Only in South Florida: 7 iconic destinations with a kitschy twist

Visitors are often astonished by the history, stunning natural settings and cultural diversity of Broward and Palm Beach counties

Broward and Palm Beach counties have stunning natural settings and cultural diversity.The Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge is what South Florida looked like before developers drained the wetlands.The refuge has a .4-mile boardwalk behind the Visitor Center for a walk through a peaceful cypress swamp.Worth Avenue in Palm Beach was built for the jet set crowd, but it's also fun to window shop.The Boardwalk in Hollywood is a 2.5 mile sea of colorful humans

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Surprise! There’s more to South Florida than eating out and going to the pool.

Visitors are often astonished by the history, stunning natural settings and cultural diversity of Broward and Palm Beach counties, home to more than 3 million people from all over the United States and around the world.

There’s so much to see, and you are sure to be impressed not only with the weather but with the huge assortment of places to explore.

Here are seven sites that offer a taste of life in South Florida, from the region’s kitschy past to its distinctive and vibrant present.

A wildlife viewing area at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday Feb. 15, 2020 west of Boynton Beach. (Susan Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Wild Florida

See what South Florida was like before the human deluge.

Go to: Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge, 10216 Lee Road, Boynton Beach,

Here’s what South Florida looked like before developers drained the wetlands. The refuge has a .4-mile boardwalk behind the Visitor Center for a walk through a peaceful cypress swamp. The majestic trees are knee-deep in water; it’s a peaceful, breezy and humbling stroll that shows what development has done to the Everglades. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a woodpecker, an owl, a cardinal or an alligator.

The refuge also has walks along the Great Florida Birding Trail, and offers guided hikes and bike rides along its miles of marshlands and canals.

As you exit, you’ll see Bedner’s Farm Fresh Market on your right. The market grows its own produce outside the refuge and allows customers to pick their own strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and sunflowers in the winter season, another quintessential South Florida activity that you may want to get to soon before the farm is swallowed up by a new gated community.

(Window) shopping

See how the rich live and shop, if only for a day.

Go to: Worth Avenue, Palm Beach;

Even if you’re going to look but not buy, the world-famous shopping destination for the jet set is worth the drive. The street is colorful, spacious and clean, and filled with stores showing the wares of famous designers: Chanel, Lilly Pulitzer, Louis Vuitton and so many more. Men and women walking down the street look like they got dressed up to shop for the day, many women wearing the color of the moment, pink, which you’ll also see on many shop window mannequins.

The avenue offers several off-street courtyards for you to veer off and wander amid Santorini-style white stucco buildings with tiled walkways, Corinthian arches and fountains. Each has a name that takes you to Europe, such as Via Parigi, Via Roma and Via Encantada. The vias have stores, offices and cafes, including Cafe Via Flora, 240 Worth Ave., which has soups, salads and sandwiches for lunch.

Make sure to check out Palm Beach’s mansions on your way home. You can drive north or south on Ocean Boulevard, also known as Billionaires’ Row, and get peeks at the colossal palazzos that have views of the ocean. Among the most famous residents: Former President Donald Trump’s home and country club, Mar-a-Lago, is at 1100 S. Ocean Blvd.

Old Florida time capsule

Slip back in time at this historic house wedged between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean.

Go to: Bonnet House, 900 N. Birch Road, Fort Lauderdale;

The Bonnet House estate, with its old-time Florida feel and lush landscapes, is a favorite destination for Fort Lauderdale tourists and beloved venue for locals hosting weddings and public gatherings.

Artist Frederic Clay Bartlett and his second wife, Helen Louise Birch, began construction of the house in 1920. Bartlett’s third wife, Evelyn Fortune Bartlett, donated the estate to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983.

The house, on 35 acres, takes you back to the 1920s, with a drawing room with mahogany ceiling, ornate door frames, old-fashioned shell collections, a kitchen with 1927 refrigerator and butler’s pantry. Outside, there’s a native barrier island habitat, with five separate ecosystems and a haven for migratory birds.

You can take a tour of the grounds, recommended for the docents’ extensive knowledge of the 1920s and its design trends. There are also impressive art, sculpture and orchid collections. It’s hard to believe this soothing oasis is seconds away from noisy, traffic-clogged State Road A1A.

Where to people watch

Hollywood’s ocean promenade is a sea of colorful humans.

Go to: 101. S. Broadwalk to 3501 N. Broadwalk, Hollywood.

The Broadwalk is 2.5 miles of wide sidewalk and bike path next to the beach, with an assortment of characters in colorful dress or wearing very little. Every morning, there are visitors and local residents walking, jogging and riding their bikes among thick streams of moving bodies, all taking in the sun and breeze with the sand and ocean on the east side.

The Broadwalk tries to retain its classic, Old Florida atmosphere, attracting visitors to small motels and locals who speed-skate through the crowds. The addition of three large resorts, including Margaritaville Hollywood, shows how the promenade is transforming for the 21st century as it works to maintain its kitschy feel.

There are lots of benches for resting and cafes for feeling the gentle wind gusts, or take a walk right on the beach and let the waves tickle your ankles.

A zen oasis

The nation’s only museum dedicated to living Japanese civilization is in Palm Beach County.

Go to: Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Road, Delray Beach;

Ever wonder why that street in Boca Raton is called “Yamato Road”? Yamato is an ancient name for Japan, and in the early 1900s, a small group of young Japanese men arrived in what is now northern Boca Raton to farm pineapples, calling their agricultural colony Yamato. By the 1920s, unable to successfully grow their crops, most returned to Japan. George Sukeji Morikami remained, and in the 1970s, he donated his land to Palm Beach County.

Now an oasis of zen peacefulness on 200 acres, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens is a stunning gem that transports you to Japan through art exhibits, an authentic tea house, cultural festivals and an incredible .8-mile walk through gardens that are lush and sparing at the same time.

The gardens, behind the museum building, have 25 stops where visitors can see waterfalls, Buddhist statues, a lake filled with koi, meditation terraces, bonsai collections and gravestones of George Morikami and two founders of the Yamato colony. You’ll feel drawn to one of the many wooden benches to sit and admire the precise plantings and quietude. As the garden curator describes in the museum’s introductory film, the site is designed to make you “feel like your cares have disappeared.”

After your stroll, check out the Cornell Cafe, the museum’s restaurant, which has Japanese dishes such as seaweed salad, wok-charred edamame, gyoza, or dumplings, and bento boxes.

Beach vibes

Hit the sand and the surf, stroll the wide sidewalk and find lots of options for lunch.

Go to: Delray Beach Municipal Beach, South Ocean Boulevard.

Drive east to the end of trendy Atlantic Avenue and you hit the water. There are several options for parking to the north and south, including Anchor Park and Atlantic Dunes Park, which have bathrooms and showers.

The city widened the 1.3-mile beach promenade in 2019 and it feels roomy, contemporary and clean. There’s also a large covered gazebo for feeling the breeze in the shade. On the sand, you can rent a cabana or chairs, build a sandcastle or play volleyball.

Cross Atlantic Avenue and there’s an assortment of restaurants, bars, ice cream shops and T-shirt stores. A perennial favorite is Boston’s on the Beach, 40 S. Ocean Blvd. Next door is Sandbar Delray, a tiki bar that transforms into a nightclub in the evenings.

For another uniquely South Florida experience, walk over to Sandoway Discovery Center, 142 S. Ocean Blvd., an authentically renovated 1930s house that now serves as a nature hub, with live shark feedings, a living coral reef, a pristine seashell collection and an assortment of invertebrates that visitors are allowed to touch.

A taste of Florida

Key lime pie, mango butter, tacky souvenirs and oranges to send home: Now THAT’s Florida.

Go to: Bob Roth’s New River Groves, 5660 Griffin Road, Davie;

Open since 1964, Bob Roth’s is one of the last remaining old-fashioned roadside fruit stands, expanded now to include smoothies, sandwiches, a fudge factory, jams, baked goods, locally made honey and schlocky knickknacks. It’s worth a drive from wherever you are to buy the stand’s Key lime pie ($17.95), creamy with just the right amount of tang. There’s an assortment of other pies (chocolate mousse, apple, pecan, Oreo cream, coconut cream), which a queue stood in line for on a recent morning.

New River Groves used to be one of the largest citrus growers in South Florida, surrounded by other farms, but the neighborhood has been swallowed up by development and only a small agricultural remnant remains. The business focuses now on shipping, and you can buy assortments of Florida-grown grapefruits, oranges, tangerines and other fruit to send to envious relatives in other states (A fruit tray with 12 oranges, available November through May, costs $44.99, plus $14.99 for shipping).

There are also Sunshine State-style treats such as mango butter and ruby red grapefruit jelly in jars, alligator jerky, sea shell shaped chocolates with hazelnut filling, Bob’s homemade sugar-free chocolate orange fudge and Terry’s Key Lime Pie in a Jar ($9.95).

Behind the stand, high school students have planted herbs and vegetables in garden plots, a reminder of the site’s roots in the soil.