Book Your Fort Lauderdale Hotels

Sloppy college students sporting beer bongs, wet t-shirt contests and MTV dance fevers may not be your bag and you may be like me in the desire to find a place to vacation that isn't overrun with twenty-somethings flexing their muscles and other body parts. Most especially during the two week period that has transformed itself into a quarter of the year, the season that has hoteliers and bartenders rubbing their greedy hands together and college students stuffing thongs, condoms and Advil into their little carryons; the time of year that many locals in Daytona, Cancun and South Padre Island batten down the hatches and lay up comestibles in the bomb shelters: the dreaded Spring Break.

No Spring Breakers were lounging
at the Ugly Tuna Saloona
at the Riverwalk.

Yeah, I admit that "in the days" I overindulged in keg induced debauchery and anything that was likely to compel women to strip off their shirts was likely to set my mouth to watering. Now, though, I am a kinder, gentler and less misogynistic fellow, much more likely to enjoy the silence of a sunset or an excellent meal that is not accompanied by the hoots and hollers of the hormonally challenged youth our nation's upper education system is likely to spew forth from the end of February into the middle of April.

"Where oh where, wise travel sage, may I enjoy the sun and surf and not be overrun by teeming hordes of horny youth on break from their laborious studies of underwater basket weaving and the literature of 17th century Botswana?" Well, Grasshopper, the answer may surprise you, for I have found a veritable treasure trove of fun stuff to do in one of the nation's original Spring Break destinations. A place replete with museums, sporting attractions, nightlife and most especially fine dining, and it is all aligned alongside over 23 miles of beautiful beach and crystal clear water. Greater Fort Lauderdale is the name and grown up, non-"Yeee Haaaw!! Let's get wasted!!" fun is the game.

Two Street Coffee
Garage mural.

"How can this be, oh venerable and well informed travel scribbler?" Who can say but the truth is in the tale of the tape. Since 1985 the total number of travelers visiting the Ft. Lauderdale area has gone up substantially and the number of spring breakers has declined;1985 saw 3.3 million visitors to the area with 370,000 of them designated as spring breakers, while in 2002 some 8.1 million folks visited and from that number only 20,000 were college kids on hiatus from their diligent studies. As a matter of fact it looks like for the last three years that number of 20,000 has stabilized, no doubt the more adult and less impulse driven of those college kids looking for a quiet place of their own to actually relax as opposed to murdering off a few million of their own brain cells. There is hope for us yet.

I was lucky enough to be able to, on the dole, spend a few days in the area while my lovely and well employed significant other attended a conference. For four days, while Cindy labored to learn about city administration, I meandered some of the areas and attractions around town and then we were able to dine and explore together at night. On the whole I had an excellent good time and left many of Ft. Lauderdale's draws unexplored, reason enough to return and get some of those other things done at a later date.

Ft. Lauderdale has some of
the most beautiful diving
in the U.S.

Initially we had been booked into a hotel that was not very well represented to us by a broker who specializes in web based booking of hotel rooms that are pet friendly. Not wishing to bad mouth anyone I will forego naming this particular service or the hotel that they had booked us into; I will just say that if you avail yourself of such a service I highly recommend that you call the hotel in question before booking your stay and make sure that things are as they are represented. We were not on the beach and the hotel in question had no idea that we would be bringing the ever-present Sunny dog with us. Although they did make an attempt to get us into a room, it was a less than thrilling accommodation, and what was supposed to be a beachfront room ended up having an excellent view of one of the areas many dwelling-lined canals.

A couple of hours searching and asking around did get us into a wonderful hotel that was very reasonably priced and located right on the beach. The Merriweather was a great place to stay and inexpensive to boot. Our room was actually somewhat unbelievable for what we paid for it. For less than $100 a night we had a setup that boasted a full front room, a separate bedroom, a well appointed kitchenette, two bathrooms, two TVs and a stereo. We were charged a one time cash fee of $25 for the pet and that went directly into the pocket of our housekeeper (ya gotta love that). The staff was extremely friendly and the feel of the place was like family. By the end of our three days we knew half the staff and a dozen guests by name.

Alhough there were pets allowed the management was very discerning on admitting only well behaved animals. The pool was deep and clean and I had a fully functional blender on my kitchen counter. Truly, what more could you ask for? Boat drinks poolside! They even provided a Tupperware pitcher and glasses so you can take your home ground libation down to the pool with you. I loved it and I highly recommend this place for families and others who enjoy an extremely friendly and easygoing place to stay. The beach was right across the street; within walking distance were beachside clubs such as the Elbo Room, Sloop John B, Lulu's Bait Shack, and a number of affordable restaurants also dotted the area.

One last note on pets: we found but a few hotels that allowed pets and considered ourselves extremely lucky to have stumbled upon the Merriweather as most pet friendly lodgings were nowhere near the beach and not necessarily of a quality I would recommend. One should also know that the beaches in Ft.Lauderdale and even the sidewalks lining them are prohibited to pets. This is not an idle restriction; I was stopped by police every time I tried to sneak my pooch down the sidewalk. They were very friendly about it and I was not ticketed but if a romp on the beach with your dog is what you have in mind I am here to say you will not find a conducive environment in Ft. Lauderdale for this. Pitiful as it is, I am overly connected to my dog, yet I can understand and even agree with this policy. The beaches in Ft. Lauderdale are beautiful and extremely well groomed but they are also busy. It doesn't take much of an imagination to see why they don't want hundreds of dogs and the attendant detritus that dogs leave behind on their scenic beaches. Also one is in something of a quandary as to where to carry that doggie doodie bag while clad in Speedo or bikini. I did not research this, I am sure there are places that welcome dogs along the beach but it might be best to make arrangements to leave Fido behind if visiting the Greater Ft. Lauderdale area.

I have avoided the teeming teens and found luxurious surroundings. now what shall I occupy my time? Where to start? Let us speak of things that I accomplished and then look to the future. While exploring the area I found more to do than I had expected and I left much undone. I hit both the Museum of Science and Discovery and the Museum of Art, both located within a few blocks of the Riverwalk District. The Museum of Science and Discovery is a great place to visit, especially if you have some kids to entertain. The museum has a massive clock run on the old mousetrap principles out front - kill time watching the ball make all the little thingies move. There were a myriad of interactive displays explaining scientific principles that were fun and informative even to a big overgrown kid like myself. Exhibits showcasing Florida's tidal regions and wildlife are stocked with actual critters and were highly interesting and educational. The facility is topped off by an IMAX theater that I was unable to attend, but past experience tells me that these are always worth the time and expense for a visual feast.

The clock outside the Museum
of Science & Discovery reminded
me of the old Mousetrap game.

The Museum of Art was another great hit and featured displays from William Glackens, masks of the Yoruba, and an exhibition on the three titans of CoBrA: Appel, Dotremont & Jorn. I was, however, entranced by the exhibit on display titled The Tumultuous Fifties: A View from the New York Times Photo Archives. This was a compelling display of selections from and I was spellbound by the look back into our history, which for some reason seemed all the more poignant in our troubled times. Nixon and Khrushchev touring a Russian mock up of an American kitchen, Che and Fidel conspiratorially whispering to each other, Rosenburg in a Hitleresque mustache flanked by a couple of weak chinned FBI guys, one after the other telling a tale of days gone by that shed a light on days we live through now. I could go on at length about this display, how the look of the average guy on the street in New York brought thoughts of that city's troubled past to the surface, of the chill brought on by the smiling teacher presiding over students huddled under their desks during a nuclear bomb drill. This is a powerful group of pics and failing the ability to visit this exhibition I would highly recommend the book, although you will forego the power of confronting a number of these images in life-sized prints.

At one end of Las Olas is the
Riverwalk, great for nightlife.

Both of these museums are located near the Riverwalk, a mall complex at the end of Las Olas Blvd. We spent quite a few hours over a couple of days and nights in this area of town browsing the shops and sampling the restaurants. This is a great spot and also comes highly recommended. The shops and galleries are extensive and offer up a plethora of window shopping and dining experiences. We found ourselves in this area just about every time we wanted some decent chow. We lunched at the Japanese Village prior to a tour through the Stranahan House and had some sumptuous sushi at very affordable prices.

The Stranahan House is a look
into Ft. Lauderdale's past.

The Stranahan House was a great and informative hour long tour of the first house to be built in the Ft. Lauderdale area by the Stranahan family who owned the first home in the area which served multiple duties as a trading post, bank, school, ferry crossing and Post Office. Fully furnished in period antiques, it offered a glimpse into the lifestyle of the founders of Ft. Lauderdale during the pioneer era.

Las Olas offers varied cuisine opportunities, from Cheeburger Cheeburger to the pepperoni sticks at Riverfront Pizza. A walk around to the western side of the Riverwalk will put you at Two Street Coffee Garage where Dave will pull you a massive mocha amid the stylish zinc tables and a beautiful mural taken from a turn-of-the-century coffee advertisement.

Our favorite plate was served up on Las Olas at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Noodles & Panini.

Noodles & Panini was our
favorite dining spot.

Set up as a sidewalk café that also offers indoor dining, the food here was a good as anywhere else in the world I have dined. I do not exaggerate, if you are looking for truly fantastic food I cannot say enough about this place. All of the soups, dressings, sauces and spreads are made from scratch. They make their own mozzarella, bake their desserts in-house and roast their own turkey and beef for the panini (sandwiches). Initially, I had the house roasted beef panini, finished my girlfriend's vodka splashed proscuitto penne which she was unable to finish - it was large and unbelievably rich. We returned and I tried the Portobello penne with grilled chicken and goat cheese with Parmigiano reggiano. Cindy tried one of their fantastic salads. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. As we sat and shared a walnut chocolate brownie a la mode and I sipped an older tawny port (try it! Chocolate and port; awesome!) the theme from the Godfather started playing in the background. As I gazed at the vines twisted with glittering lights hanging alongside earthen pots strung from the rafters in the awning, I knew that Vito Corleone never had it so good. I would move into this joint if they would let me. Don't let this place get past you.

Another local attraction that we were able to get to that should be mentioned was the Jai Alai games in the Dania section of town. I hooked up with a couple of old friends and the four of us made our way to Dania and we decided to satisfy our curiosities as to the break neck sport of Jai Alai. We met outside the facility and had hoped to dine there but were informed that men in sandals could not enter the dining room inside. After finding a nice little restaurant amid the many antique shops in Dania we made our way back to Dania Jai Alai and settled in for a few rounds.

The Dania Jai Alai fronton has pari-mutuel betting for both the games being played in house and for horse races being broadcast on monitors throughout the expansive building. Food and drink are served at either end and there is a large seating area. We beered up and made our way to our seats.

Jai Alai in Dania for a
little gambling fever.

Jai Alai is a game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France and the words translate to Merry Festival, a description more of when the game is played than what it actually is. The game is really a version of handball known as "pelota vasca", or Basque ball. The pelota (ball) is caught and thrown by a player using a cesta (a "basket" worn on the hand) against a wall in the fronton. There is a large net set in front of the court to protect the spectators from the ballistic speeds these balls sometimes reach. Both singles and doubles are played in a round robin competition.

We never really deciphered the game in our brief outing but had a lot of fun nonetheless. Our giggling was only overshadowed by our cheers and howls of protest as we joined the crowd in expressing ourselves. After watching just a few games we were ready to place bets - we had figured that much out at least. We did not win any money, but we had a good time cavorting with old friends and getting to know a new sport and one that seemed to move at the speed of sound at times.

Left - one of the larger denizens of Butterfly World;
right - a hummingbird bathes in one of the
fountains provided at Butterfly World.

In an effort to slow down our relaxation, the following day we made our way north to Butterfly World in the suburb of Coconut Creek. If you are, a bird watcher, like myself, this facility is a must see. There are a number of enclosed spaces exhibiting hummingbirds and smaller birds, tropical plants and butterflies, from all over the world. This place was a gas, watching the butterflies flit through the air amidst the strains of relaxing classical music. In one of the following displays, a number of parrots that were available for photography decided that the sweater Cindy was wearing was a good place to hang out and she was mobbed. Hilarious. I really dug this place, the colors were unreal, and one could learn a ton about butterflies, or just sit and watch them on their untroubled, jangled path through the air.

That brought us to the end of our time is Greater Fort Lauderdale. We will almost certainly return to hit a concert or utilize the airport (a wonderful and less congested alternative to the Miami Airport as just about anyone in South Florida will tell you), and when we do, I hope to make it more than just a quick stop. A number of attractions that I had checked off to check out slipped past us. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum of Seminole history, and the Old Dillard Museum featuring African and African-American culture were a couple of places that I still definitely want to check out. The Billie Swamp Safari and the Everglades Day Safari into the Everglades will probably be an article unto itself. The Flamingo Gardens botanical garden and Everglade wildlife sanctuary is calling my name as well. I never made it onto the water taxis in town to check out all the unbelievable homes in the canals of Ft. Lauderdale. The Pompano Park horse track, and the Hollywood Greyhound are both places I'd like to lose some money. Or some shopping at Sawgrass Mills, antiquing back in Dania (along with the Hurricane; I can't believe I missed the roller coaster!). The list goes on! So much to do and so little time.

- Feature and photos by Moko Delano, Southern Florida Correspondent.