Review Topic: Sports & Outdoors
Somewhat north of the crowded and tackily commercialized beach of Fort Lauderdale, you can find the much more serene and unspoiled beaches of Boca Raton. Commercial development has, thus far, been kept from the areas visible from the public beaches, so they are among the most pristine beaches that are easily accessible by the public in southern Florida. Despite their beauty, they haven't yet been thronged with unmanageable crowds seeking them, so you'll find them fairly peaceful (though maybe less so in the peak winter season). Weather permitting (sometimes an iffy thing in the summer season, with thunderstorms almost a daily event) I try to take a dip in the ocean every weekend.
Perhaps one reason the beaches aren't excessively crowded, though, is that the city really puts the screws to outsiders in parking fees. It can cost as much as $10 to park in the beach parking areas maintained by the city of Boca Raton. A much better deal is given to residents: those who live within the city limits can purchase an annual car sticker that gives unlimited beach access for $27. Residents of the area just outside the city limits but within a special "beach and park district" (like me) can pay $27 for a permit that is only good at two of the three beach parks (excluding Spanish River Park, the biggest and best of them), or pay $42.90 for an unrestricted permit for all three parks. Residents of the rest of Palm Beach County can only obtain a permit for the smaller and more crowded South Beach Park (for $27). Still, any of these resident stickers is a better deal than paying the daily rates, as tourists from elsewhere are forced to do (unless they're lucky enough to find on-street parking somewhere nearby). Permits run from October 1 through September 30, and there is no pro-rated fee if you get one in the middle of the permit year.
The one concession to free public access for residents and nonresidents alike is the South Beach Pavilion, at the end of Palmetto Park Road. Parking there is free (if you can find a spot), but you're only allowed to stay one hour. The pavilion is also open until 11 PM (while most of the beach parks close at sundown), making it the place to go if you want to gaze at the ocean by moonlight. It's also a good place for those who like people-watching, as an interesting assortment of locals and tourists like to come there. You'll probably see the artist who comes almost every night to paint and sell paintings, and you might also see a family station wagon full of kids just arriving from up north and getting their first look at the Florida beach, or hear people conversing in Spanish, Portuguese, or the various other languages used by the multicultural inhabitants and visitors to this area.
Anyway, other than the pavilion, the beach parks are:
South Beach Park: Right next to the pavilion, this is a no-frills beach without any of the additional facilities such as picnic tables offered at the other locations. It's the one beach available by permit to county residents outside the Boca Raton district, and the cheapest for nonresident daily entry, so it gets more of those crowds. The other beaches are better.
Red Reef Park: The next beach to the north of South Beach, this one is open until 10 PM and has picnic facilities. Of special note here is the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center (which has its own parking area, so if you're just coming for that rather than to swim, you don't have to pay the beach parking fee), an interesting collection of indoor and outdoor nature exhibits, including sea turtles in tanks outside (which some idiot put poison into a few months ago, killing and injuring some of the turtles and other sea creatures), and a nature trail with an observation tower.
Spanish River Park: The northernmost and best of the beach parks, this features a large park on the other side of the oceanfront road (A1A) from the beach, with tunnels under the road providing pedestrian access. The park has lots of picnic areas, including group picnic shelters which can be reserved. The park stretches all the way to the Intracoastal Waterway, and has a nature trail. The map claims that there's an observation tower, but I've never found it. Fishing is permitted on the Intracoastal Waterway.
Nature lovers will find lots of interesting plants and animals, and visitors are cautioned not to harm any of them as they are protected by law. In particular, there are many regulations to protect the natural habitat of sea turtles, which are distracted from mating by bright lights (which is why the beach area is not very extensively lit at night here).
In all, Boca Raton's beaches are very good places to go, year-round, for a quick dip or to sunbathe, though the price can be a bit steep if you're not a local resident.
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