By Steve Winston
How’s a visitor to know where to begin exploring the multifaceted tropical metropolis of Fort Lauderdale? We’ve compiled a list of what to do in Fort Lauderdale to get you started.
Lester’s Diner – A true Fort Lauderdale landmark, this ‘50s diner has been serving baked-on-the-premises goodies and classic American food – and breakfasts that’ll last you the rest of the day (including the famous 14-ounce cup of coffee) – since the original Spring Break back in 1955. Many of its patrons have been meeting here for breakfast since then. And this is a noted hangout for local celebrities and politicians, who can spend hours at a time in a booth solving the world’s problems.
Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour & Restaurant – People come from all over to sample Jaxson’s famous ice creams in Dania Beach – and they’re willing to wait in line on Friday and Saturday nights to do it. Jaxson’s has been a local landmark since anyone around here can remember. It’s a real 1890s-style ice cream parlor, with a general store, complimentary popcorn bowls, massive hamburgers and foot-long hot dogs, in addition to the biggest ice cream floats and sodas you’ve ever seen. The somewhat-shopworn look only adds to the atmosphere. Laughter is the predominant sound.
Mai-Kai Restaurant – The ultimate, over-the-top, so-tacky-that-it’s-fantastic Polynesian restaurant and revue has been packing ‘em in since 1956, with tiki bars, dancing girls (and guests!) in grass skirts, pupu platters, huge “boats” packed with colorful food combinations, native musicians, flaming fire pits (and flaming torches and tall candles), and colorful South Seas cuisine. The fun atmosphere at Mai-Kai has a way of turning timid visitors into dancing, swivel-hipping, limbo-dipping honorary Polynesians. We defy you to stay in your seat the whole meal!
“This place is really jumping!” Massachusetts visitor Susan Barron said on her trip to the Mai-Kai. “We try to eat here every time we come down. The food is great. But it’s not only the food. It’s the whole colorful atmosphere. It’s the dancing and the drums. And the flaming torches and the tiki bar. People come here to have a good time. And they really do!”
La Bonne Crepe – If you've been asking for advice on what to do in Fort Lauderdale, dining on swanky Las Olas Boulevard was surely mentioned. Here, you can find dozens of distinctive restaurants, serving a variety of international foods. At La Bonne Crepe, you can dine indoors, in classic French ambience, or outdoors while watching the passing people-parade (and the horse-drawn carriages) on Las Olas. This restaurant specializes in the cooking style (when it comes to crepes) of France’s Brittany province. The menu features 37 types of dinner crepes, 18 dessert crepes and enough brass and candlelight and cozy nooks to make you feel that you really are in Brittany. (Try one of the seafood crepes.)
Flamingo Gardens – Out in the western Fort Lauderdale suburbs, close to the Everglades in Davie, Flamingo Gardens is the classic South Florida tourist staple – a wildlife sanctuary with alligators (and plenty of them), exotic birds, bobcats, eagles, otters, panthers and, yes, brilliantly-colored flamingos – along with gardens and native eco-systems, a 1930s pioneer home and museum, and a tram tour through the jungle. There are also wildlife shows highlighting exotic birds and reptiles, and the Tropical Market Place where you can slake your thirst with a smoothie or a tropical drink.
“Flamingo Gardens is primeval Florida,” said Joe Schellato, a visitor from Monmouth Junction, N.J. “The way it is here, is the way it was. It’s nice to see there’s still a place like this.”
The Jungle Queen – This is an authentic 1890’s paddle-wheeler that has been taking visitors up the New River, out of the city and into the “interior,” for decades. Your destination is a small (re-created) Indian village in the Everglades, with an alligator wrestling show, iguanas, rare birds and native crafts. Along the way, you’ll pass the luxurious homes along the canals, with their shiny white yachts anchored in back. And the all-you-can-eat dinner cruises serve piles of barbecue big enough to keep you full for the entire next day.
The Water Taxi – Fort Lauderdale is called “The Venice of America,” because it’s built on a network of canals surrounding the New River. And a trip on the Water Taxi will show you why it got that nickname, as you ply the waterways while stopping at tourist attractions, shopping areas, cultural facilities and restaurants. You can pay by the trip, or get an all-day pass.
Loxahatchee Everglades Tours – You’ll skim over the Everglades’ “River of Grass” in an airboat, past dense tropical hammock-islands and stands of mangroves, and wildlife such as alligators (they may look like old tires in the water, but they’re not!), turtles, snakes, otters and birds such as red-shouldered hawks. And when your guide turns off the engine, you’ll be enveloped in the loudest silence you’ve ever heard.
The Elbo Room – The Elbo Room, a funky, atmospheric bar across the street from the beach, has been serving up tall drinks and legendary local characters since 1938. In the ‘40s, it became a hangout for World War II sailors on leave. Then, in the ‘60s, it was a magnet for the “Beach Blanket Bingo” crowd. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the miles-long Spring Break caravan of vehicles ran by right outside (and many of the occupants of those vehicles ended up inside), adding to its legacy. Now cluttered with old photos and artifacts from those days, it attracts all types of locals and visitors. It’s a vibrant, busy spot where old friends get together, the drinks are exotic, the laughter is contagious and the fresh breeze wafts in from the ocean.
Las Olas Boulevard – This is the swanky downtown heart of Fort Lauderdale, the place to see – or be seen. In the daytime, you can walk this European-style boulevard, which connects downtown to the beach, and duck into shops, bistros, sidewalk cafes and galleries. At night, you can stroll past the nightspots and chic restaurants and gourmet wine-and-cheese spots, stop into the 1890s Riverside Hotel for a drink at the elegant bar, or dance all night to the live band at Mango’s. The people-watching parade is the best in town.
The Hollywood Broadwalk – Just south of Fort Lauderdale, in the city of Hollywood, is one of the area’s most colorful gathering spots. It’s the “Broadwalk” along Hollywood Beach, where it seems (especially on weekends) that just about everybody in town comes to surf, swim, bike, jog, skate, walk, listen to live music, fly kites or just people-watch. And the area is particularly interesting in winter, when some 500,000 “snowbirds” from Quebec give a distinctly French-Canadian flavor to the Broadwalk and the shops lining it.
The Museum of Discovery & Science – This is one of the most colorful, interactive, hands-on museums in the country. You can maneuver in a lunar rover to try and pick up moon rocks, take an upside-down, rolling-over ride to Mars in a space capsule, conduct electricity experiments, sit in the cockpit of a jet plane, and experience an incredible aquarium in which you wander through “underground” rock formations and caves while nose-to-nose with river otters, sand sharks and brilliantly-hued fish. The museum is connected to an IMAX theater, which presents first-run movies as well as fascinating films on adventure and scientific exploration.
SHOP TILL YOU DROP
Sawgrass Mills – This is the largest outlet shopping destination in America – a virtual city, with nearly 400 stores and designer outlets, 23 movie screens, 33 restaurants and eateries, nightspots, a swank billiards club, and one of two “Barbie The DreamHouse Experience” locations in America. For many people looking for what to do in Fort Lauderdale, Sawgrass Mills is the first place many visitors go to. In fact, for many visitors – especially those from foreign countries – it’s the main reason they come here!
“We try to make a trip here every year,” said Campo Delgado, of Cartagena, Colombia, holding a brand-new suitcase he had just purchased. “In an hour, this suitcase will be full of things we’ll bring back home. And then we’ll need another suitcase.”
The Galleria – At this sophisticated, world-class collection of swank shops and one-of-a-kind boutiques, you’ll find names such as Brookstone, Cole Haan, Godiva Chocolatier, Jos. A. Bank, Macy’s, Michael Kors, Nieman Marcus and Swarovski Crystals. You can take a break from shopping with lunch at elegant restaurants such as Truluck’s, The Capital Grille and Blue Martini.
A GHOST OF A TIME
The Stranahan House – Frank Stranahan was the first settler in Fort Lauderdale in the 1890s. He was an enterprising sort, establishing a boat service to transport stagecoach passengers across the New River and then building a boardinghouse to lodge them once they got to the other side. He married Ivy Cromartie and became the growing town’s leading citizen. But his fortunes crashed along with the stock market in 1929, and, soon after, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He tried to kill himself by attaching himself to a heavy weight and throwing himself into the New River. It didn’t work the first time. Nor the second. He finally succeeded on his third try. But many people have sworn that he never really left – that both Frank and Ivy, as well as her brother Alfred and a little Seminole girl she tutored, still make frequent appearances in the old family home that’s now a museum. The home – which offers a fascinating look at Fort Lauderdale’s first family – has been the subject of several television shows on ghosts and ghost-hunters.