Coral Gables, Florida - Most people travel to Miami Beach to check out the 30s deco architecture or the tanned gym bunnies, South Beach's two best-known types of eye candy. But 20 minutes away, across Biscayne Bay in Coral Gables, is a more natural beauty that rivals anything in SoBe. Fairchild Tropical Garden is one of the world's finest botanical collections, 83 acres of palms, flowering trees, subtropical plants and a tropical rain forest.
Only for the gardening freak? No way.
The first thing you're struck by is the serenity of the groves, the wind humming musically through the trees and the play of intense light against deep shade.
On a really sunny day, the foliage seems to be illuminated by an internal glow.
It's easy to get lost in the lush vegetation and to avoid other people and feel like you're alone in a jungle that's never before seen a human being.
In another part of the garden, 11 lakes stretch in front of you, separated by treed hummocks that stand out like islands on the water. One of Fairchild's purposes is to preserve unique habitats like these. At one time large areas of south Florida were open hummocks such as these, but development now threatens their existence.
One of the most striking groves is of pandanus trees, or screw pines, whose roots grow above the soil. From a distance they look like fantastic beasts out of a Doctor Who episode, walking out of the water to follow their prey.
Or maybe they've had enough of the alligators and herons you can occasionally see in the ponds.
Fluffy clouds float through the blue sky, a few hawks drifting lazily several hundred metres in the air.
Palms are the most plentiful garden trees, and with over 500 species at Fairchild, their variety seems endless. There's the bottle palm, squat in shape and considered small at 2 metres high, and the sawtooth palm, whose cut branches resemble a gator's mouth, full of dangerous teeth.
The petticoat palm demurely hides its own trunk when its branches grow old, the green fronds reaching to the sky and the dying brown ones drooping to the earth. A 50s trip, the ponytail palm looks like it would be comfortable in an episode of Laverne And Shirley; you expect the trunk to be wrapped in a poodle skirt.
Most majestic are the queen royal palms, planted in avenues, each metre-thick trunk stretching upward like a 20-metre cigar, with fringes of fanned leaves at the top. Some of them are covered with variegated pothos vines climbing to the sky.
The pothos are a reminder of the occasional frustration I feel wandering through Fairchild. What we can barely nurture in a small pot in Toronto grows like an unstoppable wild thing here.
The green and silver tones of the palms are impressive, especially when their fronds flutter in the breeze.
But the colours become positively psychedelic in other plants. Scarlet and yellow birds of paradise peek out from behind palm trunks. The South African cycads bear twice-pineapple-sized orange fruit, resembling pine cones grown by giants.
Orchids dazzle with deep purples, pinks, lavenders and mauves, like iridescent deep-sea corals. Some flowers are the size of thimbles, others as big as pie plates. One plant spills blossoms like a cascading river, white flowers with delicate yellow throats.
Powderpuff plants flaunt their vivid crimson pompoms, while the red sealing-wax palm's bright ruby trunk is so sensitive to cold that it can survive only in a greenhouse under a canopy of tree ferns, even in this semi-tropical climate.
This is a reminder that nature isn't always kind, even to an Edenic garden. I remember, on a visit years ago, being amazed by several acres of hibiscus bushes - perhaps South Florida's most ubiquitous plant - that caught the eye with a rainbow range of single and double blossoms. But they're not around this time, because they were victims of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which wreaked havoc at Fairchild.