Festive Ft. Lauderdale

by Terry Conway

It has its very own version of the pub crawl, fittingly tabbed the “Cruise for Brews.”FTL001

With 300 miles of navigable sparkling waterways that snake through the town, Fort Lauderdale is celebrated as the “Venice of America.” The stunning destination has more registered mega yachts (42,000) than any place on earth.  It also boasts more than 100 marinas and boatyards as well as 165 miles of those scenic canals.

On a sundrenched afternoon my pal Jimmy piloted his runabout on a memorable tour gliding past spectacular mansions, showy yachts and ancient mangroves. We ended up at the Fort Lauderdale Yacht Club joining in its celebrated “Happy (Half) Hour” with Rumrunners on the house. Most visitors hop aboard a water taxi where chatty captains point out the nostalgic homes and canal-side estates.

Water taxis and buses are also utilized for everyday errands and commuting. However, the best aspect of boating here is where you can get from here– north and south along the Intracoastal Waterway. Miami is a 21-mile run, while the Keys are roughly 50 miles away and it’s a 50 mile international hop to Bimini in good weather.

Fort Lauderdale puts up 3,000 hours of sunshine year round. The locals carry a mellow, unhurried vibe. Each morning runners, bikers, and rollerbladers take to an A1A pathway under swaying palm trees and  views of the peaceful, turquoise water.

Fort Lauderdale has worked hard to wipe away its Spring Break destination reputation. The site where   the infamous wet T-shirt contest originated has been gentrified into the high-end St. Regis Hotel. Stroll along Las Olas Boulevard, a 10-block long strip, lined with nearly a dozen art galleries, designer boutiques and superb mix of restaurants and nightclubs.

FTL007Stop by the New River Gallery, one of the region’s oldest and most prestigious galleries. It’s the premier source for masterworks, including Picasso, Chagall and Dali. April marks the 26th year for the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival. It also operates a year round art-house theater called Cinema Paradiso.

If you want to dig into Fort Lauderdale’s heritage, visit the History Center along the banks of the New River. This complex features five restored historic buildings including an 1899 replica of a one-room schoolhouse. The Museum of History is housed in the New River Inn and documents the town’s early days, real estate boom and bust, the devastating 1926 hurricane, WW II with excellent photos and memorabilia.

The Greater Fort Lauderdale area stretches across 1,200 square miles, including over a half-million acres of Everglades on its western edge and includes Deerfield Beach and Pompano to the north as well as Hollywood and Hallandale Beach. We headed down to the latter for a few days, ten minutes south of Fort Lauderdale.

Here you’ll discover one of the last bastions of laid back beach living.  Hollywood Beach is just a block wide. A once gritty district now draws a fashionable, artsy crowd with quaint sidewalk cafés and six blocks of unique boutiques, art galleries and dozens of restaurants. On the National Register of Historic Places, Hollywood Beach is the backdrop for festivals that are on a near-constant rotation.

Its glamorous 2.5 mile long terracotta-colored pathway (first begun in 1925) was always intended to be a “broad walk,” wide and sweeping for promenading. Airy jazz tunes and Latin-reggae rhythms spill out of a lengthy stretch of open-air cafes and bars. Residents rave about the Sunday organic farmers’ markets. Vendors will explain the names of different varieties of tropical produce. Smoothies are made from exotic fruits like locally grown mamey sapote, which tastes like maraschino cherries.

Rent bikes at Sun & Fun Cycles and ramble from the north end of the Broadwalk to John U. Lloyd Beach State Park for a glimpse of nature in Old Florida. Surf fishing, canoeing, swimming, nature study will keep you busy.FTL005

Stop by the Loggerhead Café for a leisurely lunch or to grab a quick snack. If you want to explore underwater beauty, Lloyd Beach has one of the easiest and most interesting shore dives in the area. The Hollywood trolley– it’s just a buck–  drops you off at attractions like ArtsPark at Youngs Circle & the Art & Culture Center of Hollywood.

French trained Chef Patrick Farnault and his wife/designer Robin Seger call Sugar Reef a tropical grill where a few tables are just steps from the sand and the sweet sea breezes. We preferred inside where a massive marlin is mounted over the bar. It’s an intriguing ambiance of vibrant glass mosaics teamed with walls painted turquoise and orange.

The menu has a few tropical elements — a wonderful fish stew with coconut curry and Jamaican-style pork loin– but veers more toward crowd-pleasing continental with a few French detours: escargot, bouillabaisse with coconut milk and green curry blackened scallops served with cucumbers with mango salsa. Save room for the banana bread dessert. It’s made in a cup, and served with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and strawberry sauce.

On our recent stay we bunked at the Hollywood Beach Crown Plaza Hotel. Its dazzling infinity edge pool overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s tough to pull yourself away. Try a Lava Punch or ice cold beer with a casual lunch at the Lava Tiki Bar.

We spent one afternoon watching and wagering at Gulfstream Park in Hallendale. Each year from December through April, some of the nation’s top thoroughbreds pass through Gulfstream with their eye on Triple Crown glory. Historically, the $750,000 Florida Derby is one of the final stepping stones to the world’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby. Next door is the Village at Gulfstream Park, a luxury shopping and dining experience in Hallandale Beach.

FTL006Brio Tuscan Grille is casual with a villa-like interior: white tablecloths, antique hardwood Cypress flooring, arched colonnades, hand-crafted Italian mosaics and Arabescato marble-imported from Italy. Modern and airy, it has a very convivial bar. Start the evening with beef carpaccio and ravioli caprese then thoroughly enjoy the beef medallions with shrimp scampi and sweet potato and chicken risotto with pancetta.

Our last evening was back in Fort Lauderdale at G&B Oyster House, helmed by the folks that own Coconuts perched next door. We nabbed a couple of seats around the nearly filled  bar that dominates G&B, a minimalist space with whitewashed wood paneling, concrete floors, metal chairs and blue glass tiles. No matter where you’re sitting, it’s a front-row seat to the shucking station.

Fresh oysters arrive daily from as far away as Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay for the raw bar. Gulf oysters are only served fried for safety’s sake. The celebrated oysters are Malpeques, both briny and bold and the dainty Kusshis steeped in liquory. The ceviche of the day was extremely thin slices of seared, sesame-crusted tuna.  We settled on the spot-on tasty tribute to San Francisco: a bowl of cioppino, the humble fisherman’s stew of mussels, clams, crab, and whitefish in a white wine and tomato sauce. Crab empanadas were another winner.

So whether you’re a boater, a horse-player, a history buff, a serious foodie, or a sun worshipper, you’ll find Fort Lauderdale and its neighboring beach towns constantly vibrate with a life force all their own.

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