Florida travel: Life in Fort Lauderdale is for grown-ups, too
As our sightseeing boat, an ersatz red-and-white sternwheeler named the Carrie B, proceeded past the waterfront mansions that line the New River in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., I thought of how there is far more to Fort Lauderdale than its notorious spring break, when tens of thousands of college students descend en masse and head for the nearest beach or bar.
My wife and I, Florida residents, were showing some northern visitors around our tropical environs. A trip on the Carrie B has become a ritual each time we have guests.
Some of the opulent dwellings we passed along the river and its adjacent canals — Fort Lauderdale bills itself as the Venice of America — were famous, even infamous, among the latter the winter home of 1930s mobster Bugsy Siegel (where he sometimes entertained Al Capone).
Others included the gigantic White House look-alike owned by the inventor of the General Motors air conditioning apparatus, and a 27-room house patterned after the Doges Palace in the real Venice — and for sale for $32 million. Also on the tour, we saw a house that had been a stand-in for the North Carolina home that figured prominently in the 1991 thriller Cape Fear. (The film crew swapped out palms for pine trees and painted the house a different color, then put everything back.) And we saw the house where much of the action in the 1960 movie classic Where the Boys Are took place. The melodrama about teenage hijinks and heartache starring George Hamilton, Yvette Mimieux and legendary singer Connie Francis is credited with sparking the spring break tradition.
Reaching the Intracoastal Waterway, we gaped at the 156-foot-long retro yacht formerly owned by Johnny Depp and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. It rents in high season for $130,000 a week. The Carrie B’s skipper also pointed out the seagoing, almost twice-as-large behemoth owned by Steven Spielberg and another owned by restauranteur John Rosatti. Among his other holdings, Rosatti is the founder of a popular Florida burger chain, proving that if you own the burgers and aren’t flipping them, you’ll do OK.
Back near the Carrie B’s dock, the New River is lined with soaring new apartment buildings. But the Riverwalk, a broad brick promenade that stretches for 22 blocks, keeps attention focused on the river, not the towers. The walkway, which also provides boat moorings, links boutiques and restaurants to the restored 1901 Stranahan House, the city’s oldest residence (it was first a trading post) and farther, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
The three separate venues at the performing arts center offer 5,455 seats in all and sit on lushly landscaped terraces above the Riverwalk. Restaurants and outside seating areas open to sparkling river vistas and passing watercraft, including paddleboards and kayaks. Sculptures punctuate the verdant grounds; they include memorials to a local war hero and another to Navy sailors.
Upcoming events at the center range from touring Broadway shows like Dear Evan Hansen, A Bronx Tale and Footloose to solo artists like Macy Gray, Boz Scaggs and Rosanne Cash. Classical music (Symphony of the Americas and the Miami International Piano Festival) and dance (Miami City Ballet) are also on the schedule, as is the comedic, all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Performances sell out quickly, testimony to a fondness for the arts.
A few hundred yards away, the family-friendly Museum of Discovery and Science features a 300-seat, 3D IMAX theatre with laser projection on a six-story screen and a 114-speaker sound system (which can produce 52,000 watts of digital sound). Captain Marvel and documentaries on the Great Barrier Reef and British Columbia’s rare white spirit bears are being shown this spring. Permanent exhibits include a hurricane simulator and another that offers a ‘ride’ in an Everglades airboat. There’s also a two-story indoor-outdoor otter habitat complete with rushing waters and waterfalls. Camp-ins for kids are popular; there are also evening events for adults when wine, cocktails and bites are served.
The NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale is another jewel in Fort Lauderdale’s glittering tiara with more than 7,000 works in its permanent collection. It offers a massive number of paintings and drawings by the early 20th Century realist William Glackens, a founder of the Ashcan movement. His contemporaries, who included Edith Dimock (his wife), George Bellows and Maurice Prendergast are also well-represented.
What to see and do
Listed in order mentioned in story
A current exhibition matches Glackens’ work with that of French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Cuba and Latin America are a particular focus of the museum, with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and other important Latin artists featured prominently. Admission is free on First Thursday Starry Nights, which offer access to the permanent collection and travelling exhibits, workshops and two-for-one craft beers and glasses of wine at the museum’s café. Elsewhere, the F.A.T. Village neighborhood is a proving ground for new artists and artisans, whose studios occupy industrial buildings adorned with colorful murals. They’re open to the public on an art walk the last Saturday of every month.
In Himmarshee Historic Village, between the art museum and the Museum of Discovery, two huge Irish bars stare at each other across an intersection. But the side streets, shaded with the dense canopies of banyans and southern live oaks are home of a smattering of aging clapboard cottages, picturesque remnants of the Fort Lauderdale of 70 and 80 years ago. In their midst, the city’s first schoolhouse, a one-roomer that dates to 1899 is nicely preserved, as is the small 1914 Shippey House, a two-story shingled charmer with a pitched roof, dormers and, typical of the period, a big front porch for sleeping on hot summer nights. It’s now a bicycle and kayak rental facility.
When Floridians think of Fort Lauderdale, Las Olas Boulevard, not spring break, often comes to mind. The landscaped thoroughfare, lined with upscale shops and restaurants, leads from downtown to the beach. At night, the area transforms into a vibrant dining district that attracts as many locals as tourists. My wife and I favor El Camino, which presents sophisticated takes on authentic Mexican cuisine. Caffe Europa (Italian) is a boulevard stalwart. We recently noted the arrival of Del Frisco’s Grille, an excellent steak and fish eatery that we had enjoyed in its prior incarnation in tony Palm Beach. And Casa Sensei, another new place, serves edgy Asian dishes and opens onto a canal.
During spring break, college kids and wannabes paraded around in board shorts, Speedos and thongs and seemed to be perpetually climbing on top of each other to form three-tier human pyramids. The Elbo Room, a bar that starred in “Where the Boys Are,” still stands across the street from the beach; it’s ground zero for the breakers.
Outside the Elbo Room, a spry, tanned senior with a white pony tail interrupted her evening run to scope out the crowd. She paused for a moment when I asked her what she thought of all the spring breakers. “I don’t really mind,” she told me “They’re only here for two weeks. The rest of the year this town is pretty nice.”
A few blocks away, we came across North Beach Village, a quiet area of small, mid-century boutique hotels and apartment buildings. Diners conversed at normal decibel levels at the Village Café outside the tiny North Beach Hotel. Some small shops, now closed, looked like they’d be doing a brisk business in the morning.
It was tranquil here, just a couple of blocks from the cacophonous crowds of spring breakers on the beach.
Soon they’d be gone and life in beautiful Fort Lauderdale, the Venice of America, would be back to normal.
Martin W.G. King is a freelance writer.