Once notorious for its wild spring break, Fort Lauderdale seems all culture and pristine beaches these days. On a recent trip, we found that the arts scene is soaring: The Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art is a must-see for both its permanent collection and first-rate touring shows. One visit simply wasn’t enough. The Broward Center for the Performing Arts ranks among the Top 10 arts venues in the world – offering everything from plays to opera, jazz, rock and country music.
Decades ago, the city revamped its main drag – Las Olas Boulevard – and the results were spectacular. Las Olas quickly became the place to see and be seen: chock-a-block with boutiques, restaurants, cafes and the sidewalk seating that the old city fathers had banned. “Take me to Las Olas,” say theatre devotees, music fans, museum goers and night owls. And the best way to get there from the beachside hotels is via water taxi along the New River,
A century back, when the Seminoles paddled the New River to trade with early settlers, they stopped at Stranahan House – well worth a visit – which today marks the beginning of Riverwalk, a lushly landscaped paved walkway that follows the curve of the river past yachts and bridges for several kilometres.
Among sought-after Las Olas eateries today is Johnny V’s, hip and modern to its core. For timelessness, there’s The Floridian, a diner famous for its all-day-and-night breakfasts. “The Flo” opened in 1937, a year after The Riverside Hotel, a few blocks away. Now greatly expanded, The Riverside retains its friendly allure. Strolling through the lobby a few weeks ago, we happened on a number of dogs and their owners. Sunday, we discovered was “Cocktails and Canines” Happy Hour (the pets, all friends, get treats).
Praising Greater Fort Lauderdale’s refreshed cultural scene, however, in no way diminishes its traditional attractions. Few pleasures are more seductive than whiling away an afternoon in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, where no building is more than four storeys high. Families frolic on the beach, like a postcard from childhood; folks reel in marlins with surprising regularity from a fishing pier stretching out into the ocean. In April, a 14-foot hammerhead shark was caught off this very pier.
The pier-cum-restaurant is owned by Spyro Marchelos, whose family purchased it from its original owners, keeping the 1940s name, Angelin’s. Why? “Because we’re real, we like history.” They also like to serve the freshest fish, a full range of Greek starters and salads – all in generous portions. As a music duo entertains in the bar area with a Jimmy Buffet song, Spyros proudly points out the tomatoes he’s growing beside the walkway. “They said it couldn’t be done, but if we can grow them in Greece, then why not here?”
Later that day on a tour called Nautical Wanderings, we visited the 1907 Hillsboro Lighthouse. The strongest in the world, Hillsboro’s light stretches for 52 kilometres, halfway to The Bahamas. The lighthouse and its grounds are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, luring lighthouse fans from all over the globe.
Looking out over inlet stands an arresting statue. This is the Barefoot Mailman, a testament to a unique service (1885-92) that delivered mail by boat and foot to sparse settlements strung along the Florida coastline. The 160-kilometre route was rife with predators: bears, panthers, alligators.
To wit: young Ed Hamilton disappeared on this route in October 1887; his clothes were discovered on the beach at Hillsboro Inlet, his mail bag hanging from a tree. Alligators were the likely culprits, although romantic legends flourished – like a love affair with a Native American girl – after Hamilton’s mysterious disappearance.
There’s far more mystery than you’d imagine along this coast, including 1,500 Spanish wrecks laden with stolen gold and silver. To this day, treasure hunters search for the precious metals, some scoring major finds. Illegal trading seems to have been a local mainstay. During Prohibition (1919-33), the city was dubbed “Fort Liquerdale,” says our Nautical Wanderings guide. “Meyer Lansksy and the boys” oversaw the local rum-running trade.
Our day ends with a short boat ride to Cap’s, an island bar-restaurant dating from the area’s racy past. Cap’s, however, was also popular with a more respectable crowd. Pictures on the warm old walls show presidents FDR, Hoover, even Bill Clinton. Most surprising, perhaps, is Winston Churchill, photographed enjoying dinner at Cap’s during the war-torn 1940s.
On the final day of our trip, some friends went bike-riding, others rode horses on a nearby ranch, but we chose to revisit Bonnet House, a rare example of “Old Florida” dating from the era when rich couples from the north wintered in luxurious beach houses.
Frederick Clay Bartlett, however, was more than a member of the idle rich: he was an artist enamoured of the Arts & Crafts movement, who designed and decorated nearly every inch of his Caribbean-inspired house. Bartlett’s 14-hectare garden now forms the Nature Trail, on grounds that had been home to the Tequesta Indians for thousands of years, until 1700.
Like opening a window into the past, the trail is a splendid, peaceful place, with mangroves, palms and a population that includes swans, flocks of white ibis and three Brazilian squirrel monkeys, as well as a fountain, Bartlett’s Seminole-inspired chickee hut and the open-air pavilion he designed for his wife’s 60th birthday.
If You Go: For everything about where to stay and what to do in Greater Fort Lauderdale, go to www.sunny.org.