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Fort Lauderdale Spotlight

America's Venice isn't just for spring-breakers anymore

By David Appell

February 28th, 2006

Founded in 1911, up through the 1950s, this formerly somewhat snoozy South Florida backwater by the sea was a favorite of boaters because of its many canals and Intracoastal Waterway location and as a gateway to the Caribbean. But otherwise Fort Lauderdale remained pretty much your regular Florida beach town, full of laid-back, low-slung mom-and-pop motels, eateries, and watering holes. Not much to do besides laze on the sand during the day and knock back a few cold ones at night. But along the way, the area started attracting college students on spring vacation, and once Hollywood took notice in 1960, unleashing the Connie Francis flick Where the Boys Are, the following three decades changed Fort Lauderdale forever, with hundreds of thousands of mostly young people flocking here each spring to party their brains out, while major stretches of the rest of the year remained pretty darn quiet.

Since the 1990s, though, spring-break madness has largely become a thing of the past in Fort Lauderdale and popular surrounding parts of Broward County, as changing tastes and municipal and business efforts both expanded and raised the level of offerings. In the 21st century, it has come of age as a booming, revitalized business and vacation magnet, one of the fastest-growing in America; in fact, Fort Lauderdale and other Broward communities, already largely awash in suburban tracts and strip-mall sprawl, continue to grow so fast that parts of them are threatening to turn into "condo canyons" to match its increasingly high-rise downtown. But Lauderdale's appeal to vacationers is undeniable, starting with a beautiful new beach promenade and strand of sand which we in some ways prefer to that of Miami Beach, continuing with some irresistible shopping (two highlights are the lovely, walkable Las Olas shopping district and the gargantuan, growing Sawgrass Mills mall); historic Old South homes; superb international dining; a surprisingly sophisticated arts and museum scene; and one of America's top gay and lesbian scenes.

And then there's water, lots and lots of it. Besides some 23 miles of seashore, you'll find something like 300 miles worth of canals (one of Lauderdale's monikers is "America's Venice"), the Intracoastal Waterway (much of it lined with the fancy mansions of "Millionaires Row" and plied by everything from jet skis to monster yachts), and of course the mighty "river of grass," the Everglades. The lodging experience ranges from some holdover mom-and-pops to gigantic resort spreads, with a sprinkling of upscale bed-and-breakfasts and a pool of small, fine-quality gay resorts outclassed only by Palm Springs and perhaps Provincetown. Meanwhile, also in Broward and just south of Lauderdale proper, Port Everglades provides a haven for the ever-increasing numbers of colossal cruise ships (indeed, if a Caribbean cruise is in the offing, you may well find yourself passing through this area anyway), and the cities of Hollywood and Dania also contribute nicely to the area's outdoorsy allures. In many ways, Fort Lauderdale could be called Florida's premier "city of the future" – but we highly recommend you come enjoy it now.

If you have three days, you'll be more than entertained within the "backwards L" extending down Route A1A along the strip of beachfront from Sunrise Boulevard to East Las Olas Boulevard, then westward along Las Olas to "Sailboat Bend" around S.W. 7th Street; besides sea and sand, this includes much of the best shopping and dining as well as some historic homes, a nature preserve, and the museum district. Shorter stays are doable without your own wheels, but if you're coming for a stay of five to seven days, a rental car will be a must to get out to attractions like Sawgrass Mills, the Everglades, Butterfly World, area golf courses, Baltimore Orioles spring training, and more.

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