If Florida’s a family of blockbuster travel destinations – with Miami and Orlando as the energetic kids – Fort Lauderdale’s like the cool older brother. The one who doesn’t need to raise his voice to command your attention.
Located on the state’s east coast a 38-minute drive from Miami, and three hours from Orlando, this city of 172,000 is the perfect foil to both.
It’s less intense and touristy than its neighbors, while sharing their year-round temperate weather. It’s almost perpetually sunny, and the sea is warm in summer and refreshing through winter.
But Fort Lauderdale’s best quality sets it apart from the pack: it’s found in Broward County, the most progressive (read: gayest) of all Floridian counties.
It’s firmly Democratic in a region where Republicans reign supreme and, according to the US census, has the second highest proportion of LGBTI residents in America.
A lot’s been written about the future of Florida tourism after the tragic shooting in Orlando gay club Pulse in June (which occurred shortly after our visit to Fort Lauderdale), but we’re confident the city, and the state’s, reputation as a mecca for LGBTI travelers will always endure.
With over 30 gay bars and clubs and a handful of LGBTI retirement homes, Fort Lauderdale is surely the queerest place in Florida (that said, the fabulous Key West puts up a good fight).
The heart of Fort Lauderdale’s gay district is Wilton Manors, a ‘city’ of around 12,000. It’s an amalgamation of thriving little villages, with a large number of LGBTI-run or focused businesses to explore.
The nightlife in the area is wonderful. The two liveliest, most welcoming bars are Georgie’s Alibi and Hunters, conveniently located minutes from each other. Men of all ages and tribes move between both.
Alibi does a great late evening drag show, and its Long Island Iced Teas are delicious, huge and utterly lethal. Both are situated in one of those mini-malls you’ll find across the US, and the outside areas spill over into the car park. To British eyes, it’s an odd set up, but it’s brilliant fun.
What to do
If admiring the gay locals on the idyllic Sebastian Street Beach gets boring, there are many other ways to spend your time. Unsurprisingly, most of Fort Lauderdale’s numerous charms are water-based. First up: take a private-hire gondola and explore the residential waterways. You’ll start out at one of the larger tourist docks and sail past some true super-yachts.
The (very) rich and famous keep their ocean-going mansions at Lauderdale and they must be seen to be believed. You’ll then head inwards, and peer into the back gardens of more fabulously wealthy people, as prime real estate in Lauderdale backs onto the water.
The gondola is the perfect way to see some eye-popping property (watch out for the place owned by the family who founded Sunglass Hut – it’s almost unimaginable) and leave yourself feeling green – with envy, not seasickness. If you see anyone in their waterside garden, you’ll likely dive off the gondola to ask them to adopt/marry you.
For the best views, try parasailing, or, alternatively, take a catamaran ride out into the ocean with some goggles and a snorkle. The Atlantic’s still incredibly warm, even that far from land. You could also try a blow-up water trampolining – fantastic fun, once you’ve mastered the art of climbing onto it. Our tip is to use it as a giant sun lounger.
Then, for a truly as-seen-on-TV experience, get yourself down to Sawgrass Recreation Park and take an airboat tour of the Everglades. It’s fascinating, and a little chastening, to understand the impact man has had on the ecosystem here.
These attractive tropical wetlands are crucial to the state’s native wildlife, and there’s an abundance of it to be seen there: from native birds to alligators (there’s an estimated 1.25 million in Florida). We were fortunate enough to see two up close.
Last, but by no means least, shopping. You go to the States, you shop. Them’s the rules. Very considerately, the state of Florida has placed Sawgrass Mills a convenient distance from Fort Lauderdale.
It’s the largest outlet mall in the US (which is saying something) and we defy you not to buy so much you’ll consider getting another suitcase while you’re there.
It’s actually located on the highway that heads towards the airport, and there’s a luggage storage facility there, so it’s the perfect last stop. If you’re not a shopper, but your other half is, you can park yourself in the food court and devour cheaply priced, gargantuan slices of pizza pie – it doesn’t count when you’re on holiday.
East coast eats
Indeed, you can’t mention America without mentioning food. There’s an incredible culture of both food and food service in and Fort Lauderdale. We couldn’t find a bad meal in the entire city.
Must-dos in the city include they Hyde Beach Kitchen on Hallandale Beach. It’s the sort of place you’d see on the Real Housewives of *insert city here*, all stylish furniture, exceptional cocktails and truly mouthwatering waiters.
The sprawling sun terrace overlooks a beautiful beach, and the beautiful people sat on it. The Hyde does a fish and chips comparable with the best Blighty can offer, possibly because we had ours with a brunch Martini…
Later, be sure to check out the homely Rosie’s Bar and Grill [below] in the gayborhood, with its guilty pleasure breakfasts and unmistakably relaxed, inclusive vibe.
For a break from the gay district, try some eats in the Las Olas neighborhood. Las Olas Boulevard itself sums up Fort Lauderdale. It’s where the everyday and the extraordinary meet – the cars on the street range from Fords to Ferraris – and has some of the very best cuisine in the city in one place. Of particular note is Louie Bossi’s, on the boulevard itself. It delivers some of the best Italian dishes this side of Naples, along with an atmosphere that’s best described as buzzing.
If, however, you really want to push the boat out, you absolutely must take a trip to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and the recently opened Kuro Asian Cuisine.
You mightn’t associate casinos with fine dining, but the Hard Rock will change that. This is a masterclass is haute cuisine. The setting is glorious – it’s worth having a meal there simply to take in the chandeliers – but you could be eating in a caravan and you wouldn’t notice once the food comes out.
It’s like nothing we’ve ever tasted. Everything is mouth-watering, from the sushi to the sea bass. The waygu tacos are a thing of beauty, and the beef (heated yourself on a hot stone ishiyaki) is almost indescribable. Accompanied by a specially designed cocktails – try the Roku – and followed up with some Japanese doughnuts – you’ll want to eat 18 – this will, we promise, rank as one of the greatest meals you’ve ever eaten.
Where to stay
At the upper end of the scale, you’ve got the achingly trendy W Fort Lauderdale. It’s minimalist, lots of white and marble, with spectacular views from the balconies. (You’ll find plenty of bathtubs with a view.) The pool is the sort you see in glossy magazines in dentists’ waiting areas.
Another option we’d seriously recommend is the Pelican Grand Beach Resort. While the W glories in sumptuous minimalism, the Pelican is more traditional – it’s cosy rather than contemporary. Both are equally plush in their own way, so it really does depend on your personal taste.
It sits right on the beach (the W has a road separating it from the sand) and, more than this, it has its own beach. You can roll to it straight from breakfast on the veranda, where hotel staff will set up your loungers and umbrellas, and keep you full of cocktails. Oh, and you can even get an ice cream from the in-house parlour.
Norwegian (www.norwegian.com/0330 8280854) offers three weekly low-cost flights from London Gatwick to Fort Lauderdale starting from just £159 one way in a new state-of-the-art Dreamliner aircraft. Pelican Grand Beach Resort (www.pelicanbeach.com) offer rates in October from $299 (*206.68) Visit www.sunny.org for further information on the destination.