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Don’t believe the movies! Fort Lauderdale got famous from spring break “where the boys are/beach boys” movies. So my image for years was of a bunch of soused college kids reeling along the sands. How wrong I was. Though I did find a bit of invented drama there: read on.
This sophisticated city of 2 million, which dates to only 1876, is inhabited largely by prosperous Floridians and retirees who glory in the canals that make the place seem a bit like Venice and provide docking places for the boats of the upscale home-owners. Most visitors are not in the money class (we are the 99%, not the 1%), but this place supports some fine restaurants and diversions, and (along with the rest of Broward County) supports a world-class performing arts center just minutes from the beach. And it’s small enough to get from one place to another in 15 minutes.
Let me tell you about my discovery of Ford Lauderdale.
The essential and glorious fact is that it is built around the local presence of the Intracoastal, a 3,000-mile waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, some of it natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, and sounds, other parts canals, built by the U.S government. Almost everything that matters is on or near the water.
That includes the hotels we stayed at. Lago Mar, for example, is named after the lake (lago) – Lake Mayan — which flanks its west side and the Atlantic Ocean (mar) on the east. The lake connects to the Intracoastal. Lago Mar is a family-run 10-acre resort bought in 1959 by Sidney Banks and now run by his son, Walter. Walter’s wife Debbie Banks oversees the designs, which create a Grand Hotel and Caribbean motif favoring tropical yellow. The lobby, for example, has stunning aquarium mosaics by Miami artist Luciano.
The resort was rebuilt in the 1980s and 90s. Most of the rooms are suites. Ours had a large living room with a couch, easy chairs, a desk, a dining table for four, and a kitchen. A glass wall looked onto the balcony, and we relaxed there on chaises to gaze at the beach and sea. To the side we could see the tennis courts, which we used with delight. (No wait time.)
The first night we had dinner at Lago Mar’s elegant Acquario restaurant, the mood enhanced by a piano player tapping out soft rhythms. Chef Phil Kahn presides over a menu that included mussels in an herbal spicy broth, the best I’ve ever had. We caught the piano player again at the Art Deco lounge and wine bar.
The resort is family friendly – families representing about a third of the guests, especially during holidays. We saw teens and parents playing miniature golf and shuffleboard. Near the beach we passed a jungle gym-slide for tots. The resort also appeals to Europeans, who like the casual but soignée mood. Adults hang out at the pool and the nearby friendly gazebo bar, built in a circular shape that encourages chatting. Near the gazebo, some giant chess pieces were knocked over, maybe by a frustrated player or perhaps just a gust of tropical wind!
We also stayed at B Ocean, right on the Atlantic, which we could see from our room. The B Ocean opened in January 2011 after a complete renovation of the 1960s building. And every room has a spectacular view of the sea.
Our floor to ceiling window wall overlooked tall palms, sand, and sea with a boat in distance. It’s extraordinary when you wake up groggily at 7am and turn over to see the bright patterns of a yellow and red sunrise. Every one of the 240 rooms in this 13-story hotel has a view of the Atlantic Ocean – and the sun getting up.
A long white counter with white lacquer and leather drawers and desk was a fine place to park our computers and connect to wifi; the night table held an ipod dock. (You can borrow one of three hotel iPads.) We would have liked a fridge. Would we trade that for the view? We brooded about that! And filled up a bucket with ice.
The lobby here is ultra-modern, a hand-sculpted wave wall backlit by LED lighting that changes colors. The giant sea turtle mural in the lobby and smaller stuffed turtles that sit on the beds represent the hotel’s stated commitment to the environment. It all fits the hip clientele. There seemed to be quite a few foreign visitors.
Opened in March 2011, this is the flagship hotel of B Hotels, headquartered in South Florida, whose model includes attention to getting people together — communal seating, tables and gathering spaces. Yes, that happens at the pool bar, with a younger crowd, more singles, than at Lago Mar.
One night, we headed for a performance of the Duke Ellington Legacy Band at the Gold Coast Jazz Society. The band is run by Ellington’s grandson, Edward Kennedy Ellington II, who plays guitar. I was blown away by two women musicians, Virginia Mayhew, the band leader and arranger on sax and clarinet, and Jami Dauber on trumpet and trombone. (Do you remember when women in a musical group on stage were only harpists?)
The band of seven also included piano, drums, base, and the mellifluous jazz singer Nancy Reed. They did brassy up-tempo renditions of such songs such as “Night Train” and “Perdido.” All the players are deservedly prominent in the jazz world.
The monthly concerts take place at the Broward Performing Arts Center, surrounded by gardens through which we wandered at intermission. We came back a few nights later to see “The Capitol Steps,” the always hilarious in-your-face comical send-up (or take-down) of Washington politicians. It started decades ago when some congressional aides put on a holiday party show and it was so successful, some traded in their day jobs.
But back to the water, and the boats. The Riverfront cruise, which leaves four times a day from the Riverwalk pier downtown, offers a terrific meandering tour of the Intracoastal – of the sumptuous houses and yachts and of Port Everglades, the 10th busiest seaport in the U.S. It was a lake here before it was dredged in the 1920s (before some people argued that the government shouldn’t promote the economy). It now is home to cruise liners and cargo boats. One anchored there was the Allure of the Sea, nearly 1200 feet long, the largest cruise ship in the world, with room for 5400 passengers. (Too many for me!)
Captain Peter Marton, who does the weekend cruises, was a charming guide, telling us about the origins of the city and its development into a place with 200 miles of inland canals and waterways, over 66,000 boats owned by locals and more by some of the thousands by visitors who swell the population.
The Fort Lauderdale canals connect to the Intracoastal, which splashes from Key West to New Jersey and West Palm Beach west to Brownsville, Texas. It was created during World War II by the Arms Corps of Engineers to keep traffic off the seas where submarines were lurking.
We passed stunning homes, many with red tiled roofs, most with yachts parked outside, and set off by tall Royal Palms from Cuba. The tour was a bit of “let’s look at the lives of the rich and famous” – mostly the rich. Ten of the miles of the city’s 200 miles of waterway are filled with big boats parked outside homes in colonial or Southern mansion style –verandas with pillars – or modern confections. Some private homes looked like hotels.
Marton pointed out houses owned by the people who made fortunes from Radio Shack, Alamo Rent-a-Car and Alka Selzer. The owner of “The White House,” Marton said, had invented air conditioning parts that made him rich from royalties from General Motors cars. He has put the giant vacation palace up for sale for $24 million. A sprawling house with a blue awning is owned by Gloria Vanderbilt, whose son is TV personality Anderson Cooper.
Another blue awning is owned by Miami Vice producer, Mike Mann, who profited from dramatizing local crime and corruption. Then there are the owners who benefited from real (or maybe imagined) questionable and questioned dealings.
Mega-rich foreclosure attorney, David Stern, according to a source reported by the New York Times, wanted to call his boat “Su Casa es Mi Casa” – Your house is my house – a play on the Latin welcome, “My house is your house.” (Foreclosure, get it?) His wife reportedly persuaded him drop that idea — (he denied ever considering it) — so the boat is called “Misunderstood.” He’s apparently telling that to investigators. According to Gretchen Morgenson in the NY Times, Stern’s law firm was handling 75,000 foreclosure cases a year — more than 200 a day. By 2005, some judges had ruled that the firm was submitting “sham pleadings.” The law firm dissolved itself last year, after revelations of its widespread forgeries and fraudulent filings. (Investigators might ask why the Stern yacht is registered offshore, where he can evade U.S. taxes he would otherwise pay on it.)
Another story about a scam artist turned out to be a scam. Marton pointed out a 14-bedroom extravaganza with a rooftop pool and ground floor parking garage he said was built by a comptroller of HUD (the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Agency) in Chicago. He said the man had paid $8 million for it, all embezzled. The idea was to flip it for a profit. Unfortunately for the embezzler, the first prospective buyers were from the FBI. Marton said the crook now has a more modest abode – in Joliet Prison! When I tried to confirm the story, I learned from Chicago HUD spokesperson Laura Feldman, “We don’t have comptrollers at the Field Offices.” She had never heard the story, which apparently was invented! Pete, how could you do that? Marton said he had heard it on other tours and added that what he says is for “entertainment.” But he insisted the other stories are true. Hmmmm.
Other parts of the spiel were quite authentic. We all loved the huge black “Seven Seas” yacht of Steven Spielberg. The top is planted with communications paraphernalia. Parked next to it is the white yacht of TV personality Judge Judy. In the second picture of Spielberg’s boat, you can clearly see the Cayman Islands flag. Like Stern’s, Spielberg’s and other boats (and cruise ships) are flagged offshore, in the Cayman Islands or British Virgin Islands, to evade the U.S. taxes. (We learned that Sarah Palin’s yacht is registered in BVI.) They can’t hide the registration jurisdiction, because boats are required to fly the flags where they are registered. Of course, they also fly the American flag — perhaps out of sentiment. As long as it doesn’t cost them $$$.
I couldn’t stay off the water. One night, we took the Tropical Sailing sunset cruise on a catamaran that leaves daily at 5pm from the Bahia Marina. There were a dozen or more people there, some couples and a family with small kids who immediately scampered to the front edge of the boat. Everybody got friendly, helped by free first wine or champagne, reggae music and interesting chat by the crew.
The sail out of the Intracoastal was timed to pass under several bridges when they were raised. That happens just a few times an hour, on schedule. The crew said that locals set their watches by the raising of the bridges.
We got the same talk about homes of the rich and occasionally famous. A crew member told us that some of the yacht owners who come to Ft. Lauderdale want the Intracoastal dredged so they can get their mega-yachts through. I wondered if those were the owners who registered in Grand Cayman to evade U.S. taxes. (Hey, 99%, you don’t mind paying for their dredging, do you?)
The sunset was muted and in the distance, seen over a skyline of buildings and factories across Port Everglades. Remember, Fort Lauderdale is on Florida’s east coast, therefore you look east to the ocean for the sunrise and west over land for the sunset. The colors lasted a long time.
After the sunset sail, we drove to the 15th Street Fisheries restaurant at the Lauderdale Marina, which we had passed on the way out to sea. It was as a guide had said good and not very expensive. We sat on a balcony watching fish swim below as we tasted those prepared above.
Last and definitely least, I should mention the Duck Tour, a land and water excursion on a yellow amphibious bus/boat that motors through central city streets and suddenly slips down a ramp into the Intracoastal. It would be a good choice, were it not for the obnoxious tour guide “Pat” (real name Alan), an infantile fellow who thinks he is running a nursery school, ordering participants to join him in outbursts of “quack, quack, quack” (the duck, get it?) whenever we passed other boats on water or cafés on land. As they said in vaudeville, “Get the hook!” I couldn’t wait to get off. It was the only down-side experience in wonderful Fort Lauderdale.
IF YOU GO:
To experience sophisticated Fort Lauderdale:
Fort Lauderdale International Airport receives the major carriers. As a gift to travelers, it has paired with Broward County Libraries to offer free access to more than 15,000 non-expiring e-books for e-readers or smart phones. Download them via a scan of a Quick Response (QR) code on screens in baggage claim areas. Miami International Airport is a 30-minute drive further south.
Fort Lauderdale tourism: http://sunny.org
Lago Mar (rated 4 diamonds by AAA)
1700 South Ocean Lane, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316
(800) LagoMar, (954) 523-6511. http://www.lagomar.com
204 rooms: 40 hotel rooms, 164 exec suites, some with two bedrooms and/or two bathrooms.
Free wifi. Suites have fridge, microwave, stove burners, kitchen sink, pots & pans, glasses, plates and utensils. 500-foot private beach with cabanas. Two heated pools.
Prices from $130 for rooms off-season to $385 for executive suites (more for direct ocean view) in season Jan to May. You need a car to get around. Free parking.
B Ocean (rated 4 diamonds by AAA)
999 North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard,
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304.
(At the corner of Sunrise Blvd. and the A1A.)
(954) 564-1000, (888) 66-BHOTELS.
Free wifi; ice machines; no fridge.
Prices range from $149 in low season in a standard room to $299 at high season in an upgraded room. Walk out the door, cross the A1A, and you’re on the beach. You can walk to some shops and restaurants, but it’s best to have wheels in Fort Lauderdale. Valet parking $25 a night.
Gold Coast Jazz Society
1350 E. Sunrise Blvd, Ft. Lauderdale FL 33304
(954) 524-0805; tickets (954) 462-0222.
Performances once a month at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, (954) 462-0222,
Departs from the Riverwalk near Las Olas and Andrews (300 SW 1st St.)
(954) 463-3440. http://www.fortlauderdalesightseeingcruise.com.
90 minute tours depart 11am, 1pm, 3pm. Also 5pm weekends & holidays.
$22 adult, $20 senior, discounts families, children.
Sunset Cruise on catamaran from 5 to 7pm. Departs from Bahia Mar Marina, north of the Jungle Queen, just after the fishing boats.
(800) 979-3370, (954) 579-8181. http://www.tropicalsailing.com.
Park opposite the boat in one of 4 free parking spots marked “Tropical Sailing” or pay $5 for marina parking.