By: Nicole Pensiero
I wasn’t sure what to expect during a recent visit to Fort Lauderdale. Reason being: I’d only spent time in its airport, never on its beaches. But as the U.S. started opening up for travel – and being fully vaccinated – the idea of heading to the Sunshine State was very appealing.
With its fun 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; while still popular with the younger crowd, today’s Fort Lauderdale has a decidedly relaxing, yet hip vibe. It has a modern, big-city feel to it, coupled with old-fashioned beachfront charm. 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.”
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 beautiful, contemporary-looking hotel has a welcoming, open vibe. 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 seasonal ingredients and sustainable sourcing. Between the brioche French toast and the lemon-ricotta pancakes, our morning meals alone were enough to motivate us to get the day started!
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 is a lovely 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-watching.
Back at the Hyatt Centric, we relaxed at the hotel’s 8th floor outdoor swimming pool, which also has a casual rooftop eatery and bar. 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 street is a hub of activity for both locals and tourists alike. A five-minute walk from our hotel, we leisurely explored Las Olas and its many attractions.
Later that evening, we wandered along the nearby waterfront, and caught a ride on the free 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 (and beautiful yachts) along the way.
The next morning, we awoke to brilliant sunshine, which could only mean one thing: a beach day was on the agenda. While the closest beach was a couple miles away, getting there proved surprisingly easy. Along with providing us with beach chairs, 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.” We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon hanging out under a palm tree for shade. 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.
For our last day, 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. Along with a free tram ride to familiarize you with the 60-acres of beautiful 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 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.
While it’s not possible to see and do everything in a mere 72 hours, we were certainly happy to hit some of the Fort Lauderdale area’s hot spots. There will still be much more to see next time.
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). Follow her on Twitter @NicoleWrytr
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