On Biscayne Bay in South Dade, Palmetto Bay is a village that was incorporated as recently as 2002. The neighborhoods here have been around for much longer than that, and had to deal with a calamity in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew made landfall near here.
Close to the shoreline in the east of Palmetto Bay is the Old Cutler Road. With an accompanying paved trail, the off-grid road meanders past elegant old residences.
Many of the spots on my list, from lavish bayfront estates to celebrated botanical gardens, are connected by the road and trail.
Palmetto Bay is a stone’s throw from many of South Dade’s biggest attractions, like Zoo Miami, The Falls mall, and the vibrant Pinecrest Gardens.
1. Deering Estate
Palmetto Bay’s premier attraction is the sublime bayfront estate of the late industrialist and International Harvester Corporation executive Charles Deering (1852-1927).
Spanning more than 400 scenic acres, the property was the winter retreat for Deering and his family.
As an environmentalist and art collector, Deering’s interests are still reflected at this property. For instance, the grounds feature what is believed to be the largest old-growth coastal tropical hardwood hammock in the continental United States.
Deering’s Mediterranean Revival residence, Stone House, was built in 1922, and is a magnificent setting for temporary art exhibitions.
Among a host of other experiences, you can tour this building and the beautiful Richmond Cottage (1896), and join naturalist-led tours of the estate’s lush nature.
2. Old Cutler Trail
My favorite way to explore Palmetto Bay and neighboring communities is on the 13.5-mile trail edging Old Butler Road. Predating the grid plan, this road started out as a wagon trail, tracing a limestone ridge along Biscayne Bay.
A lot of factors combine to give the road its mystique. For one thing it passes through some of the prettiest and oldest residential neighborhoods in the Miami-Dade Area.
There’s an almost unbroken canopy of mature banyans and mossy live oaks. You can also use the trail to reach a lot of the places on my list, from the Deering Estate to the atoll pool at Matheson Hammock Park.
3. Coral Reef Park
On more than 50 beautiful acres, Coral Reef Park is the pick of Palmetto Bay’s public parks for me.
A big part of its appeal comes from the tranquil canal, running north to south and dividing the park in two. The canal is crossed by three footbridges, and there’s always a lot of birdlife on the lush green banks.
The east side of the park is the setting for a weekly farmers’ market, which I’ll talk about later. On the west side are active recreation amenities for baseball, tennis, pickleball, racquetball, volleyball and more.
There’s also a gazebo, a concession cafe in an LEED building, exercise stations, and free Wi-Fi access.
4. Thalatta Estate Park
Just south of the Deering Estate is another opulent bayfront property. Owned by the village, the Thalatta Estate is a 1926 Mediterranean Revival house on four acres of spectacular grounds.
I don’t think it’s a big surprise that this fabulous place is a popular spot for photo shoots and weddings. This is a public facility, so I was free to take a look. With a maritime theme, the interior is preserved as a museum.
There’s beautiful landscaping all around, and the path by the water connects with the Old Cutler Trail. By Biscayne Bay you may see pelicans, herons, and marine iguanas among the mangroves.
The park is used for a variety of public programming all year, from art classes to yoga and gardening workshops.
5. Palmetto Bay Farmers’ Market
The parking lot on the Palmetto Rd side of Coral Reef Park is the site of a year-round farmers’ market. This takes place on Saturdays, 9:00 AM – 3:30 PM, and is packed with vendors from the area.
Under a beautiful tree canopy you’ll find seasonal fresh produce, plants, flowers, seafood, honey, fresh bread, baked treats, and crafts from candles to jewelry to handmade hammocks.
This is one of my favorite places to come for lunch on the weekend. You can choose from Puerto Rican specialties, BBQ, burgers, dolmades, and arepas, to name a few.
6. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Famed for its collections of rare tropical plants, this celebrated botanical garden is the result of a friendship.
The businessman and plant enthusiast Robert H. Montgomery (1872-1953) established the garden for his friend, the noted plant explorer and botanist David Fairchild (1869-1954).
Fairchild was responsible for bringing thousands of crops to the US for the first time, from bamboos to nectarines.
The Fairchild Tropical Garden is routinely named as the best in the United States. The collections are almost mind-boggling, with 125 bamboo species, numerous ginger varieties, and rare orchids, bromeliads, cycads, and flowering trees from around the world.
My absolute must-see is the Wings of the Tropics exhibit in The Clinton Family Conservatory, with hundreds of butterflies, many from Central and South America.
There’s also the flowering cannonball tree, planted in 1938 and famed for its perfume. No less amazing is the stand of tropical rainforest, composed of plants that were brought back from the Amazon.
7. Pinecrest Gardens
Just five minutes from Palmetto Bay, this public attraction is a few things rolled into one. Billed as ‘South Florida’s Cultural Arts Park’, Pinecrest Gardens combines botanical wonders with major outdoor events.
I could use a whole article to tell you everything going on here. But to start, there’s the remarkable Banyan Bowl. This 530-seat amphitheater sits under a geodesic dome, and hosts an enormous variety of music, theater, and dance performances, as well as movie screenings.
On Sundays there’s a bustling farmers’ market at the park, while one of the landmarks in the calendar is the Art & Design Fair in January. This event has been running for more than two decades now.
There’s much to love if you visit on an ordinary day. Pinecrest Gardens’ natural habitats and planted gardens include a mangrove forest, tropical hardwood hammock, the fern-rich lower gardens, and the elevated dry gardens.
Elsewhere you’ll find a splash pad, a petting zoo, and the plush Cypress Café.
8. Matheson Hammock Park
Next to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden there’s a unique public park centered on a man-made atoll pool. This is replenished daily by the tides on Biscayne Bay.
The pool’s gentle and shallow waters are ideal for families with younger children. The western half is framed by a lovely sandy beach with palms
The consistent sea breezes on this part of Biscayne Bay also make Matheson Hammock Park a prime spot for watersports. There’s a kiteboarding school next to the pool, which also rents out kayaks.
Another feature I adore is the set of coral rock buildings, raised by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. The main structure by the parking lot now houses NOMA Beach at Redfish restaurant.
9. Zoo Miami
Florida’s largest zoo, and the only tropical zoo in the country, is only a few minutes west of Palmetto Bay. Home to 2,500 animals, Zoo Miami is on 750 acres of lush natural habitats with four miles of paved walkways.
With zones including The Everglades, Asia, Africa, Amazon, and Australia, it’s a trip around the equator in a matter of hours.
That means koalas, jaguars, condors, giant otters, spider monkeys, wombats, kangaroos, African elephants, giraffes, the list goes on.
Such is the size of this place that I think it makes a lot of sense to rent one of the safari cycles. These have a canopy, and can accommodate up to six people (four adults and two children).
Added to all that, the zoo has water play areas, feedings, animal encounters, and interactive educational exhibits at the Conservation Action Center.
10. The Falls
There’s an upmarket open-air mall just across US-1 from Palmetto Bay. The Falls opened its doors in 1980 and made headlines for its tropical landscaping, waterfalls, ponds, and works of sculpture.
When I came by this place was in great shape, with more than 100 tenants. Many of these are at the upper end of the market. Think Abercrombie & Fitch, L’Occitane and Apple.
The dining choice is similarly upscale, with locations for sweetgreen, P.F. Chang’s, and Shake Shack. You can make a day of it at the 12-screen Regal UA Falls.
As well as first-run releases, this theater shows a lot of classic moves, along with Met Op performances.
11. Palmetto Bay Park
In the 2000s, just after Palmetto Bay was incorporated, this public park was expanded from five acres to 25 acres. Set around a two-story concession building and observation deck, this is a wonderful public asset for the village.
Among the many amenities are six softball fields, a skate park, an accessible playground, open green areas, and basketball/pickleball courts.
When I was in town the village had just completed a round of improvements at Palmetto Bay Park. The focus of a lot of the work was the fantastic playground. This involved replacing equipment, building new fences, adding new benches and improving the canopy.
12. Bill Sadowski Park
There are a few things going for this small canal-side park close to the Deering Estate. On these 30 acres you’ll encounter three distinct native habitats.
Along a half-mile trail there’s tropical hardwood hammock, pineland, and a drained Everglades slough. Perhaps even more interesting, in my eyes, is the geology at Bill Sadowski park.
With intriguing karst formations and solution holes, you can traverse the kind of limestone landscape that has mostly been hidden in the area.
On the north side, the canal is a great place to launch a canoe or kayak. Meanwhile, the park is an observatory site for the Southern Cross Astronomical Society, conducting regular free star-gazing programs.
13. South Dade Trail
Something I love about the South Miami-Dade area is how easy it is to get to places by bike. If you want you can ride all the way into downtown Miami from Palmetto Bay.
This can be done partly via the South Dade Trail. Mostly parallel to US-1, this bike trail is on the old corridor of the Florida East Coast Railway, laid down at the turn of the 20th century.
The trail runs from Florida City in the south, up to the Dadeland Mall. There you can get onto the M-Trail, taking you into the heart of Miami.
Parking is never a problem, as there are Metrobus stations all along the route. You also won’t need a permit to use these buses as bicycle racks are provided.
14. Ludovici Park
Right on the Old Cutler Trail, this passive park sits next to the Palmetto Bay Branch Library. Ludovici Park is easily missed, but is a wonderful oasis on sunny days aside from the summer months.
The park is bounded to the east by a protected stand of mangroves on Biscayne Bay. There’s an expansive lawn here, fringed by tall palms and manicured gardens along a paved path. You’ll find several benches in the shade where you can pause for a moment or read a book.
The park’s gazebo is a stage for regular outdoor music performances and other public events.
15. Palmetto Golf Course
Just on the other side of US-1 is a fine municipal course that was purchased by Miami-Dade County in 1967. The same canal system flowing through Palmetto Bay, wriggles across this 18-hole par 70 course.
Given there’s also a mosaic of little lakes, water is a constant feature at Palmetto Golf Course, adding a lot of beauty, but lots of hazards too. True to its name, the fairways here are flanked by neat rows of palmettos.
If you need to get some practice in, there’s a driving range with 22 tees, as well as a lighted putting green.
For families I’d recommend the adorable mini golf course here, with 18 holes among lagoons, a cave, waterfalls and tropical landscaping.