By: Gloria Shanahan
Photos: Edgar Cadena
The city seems to just float over the ocean. Its countless canals, which are crisscrossed by picturesque bridges, wind through the city, serving as an incomparable means of transportation. No, it’s not Venice or Amsterdam; it’s Fort Lauderdale, the radiant city of Florida. Fort Lauderdale has a fundamental advantage over its European counterparts: its exceptional tropical climate. It’s nestled in sunny south Florida, a favorite anchoring spot for pleasure yachts. The city opens its welcoming umbrellas to the beaches and businesses of Broward County.
Apart from its beaches, shops, and culture, Fort Lauderdale is, above all, a hub of maritime activity for the boating sector, with a major boat manufacturing, maintenance, and sales industry presence. It also features the third busiest cruise port in the U.S. and is home to artists, innovators, and adventurous spirits who know that the canals are the best way to find an ultramodern mansion across the way from a house and car straight from the early 20th century.
The new Copa Airlines flight to the Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale area is the perfect excuse to visit this city, also known as the “Venice of America.”
Despite its recent exponential growth, the area maintains a relaxed atmosphere. Here diverse populations eager for progress live alongside small traditional communities that maintain their leisurely pace and look curiously upon the insolent growth of the neighboring areas. For visitors this is a perfect amalgam. Towns like Deerfield Beach are obsessed with protecting turtle nests and businesses there adapt to reduced lighting and other preservation measures while Hollywood offers sun worshipers an unrivaled boardwalk that bridges aromatic restaurants and the ocean waves.
Those who love nightlife can find the most recent Broadway productions at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, and in the Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino there are bars, shopping, and the thrill of gambling.
The following introduction offers the uninitiated a basic tour of the area.
Hollywood: Boardwalk, Bicycles, and Art
Hollywood is known for it wide cobblestoned boardwalk and a beach to which there’s no need to bring chairs or umbrellas because both can be rented from the city for a daily fee. With enough space for everyone and comfortable paths for both pedestrians and athletes, the boardwalk is used by people on bicycles, tandem bikes, tricycles with interesting designs, and determined walkers and joggers who take advantage of an atmosphere that’s hard to beat.
The traditional heart of the city, however, is on the other side of the Intracoastal Waterway; a trolley (one dollar per ride) serves the downtown area, the business and restaurant district, and the ArtsPark at Young Circle. The ArtsPark offers hundreds of restaurants, bars, and other establishments, including Hollywood Hot Glass, a glass blowing studio with a factory that offers public demonstrations of glass blowing techniques. Brenna Baker, the glass artist in the factory, studied in New York and then became one of the Italian masters of Murano, bringing with her both passion and skill.
Hallandale and Davie: Horses!
In Hallandale, shoppers and horse lovers come together. Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino is a shopping center, casino, and splendid racetrack all in one. For shopping, The Village at Gulfstream Park offers a collection of trendy boutiques, accessory shops, signature restaurants, outdoor cafes, and nightclubs. Next to it, the Gulfstream Park Casino, with slot machines, poker, and all the casino activity you can handle, is spread over two floors. Gulfstream is pure heaven for gambling fans and the horse track is right in the middle of it all. Since 1939, Gulfstream Park has been a premier horseracing location in the United States. Some major thoroughbreds pass through this racetrack with their eyes set on Triple Crown glory.
The nearby town of Davie has a reputation as a Western town. It is home to significant number of horse-owners and until recently there were also large cattle ranches. Cowboys from the 21st century ride horses on the back streets and many homes have stables. The Davie Chili Cook Off is held here each year, accompanied by equestrian demonstrations. In addition to folk music, boots, jeans, and plaid shirts, the main attraction in Davie is the chili contest, showcasing the many different ways to make this bean stew.
Sawgrass: Nature and Shopping
If you’re looking for a subtropical adventure in South Florida, make sure to spend a day or afternoon visiting part of the Everglades, a natural region of tropical wetlands that covers nearly all of southern Florida. This unique water system begins near Orlando with the Kissimmee River that empties into Okeechobee Lake. The water flowing away from the lake forms a slow-moving river sixty miles wide and more than ninety-nine miles long, flowing southward to the sea.
Sawgrass Recreation Park is one of the companies offering tours of this ecosystem. Just thirty minutes from Fort Lauderdale, the park has a mini-zoo and airboat rides. Their tours provide interesting panoramic views from boats and explanations of the ecosystem. This activity, which is the antithesis of shopping, allows you to learn about Florida’s native species, including black panthers, birds, and crocodiles. The trip through the river of grass is one of the best experiences in the state.
But if it’s shopping you’re after, Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise, west of Fort Lauderdale, is the country’s largest outlet shopping center…and the sales abound. With more than two million square feet of retail space, Sawgrass Mills prides itself on being the second largest mall in Florida and the seventh largest in the United States. It opened its doors in 1990 and since then, it has expanded four times. Be ready to walk because there are more than 300 prestigious name brand discounters.
Pompano Beach: Light House and Ice Cream
Pompano Beach, north of Fort Lauderdale, is undergoing a complete redevelopment process to revitalize its beachfront and historic downtown area. It’s a picturesque town that retains remnants of the architecture and quiet of the 1950s. Its lighthouse, in the Hillsboro Inlet, is still in operation, and harmonizes with the surrounding environment. In this area of heavily trafficked waters, this lighthouse is one of the brightest. Its beam is visible some thirty miles away and it even has its own stamp, issued in 2003.
When you visit this area, make sure to stop at Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlor. Decorated like an old-fashioned amusement park, it has been a favorite of locals (and the many who have traveled here to taste this famous ice cream) for more than fifty years. There’s an ice cream for groups, served in a kitchen sink in reference to the saying, “They threw in everything but the kitchen sink.”
Pompano Beach has several annual events including the Seafood Festival, the St. Patrick’s Day Festival, the St. Coleman Italian Festival, the Boat Parade, the Christmas Parade, and the Nautical Flea Market.
Deerfield Beach: Surf, Turtles, and a 24-Hour Cafe
This is the perfect place to experience the beaches of southern Florida without the crowds. The beach’s conservation policies, safety services, public information, and habitat conservation have earned it several awards. You can also find smart shops and restaurants here.Deerfield Beach, named for the numerous deer that at one time lived in the area, is home to the Deerfield Beach Arboretum, also known as the Tree Zoo. This botanical garden has more than 200 species of trees and palms from all over the world, including around fifty species of flowering trees.
The ocean is calmer here thanks to the surrounding Boca and Hillsboro Inlets. The dock has recently been rebuilt and it now offers fishing classes, equipment rental, and bait for sale. It also has the only 24-hour cafe in the area. This is a useful bit of information in small towns because once the restaurants close, the only other options are the bars.
The area has transformed and upgraded its services while still maintaining the welcoming spirit of a small town; it even offers free wheelchair service to the beach, with operator included, for those who call the city in advance to make a reservation. The city’s celebrations are very patriotic. The most important festivals include a weekend in February honoring the founders and the 4th of July, when the country’s independence is celebrated with a fireworks show attracting people from miles around.
Fort Lauderdale: Kaleidoscope of Cultures
Fort Lauderdale is a flirt. For many years now it has worked to become an elegant tropical city, transforming itself into an attractive destination. To visit this coastal city furrowed by canals is to experience an evocative crossroads. You can find traces of the quiet, sleepy, town of years past, while here and there, noisy infiltrating bars emerge. The face of this growing city is its beachfront so, like all self-respecting coquettes, the city has invested millions to make itself more beautiful.
Although there is something here for everyone, visitors sometimes stay away from the beach in favor of exploring the city’s attractive system of canals, international panorama of yachts, or luxurious first class hotels and restaurants. And right there in Port Everglades you will find a busy cruise ship port, with mega-ships leaving daily for the Caribbean, México, and other destinations.
The Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the local performing arts center, is the anchor and starting point for the Riverwalk arts and entertainment area in the heart of the city, which connects to the beach via Las Olas Boulevard, a street best known for its restaurants and businesses. The most sought after Broadway shows come to this established center. Recently the popular musical Book of Mormon had sold out shows every day of its performances. Around the Broward, other works of art, restaurants, galleries, and bars complete the entertainment experience.
Water taxis provide what is perhaps one of the most interesting and fun ways to explore the city. You can purchase one-way tickets to travel from the beach to restaurants or the historic downtown area, but its best to buy a day or night pass and enjoy a sampler of entertainment and “bar hopping” that includes sun, sports, shopping, and art, without the worry of traffic or parking lots. During trips, guides happily tell stories about the old neighborhoods, ultramodern glass buildings, mansions, and yachts that pass by.
A little-known stop for visitors, which you’ll be happy to have found, is the Museum of Discovery and Science. Whether you go with the excuse of entertaining your children or because it’s perfect for a rainy day, this place is exceptional and interactive; you can spend an entire day here without realizing how the time flew by as you were playing and learning. At the entrance stands one of the world’s three gravity clocks stands (the others are in México and Japan) and there also is a flight simulator, some otters, and giant bubbles. The current exhibit is titled “Goose Bumps”; it is an entertaining scientific explanation of fears and phobias.
End the day with a film at the 3D-IMAX theater. At five stories high, it’s the largest movie screen in South Florida. And if you still have energy, across the street you’ll find the Museum of Art, the permanent home of works by the modern painter William Glackens and paintings by the Cobra group of European artists, as well as traveling exhibits by Latin American artists. The historic district known as Old Fort Lauderdale is a pretty area with homes built at the beginning of the 1900s.
Butterflies in Coconut Creek
Butterfly World is one of the largest living butterfly parks in the world. There is a botanical garden here featuring the plants that serve as the butterflies’ food. Located in Coconut Creek, Butterfly World also has an aviary and insect museum. Mounted specimens of beetles are displayed, as well as scorpions, butterflies, moths, and other insects, including spiders, wasps, walking sticks, and mantids. Next door, visitors can see the laboratory where the butterflies breed and observe their stages of life: egg, caterpillar, and pupae.
The Paradise Adventure Aviary rainforest is in the same complex. Here you can see a waterfall, tropical plants, free flying birds, and many butterfly species. Nearby you can find one of the world’s largest Passion Vine collections (the creeping vine that produces the passion flower). The Passiflora Society International, which supports research and information on the passion flower, the food source for many butterflies, is located here.