As I was picking up some produce at a Publix the other day, the smell of strawberries stopped me in my tracks. I looked up and around and sniffed my way down the produce isle to a stand of ripe, plump, juicy strawberries that were almost maroon. The sale sign below further confirmed my guess that we were in the middle of strawberry season.

By the way, if you are a resident of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, or Tennessee, you can sign up at  http://www.publix.com/atseasonspeak/ to be alerted when the produce you love is at its best. But in case of strawberries, let your nose be your guide: though readily available here in South Florida year round, strawberries are never as fragrant as in February and March, the peak of their season.

Awakened from hibernating by their sweet, mellow aroma that signaled that the days of chill-chasing stews, hearty casseroles, and hot-out-of-the-oven pastries were drawing to a close, making way for produce-packed salads, light creamy soups, and refreshing berry-inspired desserts, I left the store without buying any but with a strong intention to go pick some. After all, aren’t the best strawberries the ones u-pick?

“Hey, Nikolasha, you wanna go strawberry picking today?” I asked my daughter the next day. “Grab your boots, a hat, and a basket. We will be leaving shortly.”

Five minutes later Nicole was ready, a purple dress-up princess dress layered over her red pajamas, a pink princess visor squishing together her unruly curls, a yellow sand bucket clenched in one hand, a favorite stuffed puppy hugged with the other, and a pair of blue rain boots put on the wrong feet. I couldn’t help but smile and thought,”Gotta be more precise in my instructions next time.”

Dressed in rain boots and sun hats, armed with umbrellas and sun glasses, we set out on a beautiful spring day of cool breeze and warm sun to have some good old-fashioned fun.

Little did I know that we were in for a big surprise as we were headed for the Girls Strawberry U-pick patch in downtown Delray Beach.

Located in the middle of a busy shopping plaza, this pace is truly whimsical. There’s a charming Alice-in-Wonderland feeling about it as you walk in through the plain storefront door to discover a quirky country shop/ice cream parlour that offers—besides all things strawberry—an array of homemade preserves and ice creams, gourmet sauces and condiments, assorted candies, and unique giftware . . . and as you walk out in the back through, yet, another door to find yourself in a luscious garden of winding trails, huge fruit bearing trees, exotic critters, and talking birds. I hear they also have a couple of rabbits running around on the loose. I should’ve let Nicole wear her princess dress!

There’s something to do for everyone there. Should you stroll down the white brick path to your right, you would end up at the vertically-grown strawberry patch and learn about the modern wonders of hydroponics systems. When the warmth of the noon sun tires you out, take a respite in a shaded sitting area and watch your kids explore the 1930’s vintage fire truck, pet a donkey or marvel at the grace and beauty of the swans gliding the surface of a crystal clear pond. Should you follow the path in the opposite direction, you would have a hard time passing by the inviting picnic grounds, but if you did, you could visit with a giant tortoise family of five, chitchat with friendly parakeets, and pick a bucket or two of fresh beans and tomatoes in the back.

But if I were you, I would go straight down for the fruit and veggie wagon, get a handful of freshly picked strawberries, a couple of fat tomatoes, an orange, some lettuce, weigh them in an antique scale that hangs free off a tree branch right above (just for the fun of it), and head back home to make Sunshine Salad.

Wanted or not, spring is here, and I have to face it.