There’s something to be said about visiting a place you don’t know much about: with minimal expectations, you can find yourself being continually delighted by things you discover. Case in point: a recent three-day, mid-summer jaunt to Fort Lauderdale.
Despite having passed through its airport countless times – always on my way somewhere else – I’d never spent any time in this popular South Florida destination. But, fully vaccinated and eager to escape the Northeast, it seemed an easy, fun destination for a quick getaway. With a mix of culture, cuisine and beautiful beaches, Florida’s eighth largest city offered everything we were looking for. And despite being home to “Millionaire’s Row” – a collection of jaw-dropping waterfront mansions along the Intracoastal Waterway – we found plenty of bargains, and even some freebies, in Fort Lauderdale.
You can forget the 1980s image of Spring Break madness, too; despite its ongoing popularity with the younger crowd, today’s Fort Lauderdale has a decidedly relaxing, yet hip vibe. With its modern, big-city feel, it is the only place I’ve seen muscle cars cruising alongside Bentleys and Maseratis. With 300-plus miles of inland waterways and more than 40,000 registered yachts, Fort Lauderdale has also earned the well-deserved title of “Yachting Capital of the World.” It’s a boater’s wonderland, to be sure.
The city of Fort Lauderdale has more than seven miles of pristine beachfront – three of which have year-round, permanently staffed lifeguard towers that operate in the summer months from 9:45 a.m. to 7 p.m. In addition, no beach tags.
But there is plenty more to explore here beyond the beaches. This is a city with a vibrant cultural scene, as well as being home or nearby to some amazing natural beauty.
For our long weekend, we opted for a hotel near the waterfront park and Intracoastal, as well as the very happening Las Olas neighborhood. Housed in the city’s tallest building, the 15-floor Hyatt Centric Las Olas, which opened last year, is a pet-friendly property with 238 rooms and suites; the remaining 30 floors house $1 million-and-up luxury condominiums.
It’s a stunning building for more than just its height – this is a contemporary hotel with a welcoming, open feel and nautical-themed colors and textures. The Hyatt has a popular, spacious lobby bar and a full-service indoor-outdoor restaurant, Harborwood Urban Kitchen & Bar, where it became obvious quickly that “typical” hotel quasi fast food was (thankfully) not on the menu. We later learned that the restaurant’s stellar cuisine is the handiwork of executive chief Greg McGowan, who focuses on local and sustainable sourcing and seasonal ingredients. Between the brioche French toast and the lemon-ricotta pancakes, our morning meals alone were beyond blissful.
Shortly after checking in to our room, we Ubered 10 minutes away to Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, a lovely retreat in the heart of the city. Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. year-round, locals consider this their own “Central Park.” Donated to the city in 1941 by a Chicago attorney (and later, Fort Lauderdale resident) who gave this lush 180-acre oasis its name, it’s a great place to relax and unwind. Along with a freshwater lagoon, there are places for fishing, hiking, swimming, and canoeing – not to mention wildlife and bird spotting.
From there, it was back to the hotel’s 8th floor outdoor swimming pool, which also has a casual rooftop eatery and bar complete with fire pits for evening hangouts. (The Hyatt Centric also recently debuted 901, reservation-only guest-room-turned speakeasy with pre-Prohibition vibes and a bartender-in-residence program).
We wound down Day One with a stroll along the city’s popular Las Olas Boulevard (“The Waves” in Spanish), home to more than 125 shops, galleries and restaurants. This is a hub of activity for both locals and tourists alike. A quick stroll from our hotel, we leisurely explored Las Olas and savored a light late snack of Spanish-style croquettes at the recently opened Cuba Libre.
From there, we wandered along the nearby waterfront, where we enjoyed a fun, free ride on the Water Trolley (not to be confused with the more elaborate and costly Water Taxi, which also runs the free version with support from the city). With eight hop-on, hop-off stops, our guide pointed out interesting sites along the way. (And yes, there were plenty of jaw-dropping yachts to admire).
The next morning, we awoke to brilliant sunshine, which could only mean one thing: a beach day was on the agenda. We decided to start the morning, though, with some time at the NSU Art Museum, located literally across the street from our hotel. We were excited to see the visually dazzling World of Anna Sui Exhibit– now in South Florida after stops in Tokyo and New York City – that showcases the ever-evolving work of the famed fashion designer. We loved seeing and learning about the Detroit-born Sui’s professional evolution, and the various themes – from rock star to western – in her clothing. The Hyatt provided us with a two-for-one ticket voucher, along with a discount for the museum gift shop – a nice touch. The exhibit runs through October 3.
After lunch, we set off to get some sand between our toes. While the closest beach was a couple miles away, getting there proved surprisingly easy. Along with providing us with beach chairs for the afternoon, the front desk staff also directed us to the very inexpensive city-subsidized electric-car service, Circuit, which costs $4 per person (each way) and $1 for any additional passengers. We were dropped off at a very busy section of beachfront – complete with the signature white wave promenade wall – made famous by the 1960 film, “Where the Boys Are.” Oddly, it was hotter that day in South Jersey than in South Florida, and we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon hanging out under a palm tree for shade. (If only they had them at the Jersey shore!). Before heading back to the hotel, we even took a peek inside the famed Elbo Room bar featured prominently in the movie. Established in 1938, it is still a hectic, people-watching haven.
We weren’t sure how to spend our final day, so we turned to that modern day answer-man known as Google for ideas. Querying about popular attractions in the region, we opted for Flamingo Gardens in nearby Davie, FL. After finding a two-for-one ticket deal (regularly $19 per adult) via the Fort Lauderdale tourism website, www.sunny.org, we were on our way. Flamingo Gardens, founded in 1927, is a not-for-profit botanical garden and wildlife sanctuary – and a lot bigger and more interesting than we could have imagined. Along with a free tram ride to familiarize you with the 60-acres of land, we enjoyed the educational aspects of our visit. Along with learning about all kinds of wildlife and plants during our drive-around – Flamingo Gardens is home to the largest collection of native wildlife in the state – we also found the Wildlife Encounter (offered three times daily) especially interesting, as the naturalist showed off a young (but massive) python snake.
Flamingo Gardens has everything from otters, to alligators, to eagles and yes, plenty of flamingos. We especially liked that it wasn’t too “slick” or commercialized – this “Old Florida” attraction is definitely worth a visit. For dinner our last night, we relaxed at Harborwood, sharing a yummy pan-roasted mushroom flatbread and a Cuban panini, while looking through photos of our vacation on our smart phones.
While not possible to see and do everything this charming city has to offer in a mere 72 hours, we were certainly happy to hit some of the hot spots. I know that there will be much more to explore next time we return.
For more information on Fort Lauderdale, visit www.sunny.org
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey resident and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA).