Fort Lauderdale has come a long way

05/23/2010 12:00 AM

05/23/2010 12:28 AM

If you had gone to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the 1970s, you would have found a pleasant, fairly nondescript South Florida city with some impressive waterways, a good beach and a rowdy, alcohol-soaked spring-break bacchanalia. That last element might have put it off-limits for you.

Today, it's a much-improved destination. Its beachy charms remain intact, improved by Atlantic Boulevard's handsome oceanfront promenade, built several years ago. The spring-break scene is much tamer than before (despite remnants such as the famous Elbo Room bar). And a number of new attractions and cultural institutions, as well as improved dining and shopping, have greatly raised the level of quality.

And yet, though efforts have been made to redevelop the beachfront with pricey resorts like the W and the St. Regis, there remain quite a few lodging options for $100 or less per night. Just a block or two in from the beach and the stretch of Atlantic Boulevard just south of Sunrise Boulevard are a number of motels, guesthouses and short-term apartment rentals in a grid of streets ending in "-mar" (Terramar, Auramar, Windamar); examples include Vistamar Villa and the Seville Hotel.

You definitely will want to rent a car, as not all sights and attractions are near each other. One popular favorite, a mile in from the beach, is gracious Las Olas Boulevard, with its appealing dining and window-shopping. Continue west and you'll come across fine institutions such as the Museum of Art (marvelous temporary exhibitions, and especially strong in modern art) and the Museum of Discovery and Science (one of the nation's better science museums). Closer to the beach, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, including an aquatic complex, is perfect for South Florida.

If you're a diehard shopper, you'll then head west to Sawgrass Mills, an enormous mall complex that includes many discount outlets and a fun, educational, high-tech attraction: Wannado City, where children play at being firefighters, doctors, archaeologists and other professions.

There's even a bit of bona fide history and ecotourism here. Stranahan House (close to downtown) and Bonnett House (near the beach) are early-20th-century windows into old Florida, while across from the latter is Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, a rare example of an original "tropical hammock" environment, where you can fish, canoe or simply stroll. Out west, the Billie Swamp Safari offers nature tours through the local Seminole Indian reservation via airboat and "swamp buggy."

Incidentally, another popular beach destination in the same county — the city of Hollywood, just south of Fort Lauderdale — also has seen a resurgence, and has its own lively beachfront promenade and charming downtown. It's inordinately popular with Canadians — especially French Canadians — who started wintering in South Florida after a Sunny Isles Motel manager started promoting his and other local properties in Quebec in the 1970s, offering inexpensive bus packages and even bringing Quebecois TV stars down for the winter. When high-rises started replacing Sunny Isles Motels, the scene moved up the coast to Hollywood.

These days, it's estimated that some 750,000 Quebecois still come down every year, often staying for weeks or months in the modest mom-and-pop motels still common here, such as Richard's Motel (doubles from $57), one of several properties run by expatriate Quebecker Richard Clavet.

To top off the appeal of this Florida standout, travelers can print out an online coupon (found at www.Sunny. org/241) entitling them to two-for-one discounts at important Lauderdale-area attractions, good from now until Sept. 30.

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