I had the good fortune to visit some great places and experience new activities while on a recent visit to Fort Lauderdale for an event hosted by the Florida Convention and Visitors Bureau. Many of us who live in colder climates come to Fort Lauderdale for its pristine beaches and charming intercostal waterways. In fact, we had the opportunity to view several beachfront hotel properties in town including Sonesta, the W, Westin and the B Ocean - all of which have their own identity, style and budget, and all of which I would highly recommend to anyone who wants the full beach experience. Indeed, the Fort Lauderdale Beach is where it’s at!
However, Fort Lauderdale is more than sun, sand and surf. If you're not a big beach person, in town for a day or two before or after a cruise, or just looking for a way out of the sun for a while, here are a few interesting places I discovered on my visit.
Flamingo Gardens - Botanical Gardens and Wildlife Sanctuary. If you are into gardens, this is your place. You'll find exotic trees with names like "pink trumpet tree" and "Panama candle tree" and some gorgeous gardens including a butterfly garden, hummingbird garden and a children's fragrance garden. Getting married? There's a wedding gazebo to make your special day special! Be sure to check out the many beautiful peacocks that freely roam the property. This 60-acre oasis also features a wildlife sanctuary with alligators, otters, lots of birds, bobcats, turtles and, of course, pink flamingos! Our group had a special visit with Josh the Bear, where, with the help of his kind-hearted and informative handler, we had the opportunity to feed this beautiful animal which the facility rescued in 2013.
Bonnet House Museum & Gardens. What a surprise this special place is! Sitting just off the beach and surrounded by shopping plazas, restaurants, and luxury hotels is the last remaining preserved piece of serene property dating back to the late 1800s when Ft. Lauderdale was just wetlands and dunes. The home, formerly occupied by late artists, Frederick Bartlett and Evelyn Lilly, is loaded with odd, yet interesting collectibles from all over the world. The gardens are beautiful, though seemingly overrun with iguanas, and the property is also rented out for weddings and events. Before Evelyn died in 1997 (at the age of 109!), she had the good sense to give Bonnet House to the Florida Trust, with the express provision that the land be preserved and enjoyed for future generations.
Sawgrass Recreation Park. Sawgrass is a family run business primarily featuring Everglades airboat rides. They offer rides for individuals, small and large groups, on airboats of various sizes. For our small group of 4, we had a private 30 minute ride on one of their small boats. It was my first airboat ride ever, and it was a blast racing over the grass-laden swamp. Wildlife wasn’t as abundant as I thought it would be, but we did stop to watch a couple of gators. Our guide was informative, filling us in on everything Everglades related. There is also a small wildlife sanctuary on site, featuring large and small endangered and exotic animals. The handlers were there to answer questions and offered visitors a chance to hold several, so it was educational and fun.
Jungle Queen. The large, impressive Jungle Queen river boat has been cruising the canals since 1935. There are daytime sightseeing cruises, sightseeing and tropical isle cruises and the cruise we did - the sightseeing dinner and show cruise. Dinner and entertainment take place on their “jungle isle”, and on the way, you’ll cruise past lavish homes of the rich and famous and their mega yachts, complete with narration. Dinner is in a large covered pavilion, served family style on long tables, and consists of BBQ baby back ribs, chicken, shrimp and fries. Once you’ve had your fill, you can walk around and admire the animals and have a seat for the show. The variety show featured four acts, and they all were hilarious and fun, especially due to the audience participation. The hard seats we sat on, however, were painful. It was a fun night, though, but in all honesty, I didn’t really enjoy the dinner part, mainly due to my dislike of massive group dining experiences. But that's just me. if you don't mind communal dining in a crowded, noisy atmosphere, accompanied by an overly-loud band, then this is for you.
Fort Lauderdale Air Show. We just happen to be in town during this annual event. I hadn't seen stunt planes and since I was a kid, so this was a special treat. The weather was perfect, and our hosts provided us with a covered VIP viewing area complete with food and drinks. Obviously, because the traffic is nuts and hotel rooms are scarce surrounding the weekend of the air show, you might want to choose another time for your visit to Ft. Lauderdale. Unlike the air shows in my home state which take place over a hot air field, this one is perfectly located ocean side. Admittedly, I am spoiled now for air shows. With a private tent and section of beach, I don't think I'll want to view another air show any other way again!
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Mermaid Show at the B Ocean, an underwater burlesque, so to speak, which takes place in the hotel’s Wreck Bar. Basically, the Mermaid Show features windows to the underwater portion of the adjacent pool which faces the bar, and pretty young women in full mermaid attire swimming around, stopping at the windows to peer in, smile, wave, and blow kisses. The later show, for ages 21 and older, goes on at 9:30, but we went to the 6:30 pm family-friendly performance. I must admit, it all felt a bit strange. With the guys hooting it up at the bar as they ogled the finned females, and the little kids loving the whole mermaid thing, it seemed like an odd mix of The Little Mermaid meets burlesque. Still, it was fun to watch.
So, the next time you’re in Ft. Lauderdale, look beyond the beach for a new experience!