Posted Sept. 26, 2013
By PATRICK RILEY
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – If you find yourself looking up at giant spiders high in the sky, ivy-covered restaurants against a marvelous ocean backdrop and scenic moonrises right next to a stunning view of downtown, then you’re probably in Matheson Hammock Park, Coral Gables, one of Miami-Dade’s most beautiful and diverse public spaces.
Tucked away between pompous mansions to the north, Fairchild to the south, and Pinecrest’s upscale neighborhoods to the west, Matheson Hammock Park has been serving sunbathers, bicyclists, and outdoorsmen and women for more than 80 years.
Originally a gift to the county by industrialist William J. Matheson from Wisconsin, the park grew from only 80 acres in 1930 to its current size of 630 acres.
But other than the size, not much has changed since then.
“There [are] not many natural areas left in Miami-Dade County,” said Park Manager Chris Trogner. “And the park, it’s featured I’d say a very well-maintained, natural area that’s been left pristine. […] I mean we got a lot of high-end communities around here, but it’s left untouched the way it is since [the] 1920s.”
Large portions of the park are made up of untamed swamp where mangroves and all sorts of wildlife still reign supreme. Thus, one should not be surprised to catch a raccoon leisurely crossing the park’s roads or little blue crabs scurrying back and forth from one mud hole to the next.
But the park’s main attraction as far as fauna goes may very well be the giant banana spiders and their over-sized webs (up to 15 feet wide) that span from one tree to the next.
These insects, some of which are up to four inches in diameter, adorn the treetops and branches in large numbers and can certainly make one a bit queasy when walking beneath them, even though they are in fact harmless.
Far less frightening, though, is the magnificent beach strip at the northeast tip of Matheson Hammock Park. After passing the marina on the right, the first thing that catches any visitor’s eye is the circular, man-made atoll pool at the center of the beach area.
Through openings at the east side of the basin, the pool is naturally replenished with fresh seawater from Biscayne Bay and affords a perfect playing area for children and adults with its tranquil, shallow waters.
Majestic palm trees are scattered throughout the beach to provide plenty of shade as picnickers and families enjoy the combination of fantastic view and relaxing beach setting.
Trogner, too, would often come to the park when he was younger.
“My grandparents would take me over to the beach and then my father would launch the boat here [at the marina] and we’d go fishing out of this park and we would have picnics occasionally, barbecues,” he recalled.
Trogner thinks that besides the natural beauty of the park, this atoll beach is one of the biggest draws to Matheson Hammock Park. On an average weekend, he said, depending on the weather conditions and not including boaters, there are anywhere from 500 to 2,500 visitors at the beach.
One of Matheson Hammock’s most loyal local visitors is Anne Perry.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a child and I brought our kids and now we are bringing our grandson,” Perry said.
She likes the cooling breeze and the spectacular view most, and she and her husband, Ralph, even sometimes come at night.
“You can get a good moonrise, incredible, it’s usually somewhere right out there,” Perry said, while pointing towards the sea. “If you look at it with the time, when it’s full moon, it’s going to rise, you come out here [and] you can see it.”
Adds Ralph Perry: “We come here about every day, ride our bikes in the morning and sometimes at night we just walk over.”
But while there is no doubt that the grand view of nearby downtown Miami and the family-friendly atmosphere are reason enough to visit Matheson Hammock Park, visitors can also engage in a number of outdoor-related activities.
While the park’s water channels and more secluded beach strips are perfect for fishing, the aforementioned main beach area is a prime spot for kayaking and kite-surfing.
The calm, shallow waters make Matheson Hammock an ideal learning spot for beginners and visitors can rent kayaks ranging from $15 to $75 an hour, depending on the makeup of the kayak, and kite-surfing equipment for $100 an hour.
But no matter whether one prefers an action-packed day strapped to a board or a relaxing afternoon at the atoll pool, a visit to Matheson Hammock is not complete without dinner at a little restaurant that affords its guest a tremendous view in a historic setting.
Red Fish Grill is a seafood restaurant housed in what was originally the Matheson Hammock beach pavilion. Its ivy-covered, coral rock gives the restaurant a warm and exotic feel that is perfectly complemented by oil lanterns dispersed throughout the outside area and the sound of guitars radiating through the hot summer night. Strings of lights wrapped around the omnipresent palm trees further add to the casual atmosphere.
Appetizers at Red Fish Grill range from $7 for the soup of the day to $18 for jumbo lump
crab cakes while entrees are priced anywhere from $23 (grilled salmon) to $38 (Chilean sea bass).
Interestingly enough, the restaurant has been featured in movies such as “There’s something about Mary” and “Random Hearts.” So why not sit at Cameron Diaz’s table or re-enact the tango scene from Sydney Pollock’s film. Just remember to bring proper attire, because beach clothes will not be allowed.
First and foremost, though, visitors enjoy the park’s low-key ambiance and family-friendly atmosphere.
Resident Josi Gems often comes here with her imposing white Doberman to take pictures against the ocean backdrop and enjoy the park’s idyllic feel.
“It’s very nice and quiet, serene, peaceful,” Gems said.
If You Go
- Matheson Hammock Park and Marina
9610 Old Cutler Road, Miami, Fla. 33156
- There is a coral-rock shelter with a picnic area at the entrance of the park that is ideal for bigger barbecues, family gatherings and birthday parties. It has a roof terrace, grills, tables, benches, trash cans, running water and bathrooms nearby. Visitors can reserve it for a fee of $192.60. For reservations call 305-665-5475.
- While there are a number of free parking spots near the entrance, beach-goers should be prepared for a 15-minute walk if they choose to park there. Otherwise, there is additional parking at the beach, which costs $5 on weekdays and $6 on weekends (cash only). Furthermore, visitors can purchase a regular parking pass for $150 and a senior citizen one for $53.50.
- Glass containers and grilling cooking fires are not allowed at the beach.
- Castle Harbor – Boating School: 305-665-4994.
- For kite-boarding, windsurfing, paddle boarding, kayaking, wake-boarding and surfing lessons and rentals contact Adventure Sports Miami at 305-591-3559.
- The Red Fish Grill is open Fridays through Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m. and Tuesdays through Thursdays from 6 to 10 p.m.. They are closed on Mondays and can be reached at 305-668-8788 or email@example.com.