Bill Baggs State Park on the southern tip of Key Biscayne (a short drive from Miami) is the home to one of the best beaches in the USA, the oldest building in southern Florida and some of the best shoreline fishing in the area.
Cape Florida Lighthouse
The sea round Florida is a nasty piece of work, with its submerged coral reefs, hidden sandbars and unpredictable weather, so it's no surprise that one of the first things the Federal Government did when Florida became a US territory in 1821 was to build a network of lighthouses along the east coast of the cape. The Cape Florida Lighthouse was built in 1825 as part of this network, and it is now the oldest building in south Florida.
Perched on the southern tip of Key Biscayne, the lighthouse has had a tough old time of it, and at one stage came close to disappearing altogether. The lighthouse was attacked during the Second Seminole War between the settlers and the local Seminole Indians, and in 1836 it was severely damaged by fire. After the war, which ended in 1842, Congress paid $23,000 for its reconstruction, and the fires were re-lit in 1847, following which the lighthouse was extended in height from 65 to 95 feet and a new lens system was fitted.
However in 1865 Confederate sympathizers removed the lamps and burners to prevent it from guiding the Unionists who controlled the surrounding waters, but it was back in service again the next year until 1878, when it was superseded by the new Fowey Rocks Light. This time the lens and light were shipped to Straten Island in New York, not to return until 1978 when once more the lighthouse was put back into service.
Tours of the lighthouse are conducted Thursday through Monday at 10am and 1pm, but arrive early as space is limited. It's a charming white lighthouse surrounded by palm trees and squawking sea birds, made even more picturesque by the extensive ecological restoration programme undertaken after Hurricane Andrew tore through the area in 1992.
The State Park
Bill Baggs State Park is an easy drive from central Miami over the Rickenbacker Causeway. It's worth doing this drive just for the wonderful view of Miami you get to the north, and as you drive along Virginia Key there are plenty of parking spots on the south-facing beach. However the best is yet to come, so keep your foot down (metaphorically speaking - the police do hang around here with their speed radars) and continue through Crandon Park and the town of Key Biscayne to the park entrance, where there's a small entry charge.
Make sure you pack your swimming gear, because the southern end of the 1.25-mile long beach is very pretty, with the lighthouse perched at the end - indeed, it's been voted one of the top 10 beaches in the US, which is saying something. There's plenty of parking, loads of barbecue spots (so bring a picnic, why not) and some lovely walks along the seawall. If you're into sea fishing then get yourself a saltwater fishing licence and check out one of the eight special fishing platforms along the south-west coast of the peninsula.
If you're feeling peckish there's The Lighthouse Café at No Name Harbor, a pleasant little bay in the north-west end of the park where you'll normally find a collection of yachts holed up for a few pleasant days' respite from the navigational challenges of reef sailing. If the walk seems too far then you can hire bicycles to get you round, though it's not a big place.
As a convenient day out from central Miami, Bill Baggs State Park is a lot closer than the Everglades, has no biting insects and has a great beach that's a lot less crowded than South Beach. You can't say fairer than that.
You can find out more about Florida's state parks at www.dep.state.fl.us/parks.