The Venice of America: Fort Lauderdale
By: Suzanne Ferrara
Not only is Fort Lauderdale known as the ‘Venice of America’; it’s also referred to as the ‘Yachting Capitol of the World’. There are over 165 miles of waterways including finger-chains of canals within this 38-square mile port city. Bordered by 23-miles of sandy beaches along Florida’s Gold Coast and its tropical setting, this city is a true feast for the eyes and all of the senses. (Fact: Fort Lauderdale is known for its certified beaches that uphold high standards of sand cleanliness and water quality. The city has maintained the ‘Blue Wave Beaches’ title by the Clean Beaches Council in Washington, D.C. since 1999).
In addition to sinking your toes into the sand at one of the public or private resort beaches, the next best thing to do, in order to really get a feel for Fort Lauderdale, is to board a water taxi. Aboard these floating taxis, you will glide through the myriad of water channels skirted by an abundance of gorgeous yachts. You can hop on and off the taxis as you please, and stop at restaurants, hotels and shops; it’s also a great way to learn about the area’s rich history and waterways, and to see the plethora of luxury homes with massive waterfront footing at which residents can park mega yachts. (Tip: All-day passes are available as well as sunset cruises offering food and libations).
While hopping aboard a water taxi is the best way to really see Fort Lauderdale, here’s another option: become the captain of your own ship. If you don’t own a boat, no worries; you can rent a 21-footer (and not break the bank), or perhaps kick it up a notch and lease a gorgeous cruiser yacht.
There are a myriad of marinas with available boat rentals and jet skis, plus you can rent a kayak from these marinas and paddle through the channels to the Atlantic. Believe it or not, the Atlantic Ocean here is often as smooth as glass. (Note: There are kayaks, Yolo boards and more available on the beaches).
There are several different beaches to visit; in fact, beach hopping along Ocean Boulevard is a great idea to see what Greater Fort Lauderdale’s Gold Coast has to offer. (Tip: The beaches in Fort Lauderdale are family-friendly and very clean). The iconic Hollywood Beach is famous for its 2.2 mile-long boardwalk which stretches along the beach front, and many would argue that this is the best beach in Fort Lauderdale. Further north, towards the tip of Fort Lauderdale’s coast, is Deerfield Beach (which was the site for 2017’s Baywatch movie). Warning: you may find it hard to decide which beach is your favorite!
Even if you are staying at a posh hotel or resort with a private beach, the gorgeous public beaches are something to see, and many offer beach services including umbrella and chair rentals; there are also clean public restrooms and running faucets to rinse off the sand. Complementing this beach visit, perhaps to give you a respite from the san and sun, is this: right across the street from these beaches are numerous restaurants and shops.
Perhaps one of the most exciting strips which runs perpendicular to Ocean Beach Boulevard is the charming Las Olas Boulevard. Here you will find restaurants, sidewalk cafes, and one-of-a-kind shops and galleries. Suggestion? Make a bee-line straight for Louis Bossi’s Ristorante Bar and Pizzeria. Not only does this bustling eatery exude great atmosphere, but their freshly-made, authentic, mouthwatering dishes are hard to beat and won’t disappoint, thanks to the ever-passionate Executive Chef Louie Bossie and Chef Ben Lichorobiec (the latter of whom started as a grill cook).
Bossi’s great atmosphere spills out to the street through its grand French doors where you can sit outside and people-watch while you dine and/or have a refreshing cocktail. You may also want to grab a table outside in the gorgeous delightful piazza, which is yet another sight to behold. (Tip: Louis Bossi’s is full of professional career waiters, and Carlos is one of those great examples. Be sure to meet the friendly and spirited restaurant manager Emilia Berrios, who will not only give you great menu recommendations, but will also give you a tour chock-full of information about this award-winning eatery. The friendly and caring staff here is evident and is second-to-none).
So what to order? The menu at Louis Bossi’s is extensive, and has enough tasty options that you will have a hard time choosing your appetizer and main dish. A ‘must’ is to start with an out-of-this world charcuterie board; these boards are unlike any other, and include salami, prosciutto, and formaggio made and or cured in-house. (Tip: You cannot go wrong with the following selections for your make your own charcuterie board: The Finocchionas, Tartufo, Barrata with the homemade artisan bread sticks, enhanced with almonds, truffle honey, dried fruits, olives and giardiniera- each is a ‘must’). While the fresh savory soups and Neapolitan pies are also highly recommended, the homemade pasta dishes like the Rigatoni, Linguine Nero and their hand selected Bistecca (aged 18 days) are sure to please your palate. (Fact: All of their pastries, breads and cookies are made in-house daily). (Tip: Booths #21, #22 & #23 are great for those who want to be in the center of all the action, and outside lounge tables #102, #105, and #105 are great for date nights and people watching along Las Olas Boulevard. In the back courtyard, #221 (the Gazebo table) is sought after for wedding proposals and for very romantic evenings.
While there are few reasons to tear yourself away from the heart of Fort Lauderdale, 15 miles north in South Corals you will find a not-to-be-missed authentic experience that won’t require you to travel overseas. Whether it’s for a romantic evening or an evening of fun for the whole family, make a reservation to experience the iconic and legendary Mai Kai Restaurant and Lounge which puts on a show like no other place in America!
To begin with, well… there are no words that could do this tropical mecca justice; you simply have to see it for yourself. Once you arrive, you will know you have entered another world as the sprawling Mai Kai is a recreation of the South Pacific and is dripping in island décor and tiki atmosphere. Tiki torches, a thatch roof, artifact displays, tropical gardens and giant tiki sculptures greet visitors at this island oasis; plus, all the floor managers walk around in white suits just like the one Ricardo Montalban (who played ‘Mr. Roarke’) wore on Fantasy Island.
The Mai Kai is home of an award-winning, extensive Polynesian show, which includes a luau and the exciting Somoan Fire Knife Dance. Since the late 1950s, skilled dancers have been taking guests through a historical and authentic journey of different cultural customs of the South Pacific islands and Hawaii. (Fact: Second and third generation professional dancers and employees work here, thus adding to the joyful experience). The award-winning dinner show also includes a delicious three-course meal and your choice of 50 exotic tropical cocktails, some served in a huge pineapple, coconut or tiki! (Big Tip: There are two tables at the very front of the raised section which butt against the railing and face the stage; these are among the best tables in the house for viewing the show with more than two people. There are also two small tables on the ground floor that face the stage along the aisle; those seat only two people and are excellent choices for date nights).
There are several thematic dining rooms with real artifacts from the French Polynesian Islands and you can dine in these for lunch, dinner or during the show. (Tip: If you are not here for the show, request the Samoan Room so you can sit by the genuine shrunken head; if not, request a curved booth facing the beautiful outside gardens).
Popular dishes with the locals are the Roast Duck Mai-Kai and the Peking Duck, which is one of their specialties but has limited availability. (If you are planning to order the mouthwatering Peking Duck, you will need to order it at least an hour before you arrive, if not the day before). (Big Tip: If you are taking part in the dinner show, be sure to arrive at least an hour early to stroll through the rooms and see all the photographs, artifacts, and to walk through tropical Mai Kai gardens, which are riddled with both small and giant tikis and a massive waterfall. Also, be sure to walk into the Molokai Lounge, a replicated sunken ship which is actually a bar; this, too, will amaze you)!
Even the ladies restroom here has won an award for its authentic Polynesian beauty, so be sure to powder your nose and admire the intricate carvings around the vintage mirrors.
There are truly so many great culinary choices in Fort Lauderdale, and another fantastic option is the Grill 66 and Bar which is located on the iconic Pier 66 marina. This upscale– yet comfortable– restaurant offers gorgeous waterway views, free valet, and 400-feet of docking for your boat or yacht. Among the popular dishes are the succulent choice steaks and seafood creation, and it’s highly recommended you finish off your meal with the made in-house Carrot Cake!
While here, be sure to meet Pier Sixty-Six Hotel and Marina’s Louis Sanchez, who will take you around in a golf cart to see the property, then drop you off (and pick you up) at the restaurant. Sanchez exudes the true hospitality and genuine friendliness of the people who live here, and he has numerous tips and advice on the area. While we are mentioning great people, hotel concierge Leo D’Aleo will bring you up in the legendary revolving tower known as the Pier Top Ballroom, which is an architectural wonder and offers the best 360-degree views of downtown Fort Lauderdale, its finger-channel waterways and the Atlantic Ocean. (Tip: An amazing brunch with this breathtaking panoramic view is held here once a month, so check their website for dates).
I promise with all that Fort Lauderdale has to offer, you will need a good night’s rest. There are so many hotels, mega-resorts, and quaint inns in-and-around the Gold Coast, and it will be hard to choose the one you like as your home away from home. A unique option is to stay at luxury Lago Mar Resort and Club which has an Old Florida feel. This resort is not only quiet, family-friendly, and family-owned (a rarity), but it also has its own private beachfront for guests; in fact, you can watch the cruise ships from your cabana or beach chair.
In addition to its clear turquoise waters, you will likely find beautiful pieces of coral and shells scattered throughout the coastline; be sure to pick up one of these pieces of Mother Nature and take it home to remember this beautiful beach. This resort has a handful of pools–including a ‘quiet pool’– and all are surrounded by tropical plants, flowers and palm trees scattered throughout the property. Be sure to sit in one of a handful of hammocks under a palm tree, and let the ocean breeze melt your cares away; there are also outdoor games, mini-golf and babysitting services available. (Tip: Be sure to make a friend of Michael in concierge; not only is he genuinely friendly and helpful, but he also knows the area and has great recommendations that you can count on)!
There are several dining venues including the Acquario Restaurant which serves modern American cuisine, and has floor-to-ceiling windows to enjoy great views of the pools and stunning beach. (Tip: Be sure to order the mouthwatering Bone-In Pork Chop, Sea Scallops, Voodoo Rock , and Lobster and Avocado Salad. They also offer a three-course dinner menu for $38). Whatever you do, don’t miss the sprawling breakfast brunch with more than a dozen options in the main dining room. (Tip: The waiters here are all very friendly—especially Joan– and make you feel at home). There’s even a soda shop with an old-fashioned countertop where you can order breakfast, lunch, and mouthwatering ice cream creations; Fran from Brooklyn serves everything here with a smile. You can also order cocktails and lunch at the pool, the beach or at the convenient outdoor eating venues.
Whatever you do, do not miss receiving the royal treatment at The Spa at Lago Mar. Allessandra Newsom is the director of this spa, and her immeasurable professionalism and eagerness will make sure your every want is taken care of. You will walk out of this gorgeous spa both relaxed and rejuvenated. (Spa Tips: The two most popular massages are the Signature Himalayan Salt Stone Massage, given by Lisa, and the Therapeutic Deep Tissue Massage, administered by Marge. The number one facial experience is the Luminous ‘C ‘ and ‘Sea’.
There are truly so many special things to experience in Fort Lauderdale and Greater Fort Lauderdale, and you’ll quickly realize that one visit is not enough. As soon as you leave, you will be planning your return trip; with direct and inexpensive flights from so many cities, this one-of-a-kind experience is convenient at any time of year. From its people, innumerable offerings, and cuisine, you will always remember this unmatched, priceless area on the Gold Coast.