the movie — and began offering rides along Key Largo’s canals.

The African Queen holds up to six passengers on its 90-minute cruises down the Port Largo Canals to the Atlantic Ocean and back, but my two friends and I were the only passengers on a sunny weekday afternoon last month. Capt. Wayne, wearing a shirt and kerchief identical to Bogart’s, explained how the steam engine works, showed us photos of the making of the movie, and took pictures of us pouring liquid out of a gin bottle, much as Katharine Hepburn had done in the film, or handling the tiller as the African Queen sailed away from the dock.

As we cruised slowly past waterfront homes, the steam engine hissing and clanking, a tattered old Union Jack fluttering and Capt. Wayne judiciously tooting the steam whistle, I conjured up a picture of Bogart and Hepburn fleeing on the Ulanga River and was glad we were instead in Key Largo trying to outrun nothing more than white clouds drifting in a blue sky.

Info: Cruises depart from the Marina Del Mar; park at Holiday Inn, 99701 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; five cruises daily; $49. 305-451-8080,



Sip a mango, get a buzz

You’re at Schnebly’s Winery in Redland on a warm Sunday afternoon. There’s a crowd around the wine-tasting bar, people drinking beer under a tiki and a fellow singing and playing guitar out back. There’s a happy buzz to the conversation.

The bartender asks what kind of wine you want to taste. You see a woman sipping and smiling, so you point at her and say “I’ll have whatever she’s having.” He pours. You take a sip. It tastes like … mangoes?

What did you expect? We’re in South Florida. Plants that blossom in 48 or 49 other states don’t do well here, whether you’re talking about apples, tulips, or chardonnay grapes. Instead, fruits that grow in few other places flourish here. Peter and Denisse Schnebly turn fruit — mango, avocado, guava, coconut, passion fruit, carambola, lychee — that doesn’t look good enough to sell through their tropical fruit business into wine. There’s sparkling wine, too — and even beer brewed from tropical fruit — but no wine made from grapes.

Beer and wine tastings are held daily. There’s a coral-rock waterfall out back — you can hold a tropical wedding here! — along with tables, stools and tiki huts. There’s often live music.

All that said, tropical fruit wine still takes some getting used to. So here’s our advice: Just because wine has that nice pale straw color that looks like chardonnay, don’t assume it’s going to taste like chardonnay. In fact, it won’t taste anything like chardonnay. Think of a glass of something cool and slightly sweet for a warm afternoon on the back patio. Or maybe for dessert.

We recommend the wine-tasting ($9.95 for either table wines or sparkling and dessert wines, $5 if you bring your glass from a previous Schnebly’s outing), but save your money on the tour ($7).

Info: Schnebly’s, 30205 SW 217th Ave., Homestead; 888-717-WINE or 305-242-1224; Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday (cover charge for evening events); noon-5 p.m Sunday.



Tour South Beach by bicycle

What catches your attention about the DecoBike program in South Beach is not the retro style bicycles or the bike docks, which have claimed much of the scarce and coveted street parking. DecoBike is conspicuous because of the riders — often lovely model types with inappropriate footwear (platform wedges, high heels, bare feet). Since South Beach is deceptively spread out, renting a DecoBike can get you to your next destination in a manner of minutes, all the while maintaining your tropical chic look (including your own very inappropriate footwear).

First, download the DecoBike smart phone app (Spotcycle) for a map of every DecoBike dock from South Pointe Park north to 94th Street and Harding in Bay Harbor Island, as well as the number of bikes available at each dock. Plan your route around the bike stations so you can lock in your bike when you aren’t using it. If it gets stolen on your watch, you will be charged.

Whatever your itinerary — be it museum hopping from the Wolfsonian to the Bass or a date with the natural beauty of the beach and the botanical garden — a DecoBike station is only a few blocks away. The DecoBike can also be helpful for a bar crawl. Just pace yourself; bike riding does require a certain amount of coordination.

Stop at Khong River House (1661 Meridian Ave.), which has a DecoBike station across the street, and have a gin cocktail like the Very Thai Gimlet and chow down on a plate of Udon Noodle Stir Fry. Across the street at the coffee window at Abuela’s, get a Cuban colada.

On your way to the Holocaust Memorial or a museum, make a pitstop at the SLS Hotel South Beach (17th and Collins) for another cocktail. Inside at Bar Centro, the cocktail list contains a few gems like a liquid nitrogen caipirinha and the Ultimate Gin & Tonic.

If it gets dark out, flip on the bike’s headlights and continue down South of Fifth for a drink at Radio Bar (814 First St.), a pop-up bar turned permanent that opens at 6 p.m. and has happy hour deals until 8 p.m. There is a DecoBike station at Alton Road and First Street.

As you circle South Beach, hitting hotels, bars and museums (or not), be ready to be stopped by well-heeled tourists who want to know where they can get one of those bikes. Their feet are hurting, obviously.

Info: DecoBike has locations throughout South Beach, Surfside, Bay Harbor Island; Bike rental is $4 for a half-hour, $6 for an hour, $10 for two hours, $18 for four hours and $24 for a day pass.



Take a cooking class

Tucked discreetly on the second floor of the Publix in Plantation, just above the dairy section, is the Aprons Cooking School — complete with two chef’s kitchens, seating for 48 and plenty of television screens to watch close-ups of the cooks at work. You may have never considered your local Publix as an option for a summer cooking class, but this hidden gem may just be the best-kept culinary secret in South Florida.

Classes are given six days a week in either a demonstration or hands-on format. In the demonstration class we attended, two Publix sous chefs — Jack Bernowitz and Ray Braynen — guided the class of nine through a four-course meal that included wine pairings. The menu, based on a vanilla bean theme, started with a frisee salad with peaches, feta, honey and vanilla vinaigrette, then a pan-seared snapper with whipped potatoes and vanilla buerre noisette, a grilled pork tenderloin with vanilla and maple sweet potato gratin, and closed with a vanilla and anise poached pineapple with vanilla coconut crème brulee.

One chef would show you how to make the dish as you watched from your table while the other chef would prepare the plates and serve them just as the cooking chef completed the dish. As they prepared the courses the charismatic chefs would give you tips (like how to slice the skin of the snapper so it doesn’t curl as it cooks, or asking the produce department to slice your pineapple) and answer questions. They would let you know of ingredients you could buy at Publix and one-night only discounts on kitchenware they used during the demonstration. It’s like dining at the chef’s table of a top restaurant — but without putting a bruise on your wallet ($40 per person); literally at times, as top local restaurants (Morton’s Steakhouse, Truluck’s Seafood) will take over the kitchen for a demo from their menu.

While demonstrations can hold up to 48 people, and do get full around the holidays, the hands-on classes are for a max of 12 students. Here you stand up around the cooking area and actually make the food with the chefs, such as sushi or pasta or fish. Bernowitz, who left a New York restaurant a year ago to work for Aprons, said students can put “as much as they want” into learning how to cook, and that at times husbands who attend the hands-on classes with their wife may be more comfortable in a spectator and support role.

Info: Classes and demonstrations range from $35 to $75. Publix at Plantation is located at 1181 S. University Dr. It is the only Publix cooking school in Broward and Dade counties (there’s one in Boca Raton);



Picnic on Al Capone’s island

Leaves rustled as a lizard skittered through the underbrush, a small motorboat chugged by on the Intracoastal, a distant bell signaled a bridge was opening, but I heard no human voices.

I was on an almost-deserted island in the Intracoastal Waterway, a 53-acre triangle near the Broward-Palm Beach County line. Al Capone once planned to build a mansion here. But instead, it ended up one of Broward’s wildest and least-known parks.

Deerfield Island Park is just north of the Hillsboro Boulevard Bridge, accessible only by boat. The county provides a free shuttle from tiny Sullivan Park on weekends and a six-slip marina for small private boats.

The island has trails, although most of the boardwalk through mangrove swamps was closed after it was discovered that the support pilings had shifted. Picnic sites, each with a table and a grill, are scattered in clearings near the marina, and one pavilion for large parties is available for rent but barely used.

Last weekend, only two other visitors took the shuttle to the island with me, and we quickly headed in different directions. Soon, it was as if I were alone on the island. I followed a winding trail through tunnels of foliage, past live oak, sea grape and wild coffee plants, strangler figs climbing larger host trees, ferns growing from the trunks of palms.

Along the trail, patches of land were roped off as refuge for gopher tortoises. The ground was pocked with finger-size holes where blue land crabs retreated, holes the size of a child’s fist where armadillos hid their eggs from raccoons. But I saw no wildlife except small birds that cried from their perches in trees and a pair of swallowtail butterflies that followed each other in a silent dance through the foliage.

Info: 954-357-5100; Hourly shuttle from Sullivan Park from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; free.



Hav e a taste

By the time we got to Palermo’s Bakery in Boynton Beach, we were stuffed, so it was fitting that the food set before us was a platter of stuffed bread. Semolina bread, stuffed with broccolo or chunks of sausage or strips of roasted peppers. It was good, and we all managed to stuff ourselves a little more. And oh yes, with miniature cannolis too.

We were on a historical and culinary tour of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, and by this point we had eaten shrimp in remoulade, a Jamaican sampler (curry goat, jerk chicken, BBQ ribs, cornbread), pizza, mini cupcakes, macarons (French cookies), and whatever we’d bought for ourselves at the Delray Beach green market.

Culinary tours offer a brief symbiotic relationship. Guests get to sample food from various eateries without committing to an entire meal, and the businesses introduce themselves to people they hope will come back later. A friend who joined me for the tour was so enamored of Sundy House — our first stop — with its gorgeous tropical gardens that as soon as she sampled the shrimp remoulade, she texted her daughter that she’d found the spot for this year’s Mother’s Day brunch.

The tour has about 30 partners, so the stops rotate and each tour is different. Guests ride a bus to most stops and walk between some.

The Palm Beach tours — another one goes to Lake Worth and Lantana — are a bit different from most culinary tours. Put on by the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History, they also include a hefty dose of history and culture. We learned about the history of Delray Beach’s historically black neighborhood, the churches, Henry Flagler and his railroad, and other key figures in the town’s history. We also stopped at the Art House of Delray, a nonprofit gallery.

Info: Taste History Culinary Tours of Historic Palm Beach County, 561-243-2662, Tours of Lake Worth/Lantana are held on the second Saturday of each month. Delray Beach/Boynton Beach on the third and fourth Saturdays. Cost: $40.

A number of other food tours are held in South Florida. Check these out:

Food Tours of Miami, walking tours of South Beach on certain Saturdays and Sundays;

Miami Culinary Tours, daily architectural, historical and culinary walking tours of Miami Beach;

Walking Cuban cuisine tours of Little Havana given by HistoryMiami about one a month;



Ride a wave

At Rapids Water Park in West Palm Beach, it’s seldom that anyone exits a water slide without sporting a dazed grin.

Like most water parks, Rapids features screaming children, cheesy pseudo-tropical décor, tattooed customers, and dizzying water rides. But recently, the nearly 35-year-old park has added new rides, other features and promotions that make it ideal for a day-long family staycation.

New features include the FlowRider wave simulator; poolside cabanas with personal servers and Wi-Fi; park pavilions for group events of up to 1,000 people; and a new Gold Card Season Pass option that offers savings for frequent visitors.

On a good day the 35-acre park can draw 5,000 to 7,000 visitors — about half of them from Miami-Dade and Broward counties, said spokeswoman Tina Hatcher,. “Here, you don’t need to drive so many hours to get to Orlando and then pay for gas and a hotel,” Hatcher said. “It’s an easy thing to drive here and then drive back to Broward or Dade.”

Jeff Taleff, 37, a West Palm Beach resident who visited the park with his wife and three daughters, said: “It’s like enjoying a vacation for a day.”

Many new visitors come to experience the FlowRider, a simulated wave system that shoots 30,000 gallons of water per minute at a body boarder or knee boarder, simulating a 35-mile per hour wave.

“All ages can do this,” Hatcher said. “You have kids riding the wave, as well as surfers.”

Yeinier Padrino, a 31-year-old visitor in panama hat and heavy beard stubble, said the FlowRider “is the best the park has to offer.”

Germaphobes who may be uneasy over the idea of hopping into the park’s water may be assuaged by Hatcher’s assurances. The park’s pump system and its employees, she explained, constantly monitor the water’s chemical levels to ensure cleanliness.

Once in the water, it is undeniably fun. A drenched Samuel Guzman, 15, climbed out of raft, post-ride. “It’s awesome!” he shouted, teeth chattering violently as he grinned. “The water is a little cold.”

Info: Rapids Water Park, 6566 N. Military Trail, West Palm Beach; 561-848-6272; Admission: Monday-Friday (excluding holidays) $38.99; Saturday-Sunday $42.99.