Fort Lauderdale Ecotourism Attractions and Activities
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Beaches are the biggest natural asset. The Clean Beaches Council continuously recognizes Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Hollywood, Dania Beach, Deerfield Beach and Pompano Beach as “Blue Wave Beaches,” certified as clean, healthy and environmentally well managed.
If you want to get an idea of what the city looked like before people settled here then hike the Coastal Hammock Trail inside the 180-acre Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, a rare maritime tropical hardwood hammock next to the beach in Fort Lauderdale that was donated by nature-loving Chicago lawyer Hugh Taylor Birch in the 1940s. Interpretive signs along the trail provide information about the habitat and native flora. At Park & Ocean, a beachside bar and eatery at the park’s entrance at A1A, guided paddle tours are held daily at 10 a.m. of Coastal Dune Lake, an endangered ecosystem crucial to the environmental health of the park’s barrier island system. There also are full moon and sunset kayak tours and bike rentals. Insider’s tip: A pedestrian tunnel under AIA connects Hugh Taylor Birch State Park to a quiet, secluded stretch of the beach.
Nearby, Bonnet House is a historic, 35-acre tropical estate built by Birch’s daughter and her artist husband amid mangrove wetlands and a maritime forest. Surrounded by a colorful hibiscus garden, an orchid house and wild spider monkeys, the captivating 1920s home is on the National Register of Historic Places and gives public ecology, history and design tours Tuesday through Sunday. The estate is a haven for migratory and year-round birds indigenous to Florida coastal areas. Its boat canal is an occasional hangout for visiting manatees.
Flamingo Gardens is a 60-acre, nonprofit botanical garden and Everglades wildlife sanctuary in the neighboring town of Davie that is home to thousands of rare native plants, some of Florida’s largest and oldest trees, and over 90 species of native animals, including alligators, eagles, otters, panthers, bobcats, a black bear and flamingos. There are educational shows, a tram ride and homemade smoothies.
A 20-minute drive north of Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is a low-key beach village with old-fashioned charm. It also is one of the only locations in Florida where the three-tier natural coral reef system is close enough for visitors to swim out for snorkeling or diving. The town provides underwater maps and exhibits of the wreck of the SS Copenhagen, a British cargo steamer that struck a reef 25 feet off the area’s shores in 1900. The wreck – now a home for spiny lobsters, tropical fish and other marine life – is one of 11 Florida underwater archaeological preserves. Look for signs and displays about it on the beach near Sea Watch Restaurant and Washingtonia Park or at the Jarvis Hall community center, 4505 N. Ocean Drive.
Ten miles north of Fort Lauderdale in Coconut Creek is the world’s largest butterfly preserve. Butterfly World is a kid-friendly tropical garden retreat, with waterfalls, 20,000 butterflies in large “open air” aviaries, a research lab and guided tours.
Anne Kolb Nature Center
Another family-friendly retreat, the Anne Kolb Nature Center at Hollywood’s West Lake Park – one of the largest urban parks in Florida – includes an exhibit hall with simulated mangroves, a 3,500-gallon aquarium and a hands-on EcoRoom. Rich in native vegetation and wildlife, the park has a 68-foot observation tower, nature trails and an Intracoastal fishing pier.
Hollywood Beach Broadwalk
The Hollywood Beach Broadwalk is a fun place to rent bikes and peddle beachside. The brick promenade – named one of America’s Best Beach Boardwalks by Travel + Leisure magazine – stretches nearly 2½ miles, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and shops, outdoor cafes, hotels and a farmers market on the other.
Big Cypress Seminoles
Take a day trip to the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, an hour-long drive west of Fort Lauderdale, to learn about the land and culture of the Seminole Indians on their 2,200-acre preserve. At the reservation’s Billie Swamp Safari, you can join an eco-tour on a swamp buggy (an elevated four-wheeler) to see native and exotic animals, sleep in a Seminole chickee hut, visit the Smithsonian-affiliated museum and listen to folklore around a campfire.
A 1½-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale, the Shark Valley Visitor Center walking and bike trail in Everglades National Park is an amazing, 150-mile loop through alligators, wading birds and Florida’s famed River of Grass, the largest subtropical wetland in North America. It’s worth spending the day to rent a bike at the visitor center or join the two-hour tram tour by a park-trained naturalist.
Fort Lauderdale’s palm tree-lined, brick beachfront promenade is prime walking, biking and skating territory. The city’s AvMed Rides BCycle bike sharing program makes it easy, with eight stations along the beach and day guest passes that can be purchased by credit card at the bike docks or on a smart phone app. Markham Park has mountain bike trails for thrill riders. A complete biking guide to Broward County parks is here. There’s also a free online interactive bicycle route planning tool with turn-by-turn directions and guides to bike trails based on how strenuous you want your ride.
Greater Fort Lauderdale is the only place in the continental United States where you can snorkel and dive on a living coral reef straight off the beach without having to charter a boat. There are over 70 natural and artificial reefs within reach. The reefs range from depths of 10 to 100 feet and are found 100 yards to a mile off shore. The system provides habitat for over 6,000 marine species, including fish, eels, rays, sponges, corals and dolphins. For charters and reef information, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau provides an online guide here.
Nicknamed the “Venice of America,” Fort Lauderdale and its many waterways and canals are prime kayak and standup paddleboard territory. A popular launch site is Colohatchee Park in Wilton Manors. Eco-tours and equipment are available at such outfitters as Sunrise Paddleboards and Blue Moon Outdoor Adventures. West Lake Park in Hollywood and Dr. Von D. MiZell-Eula Johnson State Park in Dania Beach have their own marinas, where paddelboards, canoes and kayaks can be rented.
Another way to appreciate Fort Lauderdale’s blue backyard is on the Blue Discovery EcoTour, a 2½-hour guided water shuttle tour of the city’s New River and Intacoastal Waterway with a local marine biologist and photographer. Launching from the Riverwalk at Riverfront Plaza, the tour cruises by the Nova Southeastern University Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, the Port Everglades seaport and mangrove forests that make up the edges of Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park in Dania Beach.
Stop by Broward College’s Buehler Planetarium on Wednesday nights for guided star-watching through powerful telescopes at the campus’s 40-foot dome facility.
Sea Turtle Walks
Nearly 90% of sea turtle nesting in the United States occurs in Florida and thousands of those nests are laid every year in Broward County, one of the most important nesting areas for loggerheads. Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Discovery and Science hosts Summer Sea Turtle Walks in June and July for ages 9 and up.
South Florida also is a hot spot for bird watchers. The South Florida Audubon Society hosts field trips and provides a guide for the best sighting locations and trails, including Deerfield Island Park in Deerfield Beach and Tree Tops Park in Davie. The sites are part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a network of 510 premier wildlife viewing spots across the state.
Fishing charters are plentiful in Fort Lauderdale. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides a searchable directory of outfitters and fishing guides who follow environmentally ethical best practices.
FOOD AND DINING
Vegan Fine Foods
Fort Lauderdale’s first all-vegan food market and café opened downtown in 2018. Created by Florida Atlantic University professor Steven Smith, a former Procter & Gamble product engineer, Vegan Fine Foods is an exclusively plant-based gourmet grocery store. It also features a dine-in/takeout café that serves acai bowls, wraps, juices, desserts and more. Smith, a committed vegan for 20 years, wanted to create a one-stop shop for vegans that also appeals to vegetarians and non-vegans.
Green Bar & Kitchen
The vegan-friendly Green Bar & Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale is a minimalist, modern café that features organic, plant-based food – avocado toast, veggie bowls, Impossible Burgers and more – as well as a Home Grown Music Series with live music every Friday and Saturday evening.
Marando Farms & Ranch
Urban farming has taken off in the Fort Lauderdale area and some of the enterprising owners have established their own restaurants or dining series. Marando Farms & Ranch is a 10-acre family-owned organic vegetable farm three miles west of Fort Lauderdale in Davie that has its own farm-to-fork restaurant, Twisted Tomato Café, that serves bison and beef burgers, bowls, flatbreads and salads. Harpke Family Farm, which specializes in live microgreens and gem lettuce production, hosts occasional Farm Table Dinners under a chickee hut at its Dania Beach location.
A project of the Dania Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, PATCH (People’s Access to Community Horticulture) is a 1.76-acre farm on what used to be a blighted spot used as an unofficial dump. More than 4,000 grow bags are used to plant produce, with plots available for locals and restaurants. The farm hosts a farmers market every Saturday featuring locally-grown produce, with workshops on health, composting, beekeeping and other topics every second Saturday.
Yellow Green Farmers Market
The mother of all farmers markets in South Florida is the Yellow Green Farmers Market in Hollywood, where 300 booths occupy a 100,000-square-foot warehouse open Saturday and Sunday. Fruit and vegetables, micro greens, organic chicken, eggs, Amish butter, green coffee, meatless deli products and more are sold at the space, accessible by Tri-Rail or bus.
Regina’s Farm in Fort Lauderdale is a nonprofit, Brazilian-themed fazendinha (little farm) that offers Saturday-only, pop-up outdoor dining featuring Brazilian cheese-stuffed bread, soup, salads, roast chicken, fish stew and feijão tropeiro (beans with sausage and collard greens).
Contrary to its name, Ireland Steakhouse in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Weston also offers an impressive seafood menu. The restaurant, inside the Bonaventure Resort & Spa, pays strict adherence to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide and works closely with organic seafood farms in Florida and Texas.
More Dining Spots
Fresh First, South Florida’s first 100% gluten-free eatery, makes everything from scratch, including lentil and quinoa burgers, raw nut chili tacos, veggie stack sandwiches and raw zucchini puttanesca. Beehive Kitchen is a trendy, fast-casual restaurant with two locations in Broward County that sells salad- and grain-based bowls with your choice of toppings, ranging from spinach and wok-seared mushrooms to roasted Brussels sprouts and marinated tomatoes. Screaming Carrots in Hallandale is an organic plant-based Thai and Mediterranean restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. In Plantation, the veggie fav is the Green Wave Café, a gourmet plant-based raw living café that also stages dinner-and-a-demo nights that address topics like detoxification and raw food lifestyles.
For more South Florida farm-to-table options, check out this Visit Florida guide.
Taxis, Trolleys, Marinas
Fort Lauderdale’s affordable, narrated Water Taxi Service is a good way to hop on and off all day to visit sights like the Las Olas Boulevard shops, Birch State Park and the Galleria Mall. There’s a smart-phone app for live tracking of the fleet. The Riverwalk Water Trolley takes a zig-zag route across the New River, stopping at eight different points with parks and restaurants along the south and north banks. There are three designated Clean Marinas in Fort Lauderdale that have sustainable practices and offer boat services.
On land, dockless bike and electric scooter sharing can be found throughout the city. Want someone else to do the pedaling? Ocean View Rickshaw operates pedicab services anywhere in central Fort Lauderdale, including the beach and Las Olas Boulevard.
Sun Trolley is a brightly colored red-and-green public bus service that runs seven routes throughout the city, most of them free.
Broward County Transit manages the fleet of traditional buses, which have bike racks and wheelchair access, and cover more than 30 routes throughout the area. Both Lyft and Uber also operate throughout Broward County.
To travel throughout South Florida, Tri-Rail is a commuter rail line that links Fort Lauderdale to Miami and West Palm Beach. Brightline is a new, high-speed train that also provides service between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, with future plans to connect to Orlando.
With wind turbines installed on the roof to generate enough power to light the hotel year-round, the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort was the first hotel in the city to be awarded a Florida Green Lodging designation from the state. It also has a food composter that turns food waste into nutrient-rich water.
B Ocean Resort
The beds at B Ocean Resort are eco-friendly with natural materials that are easily recycled. The resort also offers complimentary bicycles and a superb, on-site restaurant, Naked Crab, that serves locally-sourced seafood and produce. The renovated hotel is home to the landmark, nautical-themed Wreck Bar, where mermaids perform through a porthole.
Set on 23-acres about 20 minutes from Fort Lauderdale, Bonaventure Resort and Spa in nearby Weston has a nature trail that winds through the property and offers Everglades tours by operators committed to the sustainability and protection of the Everglades. As a participant of Clean the World, the resort’s spa recycles and distributes hand soap to children around the world suffering from diseases prevented by simple hand washing.
Inspired by the lyrics and lifestyle of singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, the 349-room Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort in nearby Hollywood offers free bike rentals and has a high three-palm rating in the Florida Green Lodging program.
Go off the grid and stay overnight in a traditional thatched-roof chickee in the rustic camping village at Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Clewiston, a 1½-mile drive from Fort Lauderdale. The huts sleep up to 14 people and have no electricity or running water. Overnight packages can include Swamp Buggy eco-tours, a snake and alligator show, campfire storytelling and an airboat ride.
Green Lodging Guide
Find a complete list of Florida Green Lodging properties on the program’s website.
During monthly EcoAction Days at the Secret Woods Nature Center, volunteers can help clean up trash, plant native plants and remove exotic, invasive plants.
Broward County participates in the annual International Coastal Cleanup sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy every year typically in September. Register and find locations here. For other beach projects, check out VolunteerCleanup.org, an online platform that connects South Florida shoreline cleanups with volunteers.
At the South Florida Wildlife Center in Fort Lauderdale, volunteers help with everything from caring for injured animals to landscaping. Feeding South Florida, a food bank that provides meals for the hungry, always needs volunteers in its Pembroke Park warehouse to sort food and pack boxes. Volunteers can register in advance on the nonprofit’s website.
Through its online calendar, HandsOn Broward connects volunteers to projects that help revitalize schools, parks, playgrounds, nonprofits and neighborhoods.
For more green tips and places, visit Fort Lauderdale’s Green Your Routine website.