Into the Wild

There are holiday gifts that help you stay warm, make you smell sweet, or add some bling to your life. But they often expire, run out or get put away.

Then, there is other type of gifts – those that you can’t hold or wrap in foil-lined paper. These gifts can lead to a new adventure, from kayaking at moonlight, to a smooch from a giraffe to tasting a new world of spices and edible plants. For these kinds of gifts, the Miami-Dade Park and Recreation Department launched its online Parkstore, where visitors can do their holiday shopping online, at discounted prices, for special packages in parks around the county.

For the animal lovers, there are two kinds of experiences at Zoo Miami, (12400 SW 152nd St). For $145 per person, the Zookeeper for a Day allows people to spend a day working alongside those closest to the animals – their keepers. The tour starts at 7 a.m., when a zookeeper takes participants on their morning routine. They give the morning greetings to the animals, make sure they are OK and then clean their barn. They also prepare their meals and ready them to move from their private barns to the exhibition sites.

The featured animals may vary, depending on the day, their availability, and any preferences of the Zookeeper for a Day.
“It all depends on the capacity of the client,” said Diana Vega, Zoo Miami group sales manager. “Some of our clients are scared of birds, for example.”

The tour can accommodate two people only, and they must purchase their tickets together. It’s only offered Saturdays and Sundays, and participants must be at least 18.

The zoo also does a Behind-the-Scenes tour, in which participants take a 90-minute tour around the zoo, visiting and learning about different animals. A zookeeper waits for participants at each stop to show them how the animals are fed, and again, if they are lucky, they get to do it themselves – depending on the animal’s mood and diet.

“If the giraffe is in a bad mood, then we can’t allow it,” Vega said. “We’re all entitled to that kind of day. And if a bird is a carnivore, we might not want you to feed it, either.’’

This tour can accommodate up to five people, requires a minimum age of 8, and prices vary, ranging from $62.95 for two, to $107.85 for four. Both tours include admission to the zoo.

“It’s a unique experience in very personalized tours,” Vega said. “It’s a memorable, thoughtful gift to give; instead of a product they’ll be using for a few days, they’ll be purchasing an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”

For the more adventurous, there are canoe trips at Everglades National Park, bike riding at Shark Valley and kayaking and canoeing at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne. Prices range from $44 per person for a Crandon Park canoe trip through the mangrove forests, where reptiles, birds and marine life roam free, to $25 per person to kayak for three hours in the Oleta River in North Miami, where one can see spotted eagle rays, starfish and many birds.

Other tours include snorkeling in Indian Key in Islamorada or snorkeling to a fossilized reef off Key Biscayne.
An excursion through the Everglades also could be a gift for the more daring adventurers. For $60, one can walk through the swamps of the Everglades, getting up and close and personal to the wildlife in the River of Grass. The walking trip is followed by an airboat ride.

Equipment is provided for most trips, but to walk in the Everglades, staff recommends participants bring a walking stick for balance – an old broom handle works fine.

“We like to show guests the other wild side of Miami,” said Roberto Icaza, recreation specialist and naturalist. “Yes, there is South Beach, but we want to show them nature – that other wild side of Florida.”

And there’s also kayak fishing. For $85 per person, participants can go on a four- to five-hour fishing trip in kayaks through the Everglades.

There’s something for the environmentally friendly, too. Starting at $750, gift givers can adopt a tree, including a Bulnesia, a Golden Shower, Live Oak, a Purple Tabebuia, or a Pink Shower.

And for the foodies, the county offers a tour of the Fruit and Spice Park, 24801 SW 187th Ave. in Homestead. The 45-minute tour goes around the park for $25 per person. Visitors will get to see the more than 500 edible plants that the garden grows, as well as taste the fruits and vegetables grown there. Chris Rollins, naturalist and park manager for more than 30 years, will teach how to grow the plants and taste some of the exotic fruits, like a jackfruit, which, according to Rollins, looks like an alligator skin on the outside, and tastes like banana, cantaloupe and Juicy Fruit chewing gum. It grows in Asia and can weight as much as 80 pounds.

“There is no place like this anywhere in the country because we get tropical things and Northern things all mixed together,” Rollins said.

The county started its online store almost two years ago as a way to “innovatively sell services,” said Allison Diego, Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation assistant director. Diego, who came up with the idea for an online store, said they wanted to generate more income, especially after budget cuts. The online store has generated about $18,000 this year, she said.

“When you see all the offers, it gives you a really good opportunity to do all the great activities across the county, and some of them at discounted prices,” she said. “If you have somebody that has it all, we have adventures and awesome experiences.”


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