By: David Appell
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.
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.
The 33-square-mile city of Fort Lauderdale proper is the central element of a Broward County patchwork of 31 municipalities sprawled across 1200 square miles, extending from Hallandale and Miramar along the Miami-Dade County line northward to Deerfield, abutting Palm Beach County (specifically, Boca Raton). Most of the attractions, along with the Intracoastal islands and canals, are concentrated in a core area east of Interstate 95, but if you're a golfer, for example, you may find yourself teeing off in towns such as Dania, Hollywood, and Pembroke Pines to the south; Plantation, Sunrise and Lauderhill to the west; and Pompano Beach, Coconut Creek, and Coral Springs to the north. Other must-see attractions include the mammoth Sawgrass Mills and the natural Everglades/Big Cypress Seminole Reservation. Hollywood, meanwhile, boasts the glitzy new Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
You can of course tour Fort Lauderdale both via terra firma and water; we especially recommend the latter. To see the intricate network of waterways and islands lined with stately homes that gives this town the nickname "Venice of America," you can hit the water with several local cruise companies: Carrie B. (954/768-9920; $14.95), the Mississippi River-boat-style Jungle Queen (954/462-5596; $14.50) or the Sea Escape (877/732-3722; $25+), though this is really more about the onboard casino. Another way of touring aquatically is to simply hop on a water taxi (954/467-6677; all-day pass $10). There are fewer options on land, but on Friday and Saturday nights (weather permitting) you can hop aboard a Royal Horse-Drawn Carriage (954/971-9820) for a romantic ride along Las Olas, into quaint little side streets, and along the beachfront; you can also schedule your ride.
Following is a rundown of the top things to see and do around here; you can get additional information from the very well-organized Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/22-SUNNY). Once in the area, a local info line (954/765-4466) will answer your questions on the spot; details on the local gay scene are available at 954/463-9005.
Fort Lauderdale Beachfront
Stretching some 3.5 miles south from Sunrise Boulevard to East Las Olas Boulevard is Fort Lauderdale Beach, one our favorite Florida city strands. It has a more easygoing feel than the one along Ocean Drive in South Beach, for example; while it too is lined with hotels, restaurants and some shops, it sports a slightly less packed, urban feel. It also admittedly doesn't boast the architectural funk that Miami Beach's Deco District offers, and there are several spots under construction, with old-timey mom-and-pops blasted out of the way for big-name resorts (the first of which, The Atlantic, is already in place). Nonetheless, we don't feel the changes are likely to be overbearing, and heading southward along Route A1A (at various times known as Ocean, Atlantic, and Fort Lauderdale Beach boulevards), it's a pleasure to stroll the attractive and fairly new beach promenade, with its wavy motifs dividing the street from the tawny beige sands. One noteworthy landmark along the way is a mini-mall and bar-restaurant complex at Valencia Street called Beach Place (17 S. Ft. Lauderdale Beach Blvd./A1A; 954/760-9570), built in 1997 on the site of the late, notorious Marlin Hotel. Down toward the Las Olas end is the gay-popular section (around Sebastian Street) and a series of eateries and bars including Elbo Room (see Nightlife, below), another famous spring-break-era icon that's still with us. All along you'll find showers and toilets, glorious sand for sunning, and Atlantic waters to plunge into when you need to cool off.
We highly recommend setting aside part of a day for the northern end of this stretch. Taking a left onto the major east-west artery called Sunrise Boulevard, just before you get to the drawbridge you'll find a couple of blasts (actually more like gentle breezes) from the past: Bonnet House (900 N. Birch Rd.; Tue-Sat 10am–4pm, Sun noon–4pm; $15, $9 grounds-only) is a surprising Old Florida gem; the 1920 plantation-style manse and 35-acre spread once belonged to Frederic Bartlett, an artist and art collector (who donated some of the biggest names in 19th- and 20th-century painting to the Art Institute of Chicago). Then, just across the street, check out the 180-acre Hugh Taylor Birch State Recreation Area (3109 E. Sunrise Blvd.; daily 8am-sunset; $1/person, $2–$5/vehicle), an unexpected oasis of "maritime hammock" (primeval Florida subtropical hardwood forest, all but wiped out in these parts) where you'll glimpse birds, small animals, and lots of butterflies. You can rent canoes, walk the nature trails on your own or with park rangers, roast wienies in the picnic area, visit the mid-century home of Mr. Birch (who, by the way, was Mr. Bartlett's father-in-law), and even stay overnight in guest cabins or your own tents. If you absolutely have to have a mall fix, the main game in this central region of Fort Lauderdale is right across the bridge, the Galleria Mall (2414 E. Sunrise Blvd.; 954/564-1036), with the upscale likes of Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Coach, Victoria's Secret, as well as retailers along the lines of Pottery Barn, Abercrombie & Fitch, and of course, the ubiquitous Gap.
Las Olas Corridor
Veering inland from the beach, you'll follow East Las Olas Boulevard over the Intracoastal, and through a grid of long, skinny little islands called the Nurmi Isles. Not far along, on your left at S.E. 5th Street, is the International Swimming Hall of Fame (1 Hall of Fame Dr.; 954/462-6536; daily 9am–5pm; $5), where bathing beauties from Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmüller to Mark Spitz and Greg Louganis grace the walls, display cases, and movie theater of this waterlogged wonder; you're welcome to bring your suit and do laps in the two enormous on-site pools.
Just over a mile in from the Atlantic you'll come upon the genteel Las Olas shopping district (954/937-7386), between S.E. 15th and 1st Avenues. Interspersed with restaurants both upmarket and modest are a slew of shops and art galleries with merchandise ranging from stuffy and traditional to pretty out-there (think paper pants). One of our funky favorites is Elements (no. 1034), where you'll find everything from cool Italian espresso cups to antique reproductions to just plain weird (but usually tasteful) knick-knacks both cheap and pricey.
After S.E. 1 Avenue, things get a little high-risey for several blocks, then you're in the museum/arts/entertainment/historic zone. First up is the gracefully designed Museum of Art (1 E. Las Olas Blvd.; call 954/525-5500 for hours and admission; special exhibits vary), which boasts an impressive permanent collection of 20th-century European and American art, the biggest contemporary Cuban art collection outside Cuba, and smaller collections of African, South Pacific, and Native American works. The likes of Warhol, Johns, and Lichtenstein come a-calling regularly, in temporary exhibitions; the blockbuster "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" is among the museum's more recent exhibits.
Las Olas Riverfront/Riverwalk Area
Just west of the art museum is Las Olas Riverfront (300 SW 1st Ave.; 954/522-6556), a multi-level Mediterranean-style shopping/entertainment complex on the New River, with a bevy of eateries, nightclubs, arcades, and even local sightseeing cruises departing from a riverside dock. Continue past this along Riverwalk to several other cool stops, starting with Stranahan House (335 SE 6th Ave.; Wed–Sat 10am–3pm, Sun 1-3pm; $6; guided tours available), Broward County's oldest building. Founded as a trading post in 1901, this atmospheric little gem is now a small museum mixing Mr. and Mrs. Stranahan's mementos with relics of early Fort Lauderdale. For more on the old days, check out the nearby Old Fort Lauderdale Village and Museum (219 SW 2 Ave.; Tue–Fri 11am–5pm, Sat–Sun noon–5pm; $5; tours Tues–Sat 2.30–3.30pm; $8), a white-picket-fence-enclosed collection of fine old houses (and a replica schoolhouse) dating from around the turn of the last century. Another cool must for families in this area is the Museum of Discovery and Science (401 SW 2 St., at 4th Ave.; Mon–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat–Sun 12–6pm; $9 galleries only, $14 with IMAX), a well-done example of the interactive, high-tech, kid-pleasing science museums that are all the rage these days. Highlights include an IMAX screen and an area with a recreated coral reef.
Broward County: Beaches, Dania, & More
Heading southward from central Fort Lauderdale, our pick for Broward's top laid-back, natural-feeling beach is the town of Dania's John U. Lloyd Beach State Park (6503 N. Ocean Dr.; daily 8am–sunset; $1/person or $2-$5/vehicle). Apart from the beautiful strand itself, there's plenty else to do on this small barrier island. The waterway that runs through it, linking the Atlantic with the Intracoastal, is also a manatee sanctuary; you can hike a nature trail, snorkel, and rent canoes and kayaks, and to join ranger programs tocatch a glimpse of nesting loggerhead sea turtles in season (June/July). There's also a snack bar and restrooms.
Also in Dania, parents might like to know about a kid-pleaser called Boomers (1700 NW 1st St., between N. Bryan Road and I-95 Griffin Road exit; 954/921-1411; Sun–Thur 10am–midnight, Fri–Sat 10am–2am; $16.95-$42.95 passes or $1–$6.95/attraction), the local outpost of a California-based amusement park chain. OK, it isn't quite Orlando, but it does offer a few chills and thrills, with the Hurricane, a huge wooden roller coaster, bumper cars, and a few other games and rides of varying levels of wildness.
Old junk enthusiasts might get a good afternoon's worth out of the 150 or so shops along Dania's Antiques Row (N. Federal Hwy. between Dania Beach Blvd. and NE 2nd St., Dania), just so long as you keep in mind that this isn't exactly the Berkshires in terms of quality. But who knows, if you've got a good eye you could very well pick up something special.
Heading in the other direction, northward, we also like Butterfly World (3600 W. Sample Rd., between Florida Turnpike and Coral Tree Circle; Mon–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 1–5pm; $18.95), a tropical rainforest habitat in the town of Coconut Creek, with its gardens and hummingbird aviary that will set the little ones' hearts colorfully a-flutter. Finally, a bit south of Coconut Creek but well north of Las Olas, baseball fans down here mid-February through March might want to make time to catch the Baltimore Orioles spring training at Fort Lauderdale Stadium (1301 NW 55 St.; 954/776-1921; http://baltimore.orioles.mlb.com).
Scattered in all directions, greater Fort Lauderdale’s selection of over 40 golf courses ranges from the top-drawer, 18-hole Iverrary Country Club in Lauderhill (3840 Inverrary Blvd.; 954/733-7550) and Emerald Hills in Hollywood (4100 North Hills Dr.; 954/961-4000) to the venerable Orangebrook, also in Hollywood (400 Entrada Dr.; 954/967-4653), an 18-hole municipal course that's high-quality and low-cost.
Finally, for a couple of experiences most of you won't find at home, Dania Jai Alai (301 E. Dania Beach Blvd.; Tue–Sun noon–midnight; $1.50) is the place to see – and bet on – jai alai, a singular, 180mph cross between handball and lacrosse imported generations ago from Spain's Basque country (there are card rooms and simulcasts of the ponies here, too, and slots are forthcoming). For something even more far out (literally), head back to the airport for the Zero-G Experience (888/664-7284) in which a specially-adapted Boeing 727 swoops around up at 34,000 feet to create 30-second periods of absolute weightlessness; the experience ain't cheap though – a full-day program will set you back a whopping $3750.
Got a bit more time on your hands? Southern Florida has plenty to keep you occupied, from ritzy, Rolls-choked Palm Beach (a half-hour drive to the north) to Naples (a couple of hours west, over on the Gulf Coast). The Keys and Key West (see our Miami Spotlight for more on the Keys) are well worth seeing, but the distance (some four hours to Key West) means they're better tackled as an overnighter. In terms of trips that will more easily get you back to your hotel or condo that same night, the following pair are our favorites:
The Everglades/Seminole Reservation
This majestic, wildlife-rich river of grass, cypress, live oaks and mangroves takes up millions of acres of South Florida's western reaches, and in Broward County its main subsection is the Big Cypress Preserve, within which is the Seminoles Indians' Big Cypress Reservation, a 2200-acre spread some 90 minutes west of downtown Fort Lauderdale. Get airboat and swamp buggy rides through Billie Swamp Safari (800/949-6101; $49), which also operates nature trails, a camp with herpetarium and café (frogs legs and gator nuggets, anyone?). There's even an option to overnight out here, in replicas of chickees (native huts). Tours run 11am–4pm and include a stop at the fascinating Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum (941/902-1113).
Just over 20 miles down I-95 (or A1A if you'd rather take the slower, "scenic" route), the Art Deco Historic District of the offshore barrier island that is Miami Beach remains one of America's hottest, sexiest vacation destinations. By now pretty universally referred to as South Beach, its happening beach, hot nightlife, high-powered dining scene, and regular sightings of celebs, models, and simply garden-variety beautiful people are still going strong. And that's not even mentioning the pair of world-class museums, various high-quality art galleries, and theater and performance venues, all surrounded with the funky, colorful, tropical Deco architecture that in recent years has become one of America's best known cityscapes. If you like laid-back Lauderdale but still want a taste of souped-up SoBe, it's 45 minutes there and back. If, on the other hand, you want to venture over to mainland Miami, don't-misses include Coral Gables (historic Biltmore Hotel, Venetian Pool, stately homes, happening Miracle Mile), Coconut Grove (great little shopping/dining downtown, planetarium, historic Vizcaya mansion and Barnacle house), and Little Havana (funky Latin shops, galleries and eateries). For more info, check out our Miami Spotlight for full coverage of what to see and do in SoBe.
The Broward County hospitality biz was once heavily stocked with mom-and-pop motels but has recently broadened and deepened to include more than 600 hotels and resorts, with a growing number of higher-end properties. Starwood in particular is making a big push, with a spate of new properties set to open in the next couple of years. Another corporate hospitality group, LXR Luxury Resorts, bought and is upgrading the yachtie-popular Pier Sixty-Six, Bahia Mar, and the Marina Marriott. Meanwhile, Donald Trump himself is planning to add a couple of properties, as well. In the meantime, following is a look at a selection of top digs. Yet there are still plenty of independents and small properties from modest to exquisite (Fort Lauderdale was the birthplace, after all, of the 50-property Superior Small Lodgings program) and family-oriented to gay.
On the high end, many consider the current top of the line to be The Atlantic (601 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., 954/567-8020), a 124-room member of Starwood's "Luxury Collection" just south of Sunrise Boulevard that in 2004 became the first new luxury condominium hotel to appear on the Fort Lauderdale beachfront. Another sterling high-end beachfront choice is the veteran Sheraton Yankee Trader (321 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.; 800/958-5551), its 459 cheerful units split between two towers (connected to the beach by a skywalk); an iconic local steakhouse Shula's on the Beach is the house canteen. Also on the beachfront but below Las Olas and the main promenade is the five-year-old, 637-room Marriott's Harbor Beach Resort & Spa (3030 Holiday Dr.; 800/222-6543), with a 16-acre spread and the largest oceanfront spa in Fort Lauderdale (imagine the beachfront massages!). Not directly on the beach but occupying a scenic 22-acre perch on the Intracoastal, the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 (2301 SE 17th St.; 954/525-6666) has 380 rooms, the usual bells and whistles, and a well-known marina where the Forbes yacht used to dock. There's another amazing beach resort worth mentioning, but it's a few miles south, in Hollywood rather than Lauderdale proper: The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa (3555 S. Ocean Dr.; Hollywood; 800/327-1212 or 954/602-6000) is a gargantuan (1098-room) epitome of steel, stone, and glass with perks like a lovely 30,000-square-foot spa and gym; 18-hole golf course; 10 tennis courts; and glass-bottomed bridged pool with waterfalls flowing into a larger lagoon pool, below.
In the moderate range, the Mediterranean meets Key West at the fab, 212-room Lago Mar Resort and Club (1700 S. Ocean La., 877/524-6627), on a 500-foot stretch of beach not far from the Marriott Harbor Beach. Also in the vicinity is the Bahia Mar Beach Resort (801 Seabreeze Blvd, between Harbor and Hall of Fame drives.; 888/80-BAHIA), with 300 rooms and its own marina. An easy stroll to the beachfront but actually on the Intracoastal is the romantic inn-style The Pillars (111 N. Birch Rd., at Sebastian St.; 954/467-9639), Fort Lauderdale's only member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, with just 22 rooms. More Old World flavor combines with unbeatable access to Las Olas shopping and dining at the Riverside Hotel (620 E. Las Olas Blvd.; 800/325-3280; www.riversidehotel.com), a six-story 1930s landmark with perks including a pair of great restaurants and a pool. Finally, the Royal Palms (2901 Terra Mar St.; 800/237-7256) is an absolute gem that was recently named "best small hostelry" by local tourism folks; it also doubles as the top gay guesthouse in Fort Lauderdale.
Visitors looking to maximize savings don't have to settle for cheesy Motel 6 or Econo Lodge. Solid budget contenders several blocks in from the beachfront include the 20-room Sans Souci at the Beach (618 N. Birch Rd.; 800/684-6320), with a pool, sundeck and tropical landscaping; and Sea Chateau Resort (555 N. Birch Rd.; 800/726-3732), an Art Deco charmer with period furnishings in its 17 rooms and a pool.
Gone are the days when Lauderdale dining was little more than greasy-spoon diners on the budget end and surf-and-turf on the fancy end. Among the 3500-plus local restaurants nowadays, interesting options ranging from Brazilian to Thai are springing up like porcini mushrooms all over the county. And don't be put off by a fancy restaurant in a strip mall: Outside the Las Olas pedestrian corridor, that kind of setting is pretty common. Whenever possible, call ahead and make reservations, especially at the hotter spots along Las Olas Boulevard and A1A. Following are a handful of the best of what's cooking on the local cuisine scene.
When recommending stars of Fort Lauderdale's upper end, it's pretty hard to ignore classics like the romantic French Quarter (215 SE 8th Ave.; 954/463-8000), serving Continental and Cajun classics in the Las Olas downtown, and the steakhouse Shula's on the Beach (321 N. Ft. Lauderdale Beach Blvd./A1A; 954/355-4000). But these days the real excitement is at the more recent slew of hipper/nouvelle spots with a variety of cuisines. The best known is Mark's Las Olas (1032 E. Las Olas Blvd.; 954/463-1000) where one of South Florida's star chefs, Mark Militello, dishes up unusual medleys of fresh ingredients that may seem wacky but sing on your palate (who else would sear Hudson Valley foie gras and serve it with mango and jalapeño?).
We also love the flavors of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia (both traditional and in offbeat fusion) at the Riverside Hotel's Indigo (620 E. Las Olas Blvd.; 954/467-0045). Venturing a bit away from the tourist track, in a lovely, mostly residential neighborhood is a colorful little gem of a restaurant, Victoria Park (900 NE 20th Ave.; 954/764-6868), that serves up an eclectic mélange of Caribbean, American, and European cookery. Also try not to miss Hi-Life Café (3000 N. Federal Hwy., south of E. Oakland Park Blvd.; 954/563-1395), a snug oasis of mod but warm elegance in a strip mall; Carlos and Chuck's menu is nouvelle-international, and you must save room for the scrumptious updates of Southern pies like orange coconut, bourbon pecan, and Coca-Cola chocolate.
Plenty of good choices in the moderate range are hereabouts, too. Among local favorites on Las Olas are Bar Amici (1301 E. Las Olas Bvd., at SE 13th Ave; 954/467-3266), where a creative American menu with Italian flourishes can be enjoyed indoors or out on the sidewalk; the hugely popular Cheesecake Factory (600 E. Las Olas Blvd.; 954/463-1999) with a cinematic atmosphere and a varied menu that's much better than the joint's name and chain origin might suggest. Right nearby, consider the lively scene and hip South Florida Latin cuisine at The Samba Room (350 E. Las Olas Blvd., at SE 3rd Ave.; 954/468-2000). Meanwhile, a winner on the beachfront is Casablanca Café (3049 Alhambra St.; 954/764-3500), where utterly charming Mediterranean ambience meets very good seafood. Finally, for something a little more unusual, you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with a celeb or two at Sublime (1431 N. Federal Hwy.;954/539-9000), one of America's best vegan fine-dining restaurants.
Truly good quality at bargain prices isn't as easy to come by around here as it used to be, but you can't go too wrong with the light Italian fare at the iconic diner-style joint called The Floridian (410 E. Las Olas Blvd.; 954/463-4041); it's roomy, kitschy-cool and open 24/7. Or, go ethnic a little farther north in the Gateway Plaza strip mall: Típico Café (1910 E. Sunrise Blvd.; 954/463-9945) serves fine Mexican while Sukhothai (1930 E. Sunrise Blvd.; 954/764-0148), next door, serves Thai; Fort Lauderdale happens to have an abundance of Thai places, and this one's a star among them.
Wild life in Broward County comes in various flavors, from the kind you find in the Everglades to an increasingly diverse scene that has moved beyond the screamin'-spring-break vibe to a diverse menu, encompassing nightlife from the divey to the debonair. Sure it ain't quite South Beach, but trust us, you will still have more than a blast here. Check out the full range of current offerings at www.southflorida.com/nightlife. Below are some of our top suggestions for a night out.
As good a place to start as any is Riverfront, where, apart from several good restaurants with lively social scenes you'll find nightpots like Art Bar and G.O.A.T. Over at the beachfront's Beach Place, the vibe is, well, beachier, with spots like Lulu's Bait Shack and Howl at the Moon. Right down the street, stop in, pay your respects to history, and, what the hell, get hammered at Elbo Room (241 S. Ft. Lauderdale Beach Blvd.; 954/463-4615); founded in 1938 and put on the map in a major way by Where the Boys Are, this venerable joint was a prime stop on the spring-breaker circuit and still has a pretty convincing echo of that rock 'n' roll vibe still goin' on, with live tunes and a great happy hour.
For the festive but slightly less raucous, head a bit north to Christopher's (2857 E. Oakland Park Blvd.; 954/561-2136), an upscale bar/restaurant/nightclub that after more than a quarter century still manages to keep up with the times, offering mostly 30-something singles and couples a soup-to-nuts night out, from drinks to dinner to dancing–and all without charging a cover! Also up north is another spot we like, Kalahari Bar (4446 NE 20th Ave.; 954/351-9371), whose owners are South African and display the zebra skins and other paraphernalia to prove it. For live indie rock and alternative music, head to the three-level Culture Room (3045 N. Federal Hwy.; 954/564-1074) to drink, dance, or just kick back and soak up the vibe.
The main attraction of Broward nightlife, however – with a little something for everyone – is Hollywood's glitzy, dozen-story Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (1 Seminole Way, off State Road 7; 866/502-PLAY), which debuted in 2005. While not quite Vegas level, it'll look plenty familiar to gamblers, with its snazzy restaurants and acres of slots, tables, and so forth. As for the on-premises partying possibilities, pick your poison: The Gryphon (DJ's and dance), The Improv (comedy), Jazziz Bistro (jazz/blues), Knight Times (pool hall), Legends Theater (live shows/concerts), Murphy's Law (Irish pub), Pangea (house, rock, hip-hop, lounge), Passion (two floor top-40 dance), and Spirits (ditto).
Finally, Fort Lauderdale has turned into one of the sunbelt's premier gay-nightlife meccas. Top draws include Cathode Ray (1307 E. Las Olas Blvd.; 954/462-8611), which attracts a relatively youngish, clean-cut, and attractive crowd with nightly half-price happy hours, live piano music, dancing, and a sports-bar area. A town north of Sunrise Boulevard called Wilton Manors is Broward's gay ground zero, and the strip mall at 2266 Wilton Drive harbors two favorites, Georgie's Alibi (954/565-2526) and Boom (954/630-3556). The best-known dance clubs are the venerable Copa (2800 S. Federal Hwy; 954/463-1507) and the more South-Beach-style Coliseum (2520 S. Miami Rd.; 954/832-0100).
There are several key attractions west of Interstate 95, first and foremost of which is the Broward chunk of the mighty Everglades (see Day Trips, below). Before we get there, we know many more people are interested in one of the country's biggest shopping centers, Sawgrass Mills Mall (12801 W. Sunrise Blvd., between Flamingo Rd. and NW 136th Ave., Sunrise; 800/356-4557; Mon–Sat 10am–9.30pm, Sun 11am–8pm), an almost two-mile stretch of 300-plus stores, with everything from designer boutiques to Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman-Marcus outlets offering 75 percent or more off retail. Add dozens of eating and watering holes, plus a 23-screen multiplex and a great GameWorks arcade for entertainment, and you'll understand why this Texas-size monument to capitalism is not just the biggest outlet mall in the country, but also one of the top tourist magnets in the state. One of the latest additions is a fabulous complex called Wannado City (888/926-6236; confirm hours by phone; $29.95 or $14.95 after 4pm), designed to let kids role play as fire fighters, Broadway stars, chefs, airline pilots, and more, in impressively realistic, high-production-value settings. By the way, wheels aren't essential for Sawgrass Mills; a $15 shuttle will get you out here from most hotels six days a week; ask your concierge.
Farther east on Sunrise is the Swap Shop (3291 W. Sunrise Blvd.; Mon–Wed & Fri 7am–6pm, Thur & Sat–Sun 5am–6.30pm; www.floridaswapshop.com), a huge, noisy complex of flea, farmers, and antiques markets with bells and whistles galore on 88 acres, including an amusement park, games arcade and first-run movies.
When To Go
With its subtropical climate, Broward County can get uncomfortably hot in July and August – though don't sweat it too much, air conditioning is pretty much universal. But it's delightful to glorious in late fall through spring. For that reason, November through May is generally considered high season, and the hot months low season (though even the dog days of August aren't always a slam–dunk some areas, thanks to families on summer vacation and Europeans who get most of the month off from work). Best bang for the buck in our book is September and October, after the kids go back to school but before the winter kicks into high gear. The main catch there is a little thing called hurricane season, which runs June through November, but late-season hurricanes like Katrina and Wilma in 2005 have a way of popping up and throwing vacation plans awry. Fortunately, the central tourist-popular areas tend to bounce back quickly, with minimal loss of electricity – so unless, say, your flights are screwed up by an actual storm hitting on the day you're due to fly, you have a pretty decent chance of riding things out with minimal inconvenience.
November through May
June through August
Best bang for your buck
September and October (barring hurricanes).
In addition to hosting all major airlines, the well-managed Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport (FLL) has made something of a specialty in attracting low-fare carriers such as JetBlue, ATA, Southwest, and Spirit in recent years, with the result that over 20 million passengers come through its gates annually. Flight times to South Florida run from two–three hours from the Northeast, three–four from the Midwest, and five–six from the West Coast. See our current air deals to Fort Lauderdale or use QuickSearch to find the best deals on your preferred travel dates.
Amtrak , Greyhound, and driving yourself along Interstate 95 and the toll Florida Turnpike are, of course, all very viable alternate ways down to Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, but their location near the bottom of the big, long peninsula that is Florida means long travel times by ground (it takes six to seven hours just to make it down from the Georgia border). The Tri-Rail commuter train (800/874-7245; $2-$5.50 each way) will get you as far north as Palm Beach as well as down to Miami International Airport.
GETTING INTO/AROUND FORT LAUDERDALE
Downtown Lauderdale (and Hollywood, for that matter) are both about a 15-minute drive from the airport; Tri-Rail will get you to just west of the Las Olas corridor. Other transfer choices include BCT buses (954/357-8400), taxi ($18 to the Lauderdale beachfront hotels), and Airport Express shuttle (800/244-8252; 954/359-1200; $9 each way to beachfront/Las Olas). If you're planning to drive yourself, all the rental-car majors have on-airport facilities (a full list is available on the FLL web site).
In terms of getting around once you're settled in, the main A1A beachfront strip and the western part of the Las Olas corridor are reasonably pedestrian friendly; otherwise you'll need to catch a ride. Good taxi service is available throughout the county, and considerable chunks of the areas you'll want to visit can also be done via Water Bus (954/467-6677), its reach extending several miles in from the ocean. If you go the rental-car route, just remember that navigating outside the areas covered above can be frustrating and time consuming, as that picturesque web of waterways that crisscrosses the county makes for countless unexpected dead ends and roads that don't lead where you expect. Also, as elsewhere in South Florida, traffic can be maddening just about any time of day other than late at night. Fort Lauderdale, with its many waterways, adds another unforeseen delay to your travels: drawbridges. Always build in plenty of extra time to get where you're going, and above all drive defensively!