Best Of 2011

How would you like to never pay an arm and leg for downtown parking again? If you're going to a game, wouldn't it be nice to have a comfy bus, trolley or van available to drop you off and pick you up...for the cost of a beer? No more paying $20 just to park in a lot and walk ten blocks: Instead, take advantage of the numerous bars and restaurants in Soulard, Lafayette Square and even Washington Avenue offering shuttle services to all Cardinals, Blues and Rams games. The drivers are friendly, and refreshments on the ride are dirt cheap — freeing you to spend your money on booze, not parking. But even though it's a bargain, don't forget to tip your driver.

Playgrounds often serve as keystones for a community. A good, safe playground enhances the social and physical development of a community's children. A lack of good, safe playgrounds means a community of kids with idle hands and nowhere to go — which is far too often the case in St. Louis. But the tide is starting to turn, thanks to KaBOOM!, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that rallies residents and other volunteers to build new playgrounds. It's responsible for more than 2,000 across America over the last fifteen years, including three in East St. Louis in just the last three years. And the organization's largesse hasn't been limited to the east side of the river. In April, with funding from Energizer and support from local volunteers, KaBOOM! was able to build a new playground at the Salvation Army Corps Community Center in south city. As is normal for a KaBOOM! project, construction was completed in a single day, with more than 100 people donating their morning and early afternoon to get the job done. The immediate benefit of the playground movement is as clear as the smile of a kid going down a slide. But the long-term benefits are just as fulfilling: Every kid who grows up in a playground is a kid who doesn't grow up in the streets.

It's a rite of passage for any south-city dweller to partake in the monthly hot mess that is South Broadway Athletic Club's wrasslin'. For a measly $8 ($7 in advance, $4 for a child), you get the opportunity to take in the "stars of the MMWA-SICW" (wha?) and watch them bark, cuss and hiss at each other as equally impassioned fans scream along ringside. Not to discredit the level of talent and ability these, ahem, "athletes" bring to the table, but watching the rabid fans at these events can be just as enjoyable as the bouts themselves. It's one of those events where you can look around the room and find yourself having a difficult time distinguishing between ironic hipsters and regular ol' south-city hoosiers in search of some Saturday-night kicks. They both have suspicious facial hair, they're both sucking down the cheapest suds the VFW-style bar has to offer, and neither has much use for sleeves.

Tower Tee is truly the baseball/softball junkie's batting cage. Not only can you listen to the Cards take on the Cubs while viciously swinging at pitches, but you get to do so while listening to the visiting team's announcers via satellite radio, just to mix things up. Are Cubs' mouthpieces Pat Hughes and Keith Moreland annoying the hell out of you as you're trying to rake some pitches? Simple solution: Pretend Kerry Wood's lobbing pitches down the pipe, and try smoking a ball off the "Cubs Stink" sign in dead center field. So you're a little bushed after burning through a few tokens? No problem. Just mosey on over to the snack stand, grab a snow cone and watch the game on TV. While you're over there, don't hesitate to schmooze with the always-spirited owner of the cages, Dave Swatek. He's been known to give swing tips and positive encouragement, regardless of how lousy your beer-league softball team is.

Eclectic and fun, though definitely not for the chelonaphobic, Dogtown's Turtle Park has plenty of the namesake concrete creatures lounging lazily in the grass or forever scaling the sides of hills. Big (Sally, Richard, Tom) and small (David, Adam, Emily, Antonio), the Bob Cassilly-designed turtles provide plenty of places to climb, dine and recline — the wide, gently sloping shells of the big guys feel surprisingly nice on the back. Kids can hole up in the turtles' gaping mouths, navigate their way between giant clawed toes or just play on a blanket beneath one of the park's many trees. And if all those gentle giants make you long to glimpse the real thing post-picnic, cross the nearby Tamm Avenue overpass right into the Saint Louis Zoo.

Point your car away from the St. Louis area, and an hour's drive in any direction will enable you to leave the city and the suburbs behind and get your nature on. But if you're looking for the biggest bang for your time-and-gas-mileage buck, the Weldon Spring Conservation Area delivers top dollar. Off Interstate 64/Highway 40 just across the Missouri River, this 8,400-acre parcel beckons bird watchers, mountain-bike enthusiasts, hunters and fishers alike. And also hikers. Rising up from the banks of the Missouri and the Katy Trail, the easternmost chunk of the WSCA is explorable via a pair of hiking loops, the Lewis Trail and the Clark Trail. Both routes are off-limits to hunters, but neither is for the woods-walking weenie (the Missouri Department of Conservation classifies 'em as "Difficult"). Be assured, though, that the surroundings and the views of the river valley are worth the sometimes-steep going. Clark is the shorter of the two trails (a tad under five and a half miles); Lewis encompasses the Clark loop and then some (eight-plus miles in all).

Fantasy football is awesome because people take it way too seriously, even while knowing that they're taking it way too seriously. It's a self-consciously ridiculous activity. So what better place to hold a fantasy-football draft than Hooters, the most self-consciously ridiculous restaurant in America? Hours and hours of crude football-related jokes are best spent among topnotch chicken wings and women in tight clothing. With such amusing distractions, you can be sure there will be that guy who picks Brett Favre in the second round. As an added bonus, that other guy, the one who always insists on conveying his picks over the phone because he's too busy with real life to attend, can only listen as your waitress puts her hand on your shoulder and asks whether you want a side of blue cheese or ranch. The downtown branch of the restaurant offers large private rooms for activities such as fantasy drafts, so your decision to pick two kickers stays safely concealed from the general public.

Inside the old Falstaff brewery warehouse, 30,000 square feet of space for skating and BMX racing await urban daredevils. The first indoor skate park in St. Louis, Ramp Riders is the brainchild of Chad Hehner, who has been riding BMX since he was ten years old. Now 36, Hehner is still skating and built his BMX haven to teach the hobby to younger generations. Although the majority of his patrons aren't much older than Hehner was when he first started — somewhere in the 10- to 17-year-old age range — you'll see people as young as 2 and old as 50. And with a pro shop and concessions, the eleven-year-old Ramp Riders is more than just a park. It's one-stop fun.

With three different 9-hole courses to choose from, Tapawingo National Golf Club offers 27 extremely well-manicured holes to appeal to the weekend warrior and avid golf junkie alike. Between the tight-playing Woodlands, the long-as-hell beast that is Prairie and the more straightforward, target-shooting Meramec, you get the luxury of essentially playing three entirely different courses over the span of 27 holes. Anywhere between $40 to $70 will get you eighteen holes at the Gary Player-designed course, which beats the heck out of monthly country-club dues and assessments. And the facilities rival those at high-rent private joints, minus the holier-than-thou attitude from staff. Keep your eyes peeled along the way: Tapawingo hosts a bird sanctuary, and it's not uncommon to see hawks, herons and eagles swooping about come winter. Don't be surprised if you have to step away from the tee to let a family of deer scurry through the fairway. They're probably just trying to give you an opportunity to take in the picturesque view.

As the ruthless heat of the summer brings St. Louis to a lethargic crawl, Springdale Park & Pool offers an answer. Just outside of the city, the summer oasis boasts a one-acre pool surrounded by a fifty-acre park. A chainlink fence surrounds the pool, allowing patrons to drive right up and crack open a few beers (BYOB permitted!). The large pavilions throughout host family reunions and barbecues daily, while the adventurous can try out their jackknife on the pool's high dive or dominate in a game of water volleyball. Not into swimming? Get down on the park's mini-golf course or play a few rounds of pinball at the arcade. Fun for both adults and children, Springdale's friendly atmosphere takes you back to simpler days of fun in the sun. With your shades on, the babes out and hot dogs in hand, summer living has never been this easy.

Devon Alexander reps his city, and his city loves him right back. Sure, new talent has emerged from local boxing gyms: The undefeated Ryan Coyne has become one of the top cruiserweight contenders in the nation, and twenty-year-old Stephon Young finished second in the 114-pound class at this year's Golden Gloves tournament. But the hopes of St. Louis boxing still rest in Alexander's lightning-fast hands. With his split-decision victory against the hammer-handed Lucas Matthysse, Alexander answered all questions about his toughness. He traded punches with the hardest hitter in the division and won. He looked quick, aggressive and courageous. Yes, his game still has areas that need improvement. But with all his ups and downs in the past year, it's easy to forget that Devon Alexander is just 24 years old. He's one of the 50 best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet and right in the mix for the junior welterweight crown. If and when he gets there, you know he'll have that STL fitted on his head.