Story by Norma Davidoff and Richard H. Shulman
Photos courtesy of Greater Ft. Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau and The Pillars Hotel
Livin’ and Tourin’ is Easy in Ft. Lauderdale
I gaze at a robin’s egg blue sky turning bluer with puffy clouds moving, almost as though angels were pushing them. Two black crows line the side of the swimming pool. Suddenly the quiet is shattered. What gives? To find out, I peer along the edge and scan the ocean below. But the noise was above. Taking over the palm trees, dozens of crows chatter loudly, as though they had megaphones extolling the virtues of another easy day in Ft. Lauderdale.
This town could become my Go To for trips to Florida. Clean, wide beaches and updated hotels make it easy to enjoy. It has its own airport, with frequent direct flights from all over the U.S. and Europe, even Dubai. Stateside options abound from smaller cities like Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City as well.
Long gone is Ft. Lauderdale’s Spring Break image, supplanted by savvy city planning, a good dining scene, and museums. There is much to see and do in addition to sunbathing and water sports. So, last visit, we swam in the mornings and toured in the afternoons.
Fort Lauderdale is known as the “Venice of America” for its stretches of waterways. The well-conceived Riverwalk extends for two miles along the New River, flanked by paved promenades. Our hotel’s backyard, which faces the Intracoastal Waterway, is a Water Taxi stop. Stops are marked “W.” You just wave down the Water Taxi as it approaches. For an overview to get our bearings and stay cool, we took the Water Taxi, which runs along New River’s north and south banks. We could have gone on to explore the next town, Hollywood with its beaches and boardwalks but chose instead to exit at Las Olas Boulevard , the main street of Ft. Lauderdale. It has character. We visited art galleries and shops before hailing down a water taxi to return. It was, well, cool!
Whether you are a bird watcher, classical music lover, biology enthusiast, or a curious kid, Butterfly World delivers. We listened to lively classical music at designated stops along the paths. In psychedelic colors, lorikeets, parrots, and macaws abounded. Dazzling species of butterflies, amidst flowers, offered surprising lessons about “the birds and the bees.” Did you know that flowers provide food for butterflies? It was all there before us.
Aboard the Jungle Queen
Millions have boarded the Jungle Queen to explore Ft. Lauderdale’s river byways and “highways.” The company has welcomed tourists since 1935. Tourism is Ft. Lauderdale’s life blood -- here is its pulsing heart. The land near New River is where Tarzan swung from trees in many films and Nick Nolte starred in “Cape Fear”. But real fishermen ply these waters. It is restful moving through. No question; seen from the waterfront perspective, the city feels overbuilt.
Our guide, who can be heard all over the vessel, described Ft. Lauderdale as the yachting capital of the world. Its many shipyards can build almost anything. Says the guide, Steven Spielberg spent $250 million to have a yacht here, which he rents out for $60,000 a week. Before long we were chockablock with yachts! That feels overbuilt, too.
Soon we docked at Jungle Queen Island. Greeting us were cotton-topped tamarin monkeys as small as squirrels, eagles, teeny parrots, iguanas, plus a few lazing alligators. The lemurs most drew my interest as they sprang from branch to branch. All too soon we were back onboard, heading to town.
Museum of Discovery and Science
We did make it to the Museum of Discovery and Science but didn’t have time for an Imax Theater showing. This museum, the most-frequented in all of Florida, is large and inviting. We toured exhibits on Florida ecology, flora and fauna, space travel, and more. We were occupied by the wonders of science (and a few good snacks). Children clearly enjoy coming here with their parents. No wonder this place is open on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
The Bonnet House may be the best-kept secret in Fort Lauderdale. I have been there a few times. I love the place! The Bartlett family, wealthy artists, built the house and pioneered winter residency in Ft. Lauderdale. The home is kept exactly as originally created, with all its artwork and furnishings, right down to the sets of Spode china.
Among the rooms you can view are the owner’s art studio, breakfast room, and music room, all around a Moorish-style open courtyard. Carousel animal sculptures, created by artist-owner Frederic Bartlett, add whimsy to that inner courtyard. Its open air garden is so extensive that it forms a separate tour. The grounds are filled with grape trees, a desert garden, date palms, and more. A collection of over a thousand orchids is here as well; cuttings from the original orchids planted here are for sale. Its mangrove wetlands are tranquil. The site draws many weddings. Today, what was a 35-acre remote estate is now in the middle of hotels, just a few blocks from shore.
The Pillars Hotel
In walking distance of Bonnet House was our hotel, the Pillars. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it recently won the Reader’s Choice Award from Conde Nast Traveler. With only 18 British Colonial-style rooms and a gourmet restaurant, this place doesn’t shout; it soothes. Gracious service is a key ingredient. Its kidney-shaped pool is totally retro, built in the 1930’s.
You can have breakfast and dinner poolside or inside or out, down by the Intracoastal, as we did one evening, or in their intimate dining room. These are the only meals the hotel serves. One standout was a picture-perfect warm chocolate cake, festooned with berries, whipped cream, and ruby red orchid buds. On a soft, warm evening, as palms sway, mood music with a Latin beat invites romance.
At the Pillars, everything is easy and accessible. Subtle, tropical, and diminutive, it reminded me of sophisticated French properties. It turns out that the owner, Michael Landry, had a home in the south of France.
The Atlantic Hotel
The Pillars has an arrangement with the nearby Atlantic Hotel for use of its spa for a small fee. It is well worth it for Atlantic’s hot tub, steam room, changing room, and an outdoor lap pool. This is the spot I shared with the crows and the clouds. It is a luxury hotel, far bigger with gym and more amenities. Completely renovated a few years ago, it has en suite kitchenettes. Its restaurant, Beauty and the Feast, is good and relatively reasonable.
The city has its challenges, a victim of its own success. Is there too much construction along the waterfront, especially of hotels? Next to the 1903 Stranahan House, there was so much construction noise; our tour guide had to take us inside early. But it was worthwhile hearing about the early days of this city.
According to Jessica Savage of the Greater Ft. Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau “much of the new builds are taking older, neglected buildings down and rebuilding more eco-friendly, green buildings”. She adds that new air service is bringing more people to the area, creating demand for new and renovated hotels. Mr. Landry echoes that, explaining that the new upscale hotels are an enhancement from the previous mishmash of shops, which I think created a honk- tonk atmosphere so near a lovely stretch of beach.
We still didn’t get to do everything we wanted. We had to skip Hugh Taylor Birch State Park -- 180 acres of park and tropical mangroves -- and Sawgrass Mills with tons of shops and discounts. I did find the Galleria, an upscale mall, close to our hotel, full of well-known department stores and chain restaurants. We missed visiting the NSU Museum of Art, designed by a world-class architect. Perhaps next trip. I may need another easy getaway of puffy clouds and blue skies.
IF YOU GO:
Ft. Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.sunny.org (Check out their live webcam)
Airlines that fly to Ft. Lauderdale: http://www.broward.org/Airport/Business/TenantDirectory/Pages/Airlines.aspx
Water Taxi: watertaxi.com
Bonnet House Museum & Gardens: bonnethouse.org
Butterfly World: butterflyworld.com
Jungle Queen Riverboat: junglequeen.com
Museum of Discovery & Science: mods.org
Pillars Hotel: pillarshotel.com
The Atlantic Resort & Spa: atlantichotelfl.com
Historic Stranahan House Museum: stranahanhouse.org
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