If your idea of a perfect beach involves a waiter to fetch your drinks and the amenities of a high-rise hotel, then the beach at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park may not be for you.
Because all you can see from this 1 1/4-mile-long pristine beach at the southern tip of Key Biscayne are a lighthouse and the clear, emerald expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. A reef line seven miles from shore acts as a natural break wall, making this a perfect swimming spot where there is never — ever — a rip current. Jutting as it does into the ocean, there's almost always a cooling breeze.
"It's a delightful place to visit," says Stephen Leatherman, who as Dr. Beach ranked it No. 8 on his annual top 10 list of American beaches in 2012. The beach debuted in 2009 at No. 8, fell to 10th on the list in 2010 and 2011 and is back up to No. 8 this year. "There are plenty of places to ride a bike or picnic. It's in the Miami area, but I like to say it's a world apart. And people who go to the beach usually want to get away from it all."
Leatherman says a visit to Cape Florida is a rare opportunity to see what a native Florida coastal area is supposed to look like. For the 850,000 visitors to the park — almost all of them South Florida residents — it's a refreshing change of pace from the noise and traffic just seven miles west.
There's just one area of the beach, near parking area C, which will remind you of classic South Florida beaches. There are beach chair, umbrella and kayak rentals. Families, many with young kids, come fully equipped for the day with coolers and beach toys. You can walk to the nearby Lighthouse Cafe for soft drinks and sandwiches.
Back on the beach, the sandy ocean bottom gives way to sea grass beds that attract turtles and manatees. Because there are so few waves, the water is crystal clear. The sea grass acts as a natural water filter.
While the beach is plenty gorgeous, it's the health of the beach and the surrounding park that most pleases Robert Yero, Cape Florida's manager. Because it wasn't always that way.
The park's 430 acres were once 98 percent covered with Australian pine trees, first planted at the turn of the 20th century. The pines grew right up to the water's edge and were so invasive they eventually killed most of the park's native plants and ecosystems that supported everything from bugs to marsh rabbits. While many Miamians still feel nostalgic about the shade those trees provided, every single Australian pine tree came down during 1992's Hurricane Andrew.
What was a tragedy for so many was Cape Florida's remedy.
"A lot of parks have been hit by storms and have had to be rebuilt," says Yero. "But this offered an opportunity to start over. It was an incredibly good thing."
Good because removing those trees would have cost $20 million. Nineteen years and about $7 million in state and federal funds later, the park still does battle with the seeds left by those pines, as well as melaleuca trees and Brazilian pepper plants. Yero says the park's rebirth is an ongoing process.
Dunes are now planted with sea oats, beach star and beach peanut. Unlike the pines, these natives hold the sand in place and keep erosion at bay.
Natives also provide seeds and fruit for wildlife. Where once there were 10 butterfly species, Yero says there are now 30. Turtles now nest on the beach in record numbers. Unlike the manicured sands of many other Florida beaches, Cape Florida doesn't rake the sand. The beach sand seems finer, but at the same time packed tighter, making for easier walks along the shore.
"Not scraping the top layer of sand helps prevent erosion," says Yero. "Dr. Beach gave us a lot of credit for managing the beach naturally."
John Tanasychuk can be reached at 954-356-4632 or jtanasychuk@SunSentinel.com
Dr. Beach's Top 10 Beaches 20091. Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii
2. Siesta Key, Sarasota, pictured above
3. Coopers Beach, Southampton, N.Y.
4. Coronado Beach, San Diego
5. Hamoa Beach, Maui, Hawaii
6. Main Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.
7. Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, N.C.
8. Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne
9. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Mass.
10. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, S.C.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun