Fort Lauderdale: Beyond the beaches

Anna Walker

There’s more to Florida’s southeastern coast than its beautiful sandy beaches, as Anna Walker discovers…

It’s a beautiful, moonlit night in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I’m standing beneath the stars, soaking up the chatter of locals and the distant thrum of a band and I’m holding something special. Nestled warmly between my fingers and a napkin is a perfectly round, sugar-dusted, deep-fried Oreo. It’s just about the most American thing I can imagine: sugary, decadent and nostalgic. A taste of childhood, for just $1 a pop.

We’re visiting the FAT Village, which on the last Saturday of each month becomes a pop-up artists’ quarter, with musicians, painters, chefs and craftsmen of every kind filling this downtown warehouse district with all manner of alluring colours, sounds and smells. I encounter surreal portraits of celebrities, hand-crafted maps of Florida and homemade soy candles that smell like pudding. Small boys weave in and out of pedestrians on their BMXs, giggling uncontrollably as they topple onto one another, their bikes in a tangled heap.

A fresh lobster roll from GG’s. Image via Anna Walker

The moon is bright and full, and though vibrant in the sunshine, dusk has brought with it a hushed, excited quality to this cultural mecca. It’s still a somewhat underground event, even amongst locals, and you can feel the sense of a shared secret in the air.

A singer by the name of Psychic Dove performs nearby, strumming mellow, Miami-inspired love songs on a shiny black guitar, pausing occasionally for impassioned speeches on the power of music to bring people together. When I chat to him later, he’s on a mission to hunt down some vegan chow from a nearby ramen stall.

A boat ride along Fort Lauderdale’s glamourous waterways

It’s an unforgettable first night in Fort Lauderdale. Home to some of the most postcard-perfect beaches I’ve ever seen, it’s reasonable that many tourists arrive in Miami’s smaller, more relaxed sister expecting nothing more than sunshine and sand. But as I’m to discover, this destination has a lot more to offer.

 

I rise early the next morning, relishing the view from my room at the stylish W Hotel. To the left is the iconic palm-lined promenade, where the sea stretches until it kisses the horizon. It’s scattered with neat signs drawing attention to the sea turtle hatching season: hundreds of babies will shimmy their way up the beaches in the coming months, and several waterfront hotels have changed their lighting so as not to confuse the tiny critters into shuffling in the wrong direction. During my flight I noticed the ocean was littered with little white blobs. I soon realised that I’d actually spotted a huge bale of turtles, swimming just offshore.

"Hundreds of baby turtles will shimmy their way up Fort Lauderdale's beaches in the coming months"

To my right, the view takes in the glittering waterways (all 167 miles of them) that have earned Fort Lauderdale the nickname of “the Venice of Florida”. I explore them up-close that evening, with a private cruise on the Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi. Our guide, Captain Nelson, takes us along “Billionaire’s Row”, the gorgeous secluded waterways lined on either side with the beautiful homes of the rich and famous—each one a veritable Barbie dream house looking out onto the water.

One of many glamourous houses along Fort Lauderdale’s waterways. Image via Anna Walker

Nelson knows everything about this elite neighbourhood, and he’s full of amusing—and sometimes salacious—anecdotes. These are the homes of doctors, lawyers, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, the inventor of Alka Seltzer: you name it, he knows it. We cruise slowly past the home of the owner of Budweiser, right next door to the owner of a rival brewer. Nelson tells us that after one particularly rambunctious party, the rival collected all of his guest’s empty beer cans, and unceremoniously dumped them on Mr Budweiser’s front lawn.

While he describes the hijinks that followed, we’re overtaken by a kayak with a porky dog sprawled across the bow. “That there’s Gatsby,” Nelson explains, without missing a beat. “He made a fortune starring in Purina commercials.” Even the dogs around here are famous.

 

We wave our goodbyes to Nelson and dismount to wander the short distance to Las Olas Boulevard, an eclectic shopping and dining district with some of the cleanest streets I’ve ever seen. We’re headed for dinner at Louie Bossi, a lively Italian restaurant with trendy yet secluded outdoor dining. It’s busy for a Sunday, but the atmosphere is relaxed, and our eager waiter plies us with food and cocktails. I try a vegan Amaretto Sour and fill my belly with “angel’s hair” pasta.

FAT Village after dark

It’s energy food I’m grateful for the next day, where we take a private transfer to Birch State Park to explore some fresh water lagoons via kayak. It’s incredibly tranquil, and a well-placed reminder of Florida’s Everglades heritage. Our guide kayaks backwards, telling us stories about the region as he goes, pointing out plants that would have offered sustenance to Native Americans, when they passed through these parts many years before.

"At one point a huge gator jumps up at the edge of our boat, flipping onto its back, yellow belly exposed"

 

A short drive brings visitors to the nearby city of Hollywood. Perched between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, it’s the ideal blend of the two cities—relaxed like Fort Lauderdale but with a vibrant arts and food scene to rival Miami.

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The soul of the city is encapsulated perfectly by the impressive Downtown Hollywood Mural project—a collection of carefully curated outdoor murals painted by artists from both home and abroad. It lends the entire area an offbeat, quirky charm to cross the road and lock eyes with Salvador Dalí or be met with the shock of pink flamingos when you turn one corner, and a flock of wide-eyed mermaids when you turn the next.

A striking mermaid mural by Miami native Tati Suarez in Downtown Hollywood. Image via Anna Walker

We encounter one mural in the midst of completion, as artist Vickie Pierre puts the finishing touches on her design. A Haitian American, she was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and wants her piece to evoke sentiments of femininity. Vickie works in paint-splattered trousers, in 30-degree heat, but she’s more than happy to pause on hour five of painting to chat with us about her passion for the project.

After stretching our legs, it’s time for lunch. And GG’s Waterfront Bar and Grill might just be the best spot in the city. Serving hungry customers since the 1940s, the restaurant has an engrossing history. A favourite with both Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and the Mafia, the gorgeous waterfront venue was for a time wire-tapped by the FBI. Indeed, a plot to kill Castro was once formulated within its walls.

We feast on delicious Fort Lauderdale stone crabs— GG’s get through 500 tons of the stuff a year—as luxury yachts cruise past. It’s easy to see why the Rat Pack brought all their dates here.

A flat-bottomed boat ride through the iconic Everglades

Away from the serenity of the bay, it’s time to encounter a different side of Florida. We wrench ourselves from the view for the Sawgrass Recreation Park, where a private airboat tour of the iconic Everglades awaits us.

Our guide—Captain Bob—has been skimming the waters on these boats for 52 years. When I ask how he became involved in the Everglades, he points to a hammock between some distant trees. That’s the hunting camp he was raised in. Nowadays it costs huntsmen more to kill an alligator—accounting for tools and a license—than they could realistically make from selling the meat, Bob explains, so the old hunting families have had to be smart.

When he was just ten years old, Bob’s neighbour bought a brand-new airboat. Desperate for a turn in the captain’s chair, he convinced his father to let him take a spin on the boat and he never looked back. Bob laughs as he describes sneaking out to drag race the boats across the glades at night in his teenage years.

When he was just ten years old, Bob’s neighbour bought a brand-new airboat. Desperate for a turn in the captain’s chair, he convinced his father to let him take a spin on the boat and he never looked back. Bob laughs as he describes sneaking out to drag race the boats across the glades at night in his teenage years.

Later, a majestic blue heron swoops overhead with a baby gator clamped firmly in its mouth. It’s incredible how close to nature we feel just a short drive from Downtown Hollywood’s pristine streets.

 

It’s nearly home time, but before we head to the airport, we make one final stop. Billy’s Stone Crab is world-famous, and we’ve heard their stone crabs with mustard sauce are the stuff of legends.

A family restaurant through and through, we dine with proprietor Elena Hershey, who charmingly introduces herself as “Mrs. Billy”. Elena explains that stone crab is special, because once harvested for their claws, they’re re-released back into the waterways. Unlike most crabs, they have the incredible ability to regrow their claws, making this dish sustainable as well as delicious.

As we dine on crab, lobster tails and fresh grouper and snapper, we’re treated to the sight of a fleet of frolicking dolphins playing in the streams of passing yachts.

Our final Floridian bucket list item before we leave is to sample Billy’s Key Lime Pie. The recipe is kept top secret and shipped across the country to the restaurant’s loyal fan base.

Even after a full week of sampling Key Lime Pie (it’s something of a Floridian speciality) Billy’s still manages to be the most delicious dessert of the trip.

I’m reminded of the feeling I got from that deep-fried Oreo on my first night. Nostalgic and sweet, it’s the complete taste of Greater Fort Lauderdale—indulgent comfort with a surprisingly zesty twist.