We all think we know Fort Lauderdale, a sunny winter escape as familiar to many of us as the Upper West Side.
Fort Lauderdale is the airport we fly into (Miami is strictly for international travel, and then only reluctantly). It’s the spring break of myth, the destination for Chinese food at Christmas with the grandparents. More recently, halted cranes and foreclosures have added an unsettling note to these palm-lined boulevards.
With sunshine and fabulous beaches elsewhere in Florida, why do we keep going back to Fort Lauderdale? Because like the mother ship, New York, Broward County is continuously reinventing itself. Less than three hours from JFK, it’s a reliably balmy and entertaining scene that — unlike Miami — never takes itself too seriously.
In 2012, that scene is younger, more Spanish speaking and less seasonal than in the past. Within the last couple of years, I’ve watched a posh Ritz-Carlton and a stylish W Hotel open here. Just to the south, Hollywood has evolved from a retirement community to fashion-conscious boardwalk scene — a cheaper, less-snobby alternative to South Beach.
The scene is also notably gayer, as Fort Lauderdale has quietly become an epicenter of gay life in South Florida. Wilton Manors, just north of downtown, is the buzzing hub of Broward County gay life. In June, the gay bars on Wilton Drive gear up for the Stonewall Street Festival and Parade, one of the major events on the South Florida gay calendar.
And from April 20-22, gay rodeo fans converge on Fort Lauderdale for the Seventh Annual Sunshine Stampede, an event that is fast becoming a classic.
It’s been a warmer and drier winter than most, with high season winding down. The spring break crowd is back in all its bikini-and-suntan-oil glory on these fabled shores, after a stretch of years when the kids went farther afield — to the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Dominican Republic and even South America, where surging violence has made Florida attractive again.
The nightly crowd browsing menus along Las Olas, Fort Lauderdale’s beachfront nightlife and dining strip, is more multigenerational than in years past. Retired New Yorkers are increasingly joined year-round by their professional children, many of whom call the area home. Every winter there are fewer early-bird specials, higher prices and more sophisticated options on this strip — now a good decade into a gentrification that has paid off, in terms of both safety and excitement.
Diversity is the hallmark of a Jewish community once reliable for its geriatric, Ashkenazic, New York-deli-noshing image (not that there’s anything wrong with a good pastrami). The Cuban community has been migrating north from Miami and Homestead for years; young Cuban Jews now add a substantial Latin note to Broward’s lively Jewish scene, especially in Hollywood. So today we have Kabbalah on the beach, kosher ropa vieja, and a popular Shabbaton at Chabad Lubavitch of Fort Lauderdale.
With better museums in West Palm Beach and Miami, I think Fort Lauderdale’s best sightseeing takes place in public spaces. It’s hard to beat the people watching along the Hollywood Beach boardwalk, where salsa and reggaeton are the soundtrack. On Monday through Wednesday nights, the Hollywood Theater at the intersection of Johnson Street and the ocean is where couples bounce to blues, oldies and big band music.
For years, my Brooklyn-bred grandfather tried to satisfy our yearnings for nature with fruitless explorations of the Intracoastal banks. He should have taken us to Lloyd Beach State Park, a rare green stretch of native flora and fauna where you can hike a beachside trail or launch a canoe. These peaceful mangrove forests and quiet coves are an underappreciated oasis amid South Florida’s landscape of manicured artifice.
Papa also took us on the deafening Everglades airboats, where we cruised boringly through swamp grass while any wildlife fled the noise. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered a classic, and far more scenic, alternative: the Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi (watertaxi.com).
The pretty yellow boats, which scoot all around the area’s canals and the Intracoastal Waterway, are the next best thing to having your own yacht to explore what tourism promoters absurdly call “the Venice of Florida.” (You may as well call the Alps the Himalayas of Switzerland.)
Hotel guests have long relied on the $20 water taxi to shuttle them to their waterfront restaurant and back. But even if, like me, you stay in your parents’ condo, the all-day on-and-off ticket is worthwhile for the glorious views — and for the novelty of hopping onto a dock for a cocktail, rather than fighting for parking. After 5 p.m., the “Moonlight Madness” special offers $10 tickets and sunset views of the ersatz-Tuscan villas.
You can disembark near the beach, where there seems to be more neon than ever. Strolling by the vacuous art and plastic-y bars of Beach Place, the latest waterfront gentrification project, I studied the college-age revelers pouring out of Hooters and thought how I’d never mistake this for South Beach.
Whatever your age, whatever your style, you might find that a comfortable thought indeed.