The Fresh Face of Fort Lauderdale
Apr 02, 2020 12:46PM
By Patricia Letakis
Sandwiched between the intense urban glamour of Miami and the sophisticated wealth of Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale has always been a more relaxed destination best defined by beach and boat. On this quintessential Florida day of bright skies and breezy weather, I’m out to rediscover the city’s vibe, starting from my home base at the W Fort Lauderdale resort.
In fact, I’m located right smack in the center of the beach boulevard that skirts the Atlantic Ocean. Here traffic—cars cruising black asphalt and bikini-clad pedestrians parading along the sands—is always bustling. Other upscale properties, the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons (opening fall 2020), have claimed spots on this coveted seaside stretch as well.
To get the lay of the land, I’ve joined a group of bicyclists and we’re pedaling comfy cruisers with oversize baskets, compliments of the hotel, alongside the sandy shore. A sharp turn takes us onto Sunrise Boulevard and speeding across a drawbridge, one of several constructed over the Intracoastal Waterway to connect the beach with the mainland and also to offer tall boats passage.
Arriving at George English Park, we find canary-yellow kayaks waiting for us on the grassy bank of the Middle River. After a quick lesson with the Blue Moon Outdoor Adventures staff, we’re off with our guide, Lauren Ridley, paddling alongside towering million-dollar yachts that dwarf us as we glide by. The river widens, narrows and turns as we pass low-rise condominiums and homes that boast spacious patios with pools and private boats for exploring the watery maze of canals for which Fort Lauderdale is so well known.
At one point, Ridley stops and says, “Look, there’s the W. Notice how it was designed to resemble a cruise ship.” And sure enough, from a distance you can see the lines, curves and slants of an ocean liner in the hotel’s architecture. She continues, explaining that the design was intentional and part of the city’s plan to promote Fort Lauderdale as one of the top three cruise ports in the world.
Back at the hotel, it’s time to cool off and mix with the see-and-be-seen crowd congregating at WET, which happens to be the resort’s clever name for the pool area. Bold geometric tiles add a classy look to the deck surrounding a big square pool, but the highlight is the picture-window walls of the pool’s stairway that allow you to see bathers swimming underwater or their sun-tanned legs as they wade about sipping tropical cocktails. Mingling at WET is part of the W experience—whether people watching from a perch at the adjacent grill or soaking up the sun from a lounger.
Taking in the scene, I’m starting to understand what general manager Anna MacDiarmid had described to me the first day of my arrival. “The W is a lifestyle property,” she said, elaborating on how W guests expect a certain experience they won’t find at other luxury properties. It’s all about being ready with the latest—and the next—great design, fashion, music and food.
Although there are plenty of restaurants on Fort Lauderdale’s beachfront strip, the W has two of the most popular restaurants: Steak 954 and the newer El Vez. Dinner at Steak 954 starts with a stroll down a corridor where a wall has been transformed into an illuminated royal blue aquarium. It’s filled with moon jellyfish distinguished by floral-like markings on their translucent bodies. Watching them gracefully float about is hypnotic, until the spell is broken by the deep welcoming laugh of our waiter, Maxwell. Tall with salt-and-pepper hair and a well-trimmed beard, he ushers us to our table and showers us with meticulous attention.
First he presents a baby beet salad with toasted pistachios and goat cheese, then a prime 40-day dry-aged New York strip that competes with a miso broiled sea bass with maitake mushrooms and baby bok choy for best entrée. Sides such as roasted cauliflower and a rich creamy mac and cheese arrive. The finale is a chocolate cake that Maxwell lavishly describes as having milk crumble, passion fruit and malted vanilla bean ice cream, which leaves us with our mouths watering.
The next morning I’m enjoying breakfast at El Vez. Its open-air patio is elevated just enough from street level so when seated I have a clear, unobstructed view of the surf and sand studded with swaying palm trees against an intense blue sky. The Mexican restaurant is known for its huevos rancheros—fried eggs with salsa, chorizo, black beans and guacamole—while its dinner menu revolves around classic Mexican dishes with emphasis on Baja-style cooking and Florida’s seafood.
Sipping coffee, I study the nearby bar and its collection of top-shelf tequilas prominently displayed. Beyond the bar is a brightly colored dining room with murals depicting Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday.
One of the perks of staying at the W is the opportunity to participate in a complimentary morning boot camp session—or a yoga class—on the sands. I can see Alvaro Figares setting up cones and unpacking battle ropes. Fit and toned to the envy of most, he greets boot camp participants with a friendly smile and his warm personality puts any shy first-timer like me at ease. Dressed in a fitted dark-gray T-shirt and board shorts, the trainer stands barefoot on the sand as he starts the workout with jumping jacks to get the heart rate up and works me through stretches, squats, sprints and my favorite: building upper body strength by pulling elastic bands anchored to a palm tree, with my heels dug deep in the sand. The beach boot camp sure beats working out in a gym.
When evening comes, it’s time to discover Fort Lauderdale’s urban vibe percolating on the other side of the Intracoastal. Rhythm + Vine, a neighborhood garden-like gathering spot several blocks north of the city’s downtown hub, is a great place to start. Out of a silver Airstream trailer, cocktail slingers are serving wildly creative drinks with names such as Tequila Me Softly (tequila, lime, Aperol and grapefruit) and Beets by Dre (Jameson Whiskey, beets, lemon, ginger and thyme). Folks of all ages dressed in shorts and flip-flops—along with a few friendly dogs—congregate at picnic tables under sprawling shade trees to drink, joke and play Jenga.
Leaving behind the casual crowd, my newfound friends and I move on to fashionable Las Olas Boulevard, lined with boutiques, art galleries, eateries and the Louie Bossi Italian restaurant. Here the patrons are dressed to impress and the place is buzzing. Shouldering my way through the bar crowd—women in form-fitting skirts paired with low-cut tops and men in crisp collared shirts and expensive jeans—I make my way to a table on the packed patio. Loud laughter and conversation mix with the raised voices of the waiters as they describe Friday’s special Lobster Fra Diavolo to diners. The energy level is high as servers carrying trays with plates of heaping pasta snake through the dining room. I’m told this is a local hot spot, and judging from the line out the door, I don’t doubt it for a second.
After dinner, we head to what seems to be the quieter west end of Las Olas and take an elevator up seven floors to the Rooftop. The dimly lit lounge offers views of the city—office towers twinkling against a pitch-black sky. A disc jockey spins music, flames from a fire table add drama to the club’s atmosphere, and ladies dressed in skinny jeans and off-the-shoulder tops balance on the latest styles of stilettos as they mingle with guys at the bar.
I learn that not far from here, Wharf Fort Lauderdale, a brand-new culinary and entertainment venue, will roll out the welcome mat later this year. The 1.25 acres on the edge of the New River will be home to six food and drink tenants; art shows and live music will be reasons to linger.
Another new dining-entertainment project also slated to open by the end of 2019 is the Sistrunk Marketplace & Brewery, several blocks north of the downtown. Although described as a food hall, it aims to be more than just a place to eat and drink. Cooking classes, art installations and musical performances are among the fun offerings. A sampling of the kiosks includes: Osom Crepes, Hot Lime Craft Tacos & Ceviche Bar, the Empanada Bodega, Khoffner Brewery and Shady Distillery.
At the end of the day, Fort Lauderdale may very well still be that great beach and boating destination, but no doubt its cosmopolitan side is adding a new dynamic to its character that’s so worth exploring.