Why Fort Lauderdale?
At the centre of a south Florida coastal strip stretching from West Palm Beach to Miami, Fort Lauderdale is still, in many people’s minds, the quintessential Florida holiday destination, famous for its excellent beaches, which became synonymous with the image of thousands of partying college students on “spring break”. While its beaches are still fantastic – with clear water, soft sand and a well-planned walkway – the destination has evolved into a sophisticated one, with some of the world’s best hotel brands, small boutique hotels, high-end shopping and dining, and a safe, laid-back, family atmosphere.
Officially a “city” with a population of 180,000, Fort Lauderdale is dotted with palm trees and blessed with a series of mostly man-made scenic canals anointed with some of the world’s most expensive real estate, which can be navigated by yacht, water taxi or kayak. Yet, it also has an urban side, with a revitalised downtown area complete with a trendy new arts district, and several museums. With its large cruise terminal, Port Everglades, the city is a major gateway to the Caribbean and is within a 40-minute drive of both Miami and the Everglades.
A comfortable bed
In line with one of the best stretches of beach is the 192-room Ritz-Carlton, which is built in the shape of an ocean liner, and sports a large outside pool deck, spa and a refurbished ground floor seafood restaurant. Some rooms on higher floors have views of both the sea and Intracoastal Waterway. Double rooms cost from US$412 (Dh1,500) per night, including taxes.
Just behind the Ritz-Carlton, on a much smaller scale but just as slick, is The Pillars Hotel, a two-storey traditional-style hotel next to the canal, with rooms built around a peaceful courtyard with a garden and swimming pool overlooking the water. Rooms cost from $389 (Dh1,430) per night, including taxes.
If you prefer to stay away from the beach in the Las Olas district, the Riverside Hotel has one attractive building dating from 1936 and a massive new extension. The older part of the hotel runs along Las Olas Boulevard, meaning that the surrounding restaurants, art galleries, river walkways and downtown area are accessible on foot. Double rooms from $165 (Dh610) per night, including taxes.
Find your feet
Walking or renting a bike, head north along the seafront from Fort Lauderdale Beach Park to Hugh Taylor Birch State Park (floridastateparks.org). Along the way, you’ll see a huge variety of architecture, from towering hotels to modest motel-style beach hotels and residential villas. Stop to admire the beach along the way and, at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park (free entry), get lost in its series of woodland pathways and mangrove-fringed swamp to see how things were before all the development. On your way back, jump on a yellow water taxi on the Intracoastal Waterway and spend a couple of leisurely hours viewing fabulous yachts and mansions in the “Venice of America”, as your driver provides an offbeat commentary. An all-day ticket costs $25 (Dh90) for adults, but boats can also be hired exclusively.
Meet the locals
Head out on a weekend morning on Las Olas Boulevard, and you’ll find the streets filled with art markets, live music and relaxed brunches on pavement terraces and Riverwalk parks. The first Sunday of each month sees the Sunday Jazz Brunch, a free outdoor live-concert series that takes place from 11am to 2pm. Bring your own picnic or buy from on-site food vendors.
On the third Friday of each month is Friday Night Tunes, another free concert series, from 7pm to 10pm at Joseph C Carter Park on Sunrise Boulevard. And on Saturday, May 27, on Memorial Day Weekend, is the Great American Beach Party, a day-long celebration with music, entertainment, art, vintage cars and free family activities. For details of more events, visit fortlauderdale.gov. The FATVillage Arts District has monthly art walks.
Book a table
For a city its size, Fort Lauderdale (now sometimes referred to as “Fork Lauderdale”) has a good range of quality restaurants at mostly competitive prices. Valentino, at 620 S Federal Highway, is a slick neighbourhood Italian restaurant owned by chef Giovanni Rocchio. With quality ingredients carefully cooked and innovatively presented, there’s not much to dislike. There’s burrata ($19; Dh70), butternut tortelli ($22; Dh80), ceviche specials (from about $30; Dh110) and excellent steaks (from about $35; Dh130). Also with a focus on quality ingredients is Market 17, which claims to be “Fort Lauderdale’s premier farm-to-table restaurant”. Its menu is inspired and thoughtful, and the venue next to the Convention Centre looks out onto a mini-forest.
For something cheaper and more old-school, and with a very extensive menu, Timpano, at 450 E Las Olas Boulevard, has skillet-roasted mussels for $15.50 (Dh55), plus salads, sandwiches, flatbreads, meat, fish and fresh pasta.
For fresh seafood right over the water, several dockside restaurants are reachable by water taxi or private boat. A reliable example is 15th Street Fisheries next to Lauderdale Marina; a large mixed seafood stew is $39 (Dh145).
At the Ritz-Carlton, the terrace of the ground-floor Burlock Coast offers a good view of the sea and beachfront. It does a weekend brunch and good seafood – six oysters from $18 (Dh65), marlin ceviche tacos ($12; Dh44) and Florida clams in herb butter ($18; Dh65) are all worthwhile. If you prefer to be right over the beach, venture south to Hyde Beach Kitchen at Hallandale Beach. The Fish Shack menu here is much cheaper than the main dinner menu.
For Arabic food, Al Natour, in the Sunrise district, is family-owned and serves all the usual classics; a mixed grill costs $16 (Dh58).
Las Olas Boulevard is the city’s luxury-shopping street, with about 75 small shops and boutiques, a dozen art galleries and more than 30 restaurants. Designer clothing, real estate, art, antiques and jewellery are all there. More comprehensive is the two-storey Galleria mall at 2414 East Sunrise Boulevard.
Serious shoppers, though, will want to head about half an hour west for a full day at Sawgrass Mills, the largest outlet and value retail shopping destination in the United States, with more than 350 stores including Nike, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Saks Fifth Avenue.
There’s also pleasant luxury-brand outlet shopping at The Colonnade Outlets, with more than 40 shops including Burberry, Diane von Furstenberg, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Prada, Tory Burch and Versace. A nice place for lunch is the Grand Lux Cafe, with great American comfort food and decadent desserts, in a grown-up setting.
What to avoid
Many hotels charge about $40 (Dh145) a day to valet-park your car, and there’s little free parking in the popular areas. Consider using Uber or public transport as an alternative, or travelling as a group. In the Everglades, airboat rides can be noisy and touristy, so if you have more time, consider a canoe or kayak tour.
A trip to the Everglades. The contrast between the manicured, tamed landscape of the eastern side of Broward County and the wild west is profound and thrillingly accessible. Not a swamp, but North America’s longest, widest and shallowest rainwater river, also described as a wet prairie, has operators such as Billie Swamp Safari and the Everglades Holiday Park. These allow for an easy and affordable taste of this unique environment (a 30-minute airboat tour costs from $3; Dh11).
Emirates flies daily from Dubai to Fort Lauderdale from Dh4,500 return in economy and Dh18,550 return in business class, including taxes.