Beyond Beach Blanket Bingo

I moved to the Fort Lauderdale area in the spring of 1985, arriving sometime in the late evening. I didn't waste any time. By 8 a.m. I was lying out on the beach, oiled up for a tan that would rival George Hamilton's. I wanted sun, as much politically incorrect sun as my skin could possibly take without peeling like cheap paint.

I didn't go to just any beach, either (and there were about a zillion to choose from), I hit Fort Lauderdale Beach. That swath of sand right across from The Strip made forever famous in the 1960 film Where the Boys Are. (Like most people, I avoided the 1984 remake with Lorna Luft).

Fort Lauderdale Back Then

Yep, I wanted to experience spring break and full throttle. I listened to loud, mind-numbing music in local nightclubs. I watched hard bodies in string bikinis half-heartedly try to keep their tops on in the pounding surf. I played Frisbee. I bought one of those "I'm with Stupid" T-shirts and then stood next to goofy-looking tourists (hey, it seemed funny at the time). And I ordered all sorts of tropical concoctions garnished with tiny umbrellas. Fort Lauderdale was a hedonistic hoot back then, and I was not disappointed.

Undergoing Transformation

But nothing lasts forever. Today, Fort Lauderdale is a city undergoing a transformation. The Strip has been stripped of most of its gaudiness. Few of the cheesier establishments remain. The only wet T-shirts you're likely to see are on young children whose parents don't want them to get sunburned when they play at the beach. Stand on the corner of Las Olas at A1A (Fort Lauderdale's equivalent of Hollywood and Vine), and the raunchiness of spring breaks gone by seems like a distant dream, the throngs of screaming college kids having been herded off to more noise-tolerant cities like Daytona Beach. What you now see is a vibrant urban revitalization with no signs of letting up. Oh-so-cool sidewalk cafes have replaced tacky souvenir shops. New hotels overlook the calm, turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. A giant, $50 million entertainment and retail complex, appropriately called BeachPlace, anchors one of the main corners, where upscale shops and restaurants signal a new directions. These days, you're as apt to see a 40-year-old Brazilian banker on Rollerblades as a teenage townie with a baseball cap on backwards and hula girls tattooed on his biceps.

Greater Than Ever

Even the beach has changes. A few years ago, the parking spaces next to the beach (a prime pit stop for kids who cruised The Strip) were bulldozed to make way for a wide promenade and a sleek, low wall illuminated by tiny neon waves, the kind of wall that seems to scream, "No loitering, Bub." Dozens of gorgeous coconut palms were planted, offering welcome shade and a warm, subtropical feel. The transformation is so dramatic that Greater Fort Lauderdale unabashedly adopted a new tagline — Greater Than Ever Fort Lauderdale.

Vestiges of the Past

That's not to say that good-old Fort Lauderdale has completely vanished. You'll still find vestiges of it in all the quaint, little motels from the '50s (many with the original funky furnishings that have become so stylish again), in the friendly neighborhood pubs that haven't changed in decades, and in that venerable, uniquely Floridian mode of transportation known as the "water taxi," an open-air sightseeing boat that put-puts up and down the canals.

Obsessed with Water

Water, you see, is Fort Lauderdale's most distinctive feature. Nearly 300 miles of navigable waterways crisscross Broward County, which is how the city got its nickname, "The Venice of America." "Water World" is more like it. Here, people buy boats the way people buy cars in Detroit. They live on catamarans, keep wave runners in their carports and "boat" over to their neighbors, instead of walking.

If you love water, Fort Lauderdale is a dream come true. The city's annual indoor boat show is the world's largest. The Christmas parade isn't a bunch of boats winding down main street; it's a bunch of floats winding down main street; it's a bunch of boats floating down the Intracoastal Waterway. Fort Lauderdale is so obsessed with water, there's even an International Swimming Hall of Fame with unusual aquatic memorabilia like Mark Spitz's starting block from the Olympics and a live-size wax sculpture of Johnny Weissmuller.

Of course, Fort Lauderdale is more than just water, beaches and an average temperature of 77 balmy degrees. Yeah, right. Despite the fact that Fort Lauderdale is building an urban downtown with 20-story office buildings and a quasi-financial district, Fort Lauderdale still revolves around the sun and sea. Always will.

The Waves

However, there's only so much land near the beach, and most of it's taken, which has fueled the city's gentrification westward, primarily into an area called Las Olas, which means "The Waves" in Spanish. Strictly speaking, Las Olas is the main boulevard, which is lined with gourmet restaurants, fine antique stores and extraordinary boutiques, the sort where it's déclassé to ask the price before making a purchase.

But, to me, Las Olas represents much more than a swanky shopping district. It's a symbol of all that's good with urban renewal. Unlike Miami's trendy South Beach, Las Olas hasn't gotten too big, too quickly. It's a kinder, gentler, more mainstream redo. At one end lies The Strip; at the other end stands the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, an impressive bastion of culture, especially for a town that prides itself on what's outdoors, not indoors. Most everything else you could possibly want lies in between, including a vibrant new outdoor entertainment and retail complex. Located on the New River one block west of the museum, where Las Olas Boulevard meets Southwest First Street, Las Olas Riverfront combines fine and casual dining with nightclubs, movies and high-tech entertainment.

Historic homes such as the Stranahan House and Bonnet House offer a glimpse of the hardships settlers endured in the early part of this century (people actually lived here before air-conditioning?). A five-story IMAX movie screen and hands-on exhibits for kids draw thousands to the Museum of Science and Discovery. And the $50 million Broward Center for the Performing Arts now lures those who once jetted off to New York for opera and theater.

Best Big City

Still, it's the subtropical look and feel of Fort Lauderdale that really gets me. Colorful bougainvillea cascades over Spanish tile roofs. Exotic palms (my favorite is the gru-gru, whose trunk is protected by thousands of vicious thorns) sway in the cool breezes. Bizarre African sausage trees soar 30 feet into the impossibly blue sky. Wild lime-green parrots squawk happily overhead. The water color seems to change on a whim, from cobalt to emerald to crystal-clear. This may not be Shangri-La, but it's not far off.

But, of course, The Strip will always be center stage for the many millions who flock to Fort Lauderdale, a town that's become so livable Money magazine voted it "America's Best Big City" in 1996. And, like me, they all come for the exact same thing. As Connie Francis put it in the original Where the Boys Are, "What do you say we blast off for the beach?"

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