F lorida has a fearsome reputation for hurricanes, alligators and hanging chads, but in this vast sea of crazy, there is an island of tranquility. Its name is Fort Lauderdale.
Long established as a place to go for fun in the sun, with a long sandy beach, the wild beauty of the Everglades, and easy access to the cosmopolitan excess of Miami, Fort Lauderdale has something to appeal to every kind of traveller, and what it lacks in novelty it makes up for in comfortable, well-established and smoothly managed tourist experiences. This is an outstanding destination for mass market luxury.
With year-round sunshine, sand and surf, Fort Lauderdale was destined to become a resort town. From the ’40s to the ’80s it drew in everyone from Elvis Presley in Girl Happy, to the titular nerds in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise; the ultimate party destination for drunk, horny college kids going wild on Spring Break.
Since then it has concentrated on attracting more upscale visitors, so today there are hundreds of great bars, restaurants and boutiques, over 40 golf courses, and 100 marinas and boatyards, harbouring more than 40,000 boats.
A beacon of progressive thought in a state that leans conservative, Fort Lauderdale began marketing itself to the gay community so long ago that it initially did so using the euphemism “rainbow people”. Building on that campaign’s success, the city now has among the highest proportion of gay residents in the US, and many clubs and cultural venues cater to their interests.
I stayed at the Pelican Grand Beach Resort. Relaxed and roomy, it sells itself as Fort Lauderdale’s premier waterfront hotel, and on arrival a squadron of pelicans flew low past my window. Peering out from the balcony I didn’t see anyone releasing them from a cage, but if I had it wouldn’t have been a surprise, such is the dedication and attention to detail of the staff.
Proudly displaying its Southern heritage, the hotel has a huge veranda with rocking chairs that look out over a private stretch of beach. This is shared with protected sea turtles that crawl up at night to bury clutches of eggs above the high tide mark. There’s also a pool surrounded by sun-loungers, and a lazy river where you can float around in an inner-tube enjoying a long, cool drink.
The hotel’s retro-futuristically named restaurant, OCEAN2000, has a great line in breakfasts and a varied dinner menu, but the real action is in the desserts, and the Froot Loops creme brûlée (inspired by the chef’s toddler) is all kinds of weird and delicious. So family friendly that it has its own ice cream shop, the Pelican Grand will satisfy visitors of all kinds.
Whether you opt for a private tour of the canals that have led some to dub the city “The Venice of America” or a trip along the coast, you’re surrounded by water, so it would be criminal not to muck around in boats. Gondolas West at the Bahia Mar Yachting Centre offers the perfect way to explore the Intracoastal Waterways in a near-silent electric boat, looking at luxury yachts, celebrity-owned mansions that sell for tens of millions of dollars, and the utterly indifferent iguanas that bask on the rocks in front of them.
If you have more time, you can charter The Spirit of Lauderdale, a 50ft twin-hulled party boat, with a fun-loving crew, a well-stocked bar, and a waterslide off the back. Sail out into the Atlantic, drop anchor off the beach and, with admirable lack of regard for health and safety, get drunk and fool around on their floating trampoline.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, head to the Whiskey Creek Hideout in John U Lloyd Beach State Park. Whiskey Creek itself is a tidal inlet that serves as a manatee sanctuary, and the Hideout offers guided eco-tours, kayaking through the mangroves. Although intellectually you know the water is probably too brackish for alligators, there is still a frisson of danger whenever you catch something moving in the corner of your eye.
But if you definitely want to see gators, head to Sawgrass Recreation Park, and ride around the Everglades on a freaking airboat. For my money, hurtling through a swamp, clinging to a vehicle which is essentially a child’s drawing of a skip affixed to a giant desk fan is one of the best things you can do in Florida, and probably the world.
Live out all your Gentle Ben fantasies – except the ones where your best friend is a bear – as you skim over the sawgrass, searching for alligators. Afterwards, check out the live animal exhibits. Stroke a skunk and feel both awed and guilty as you gaze at the beautiful Mia, an endangered Florida panther whose habitat has been devastated by rubbish humans.
Or explore the reptile collection featuring snakes, tortoises, lizards and alligators from foot-long babies, who seem resigned to their fate as props for tourist photos, to a 1,000 pound behemoth called Cannibal.
It seems wrong after cradling a scaly infant, but if you don’t see a man-eating gator from the airboat, there’s a good chance you’ll see a man eating gator at the on-site food truck, which offers a variety of alligator meat dishes, including Cajun gator bites with a spicy mayo dipping sauce.
Fort Lauderdale offers a great beach holiday with added spectacular wildlife. It sounds simple, but the best things often are.
Eating in fort Lauderdale
Just 10 minutes’ walk from the hotel is Pan’e Dolci, a local Italian bakery that does espresso, pastries and decadent gelato, or for something more substantial there’s Shooters Waterfront, a bar and restaurant with 340ft of docking space along the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s a great place to drink a watermelon mint cooler, eat fried chicken, and watch the world float by.
If you find yourself downtown, among the bars and boutiques of Las Olas Boulevard, Louie Bossi is a wildly popular casual dining pizzeria and steakhouse, with a large courtyard perfect for al fresco suppers. Its meatballs are a symphony in san marzano sauce.
But the greatest epicurean delights can be found on a tribal reservation, just outside the neighbouring town of Hollywood. The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is a glorious monument to kitsch and indulgence. Everything is big, loud, and covered in flashing lights or rock memorabilia. There is a massive, lagoon-like swimming pool, 16 shops, a spa, a comedy club, a Hard Rock Live concert venue, and about a dozen bars and nightclubs. But among the casino’s 15 eateries is Kuro, a fantastically creative modern Japanese restaurant that punches through into new culinary dimensions.
Under the direction of executive chef Alex Becker, who honed his skills at Nobu, Kuro’s menu covers all the classics of Japanese cooking, with a contemporary twist. The wagyu short ribs and “tacos” suggest a Tex-Mex influence, but its inspirations are many and varied.
Platters of sushi and sashimi are ideal for sharing, and its yuzu infused scallop is simply wizardry. The desserts stray into the realms of molecular gastronomy, but its cocktails are most impressive. Thematically linked by the five basic flavours, the “umami” options are the most avant-garde, and the Hachi mixes mushroom bourbon, mirin, black pepper syrup, and lemon juice to produce an improbable blend of musty citrus perfection.