Fort Lauderdale: Where the Deals Are

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America's former spring break capital offers the best combination of beaching, dining, shopping, sightseeing, partying, and budget lodging in Florida

If you've ever driven through Fort Lauderdale, chances are you've experienced Florida's second largest metro area as an endless sprawl of strip malls, car dealerships, and freeways, with some standard-issue suburban tracts stirred in. But discerning visitors (plus a tiny remnant of the once-notorious spring-break hordes) in search of an ideal warm getaway know Fort Lauderdale's secret: Buried amid it all is a highly engaging "vacation corridor" that provides all the fun, relaxation, and stimulation you could ask for. This corridor - which resembles the letter L laid on its back - is formed by Las Olas Boulevard, running east to the sea and the palm-fringed beach from the highrises of downtown, then turning north along a two-mile north-south stretch of Highway A1A, hugging the beach and the Atlantic. This area includes not only plenty of surf, sand, shopping, dining, nightlife, and a slew of fabulous museums and performing arts venues, but (at its upper tip, the north end of this stretch of beachfront A1A) also Lauderdale's largest concentration of budget lodgings, starting as low as $65 a room in high season, $33 in low.

The "sleeping L" is the place to come for a modestly priced vacation that's more diverse and multilayered than any other in Florida. And as word gets out, as a holiday magnet it's catching up fast to Miami Beach, just a half hour south. South Beach in particular still gets most of the media hype, but in this writer's opinion, it's long on glitz and high prices while not measuring up to Fort Lauderdale in terms of cultural offerings, beach quality, budget options, and all-round accessibility - even the parking's less of a hassle.

Beyond the sand

Apart from its many beachy, watery pleasures-including superb boating on loads of scenic canals and waterways such as the New River and the famous Intracoastal Waterway - not only does Lauderdale have a pedestrian shopping/dining district (rare for Florida), but it's one of the state's prettiest; Las Olas Boulevard's tree-lined stretch of elegant, mostly Spanish-style buildings houses an ever-growing number of chic shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants (often pricey but sometimes surprisingly affordable). At its westernmost end is the downtown Riverwalk Arts and Entertainment District, the site of a remarkable cluster of top-notch cultural institutions: a Museum of Art with everything from pre-Columbian treasures to today's cutting edge; a performing arts center with 500 events per year; a kid-popular Museum of Discovery and Science, including a 3-D IMAX theater, and the charming Old Fort Lauderdale Historical Museum. Outside this last, a lovely lane lined with live oaks and a handful of grand old homes leads to Riverwalk, a new shop-eat-and-play complex on the New River (stroll the winding brick walkway along its banks and take a cruise for $10.95; $5.95 for kids under 12). Just south of Las Olas' eastern end, the Swimming Hall of Fame makes for a fun morning visit.

Farther afield, hardcore shoppers head west of downtown to the gargantuan Sawgrass Mills Mall (whose 350-plus stores include outstanding discount outlets) or the 80-acre Swap Shop (a kind of daily flea and farmer's market with a little bit of circus thrown in) - or south for some decent antiquing in the town of Dania's 150 consignment shops (just below the airport). Then of course there's always the Latin flavor and art deco jewels of the Miami area, about a half hour down the coast.

Finally, not all of the surprises hereabouts are man-made. A wonderful place to appreciate the area's pristine beauty sits right on the A1A beachfront boulevard. The Hugh Taylor Birch State Recreation Area is a rambling preserve with lush virgin hammock woodlands, freshwater lagoons, picnic facilities overlooking the posh mansions along the Intracoastal, and several easy hiking trails. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum (W. Boundary Rd., Clewiston, 863/902-1113, seminoletribe. com/museum), deep in the Everglades about 90 minutes west of the beach on the Big Cypress Reservation, offers not only a look at the way of life of the much put-upon Seminole Indians, but also the flora and fauna of the swampy "river of grass" that covers most of South Florida.

Lauderdale lodgings

For the budget traveler, though, ground zero is a compact four-by-seven-block nabe at the top of our "sleeping L," bounded by A1A and the Intracoastal Waterway on the east and west, and Riomar and Vistamar Streets on the south and north respectively (many street names here end in mar, Spanish for "sea"). It's an ideal base - never more than four blocks from the beach, and a short drive from the browsing, grazing, and ogling of Las Olas.

The properties here are pretty much cut from the same mold: simple, art deco-ish mid-last-century motels slung low around a small pool. Most, however, have gone out of their way to make their decent-size rooms as comfortable and attractive as possible, keeping original details (bathroom tiles, jalousie windows) and planting lush tropical palms and greenery. All offer on-site parking and no breakfast, though many have complimentary coffee or in-room coffeemakers. Of the six that follow, all but the last are members of "Superior Small Lodgings," a program established to keep motel standards up (get a full listing from the local tourism folks; see box). Keep in mind, too, that low season is generally mid-May through October and high season is the rest of the year; at some properties an "extra-high season" runs February to April.

First stop: the three-story, salmon-and-teal Sans Souci at the Beach (618 N. Birch Rd., 954/564-4311, fax 954/564-4472, sanssoucimotel.com), whose 20 rooms all come with fridge and microwave for $45 in low season and $65 in high. Run (like many properties down here) by escaped French Canadians, La Lorraine (2800 Vista Mar St., 954/566-6490, fax 954/568-1168, lalorraineinc.com) has clean, modern units from $33 in summer to a high of $69 in winter; bonuses include an outdoor Jacuzzi, minigolf, and barbecue. The Winterset (2801 Terramar St., 954/564-5614, fax 954/565-5790, thewintersetmotel.com) looks modest from the outside, yet boasts two swimming pools surrounded by over 39 varieties of palms and 29 cheerful if slightly dated rooms, which rent for $50 from April to mid-December ($60 to $70 the rest of the year). The smaller, more intimate Worthington (543 N. Birch Rd., 954/563-6819, fax 954/563-6819) has 14 standard-issue but pleasant motel rooms on three stories around a heated kidney-shaped pool; complimentary weekend cocktails are a nice touch. Rates are $45 mid-April to mid-December, $65 otherwise.

A personal favorite is the Sea Chateau Resort Motel (555 N. Birch Rd., 954/566-8331, fax 954/564-2411), its bubbly pink-and-white art deco exterior recalling 1950s Havana. The 17 units are beautifully decked out with chintz drapes and iron canopy beds - all for $45 from May to mid-December, then $55 until the end of January and $70 through April. If you simply must stay right on the ocean, head for the Beach Plaza Hotel (625 A1A/N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., 800/451-4711, fax 954/537-9358), which charges a surprisingly low $49 from April to December 21; at other times, rates oscillate between $69 and $99. There's a gorgeous pool area, too, and large pastel rooms brightened up with paisley spreads and cheerful touches.

But perhaps the very best lodging option isn't a motel at all, but an apartment, and the premier local source is Leisure Link International (888/801-8808, fax 305/716-9236, leisurelinkintl.com), which rents out scores of five-star resort condos in South Florida at unbeatable rates. Case in point: a huge two-bedroom, two-bath unit on the coast with a big-screen TV and balconies, sleeping up to six people for $155 a night in low season; for families or friends traveling together, that can work out to as low as $25 per person (high season is a bit pricier at $229, but for six people, it still works out to $38 a head, comparable to any motel hereabouts). A similar apartment in the lush Bonaventure area near Sawgrass Mills (about 20 minutes by car from the beach) goes for about $115 to $189, and a one-bedroom unit sleeping four goes for $65 to $118.

Eats

No longer the whitebread bore of yore, Fort Lauderdale's dining scene now offers a cosmopolitan selection of high-quality, reasonably priced restaurants right on or a short drive away from A1A and East Las Olas Boulevard. These eateries sling everything from good ol' meat loaf to cut-rate sushi - a dubious notion to some, but they haven't lost anyone yet at Tokyo Bowl (1720 S. Federal Hwy., 954/524-8200). The cheerful Japanese diner with a red-and-white Rising Sun color scheme has my local friend Eric coming in regularly for the $12.79 all-you-can-eat sushi-fresh and as artfully presented as any raw fish costing three times as much. Personally, I'm more into the big and hearty "Tokyo Bowls" ($3.79 to $4.29), like teriyaki chicken over rice.

For cheap but great Italian, I grab a window seat overlooking the traffic on Sunrise at Big Louie's Pizzeria and Restaurant (1990 E. Sunrise Blvd. at Gateway Plaza, 954/467-1166; three more local branches), a friendly, diner-ish joint decked out in red-checkered tablecloths and Tiffany-style lamps. Here, $8.99 will literally stuff you with the likes of chicken parmigiana, spaghetti, garlic rolls, and salad; the less famished like Louie's hot and cold subs (around $5). For italiano with ocean views, head for the Ocean Drive Cafe (401 Ft. Lauderdale Beach Blvd., 954/779-3351), one of the admittedly few budget waterfront choices. Entrées (some with veggies and potatoes, others with pasta) start as low as $8.95 (steamed clams) but mostly average $10 to $12 (a 14-ounce T-bone). It's a little pricier than elsewhere in town, but then, you're sitting alfresco gazing at the ocean from a marble-topped bistro table lit by romantic oil lamps. You can keep the bill down by ordering from a goodly range of burgers, pizzas, salads, or sandwiches served with pasta salad and vegetables, all around $7.

Just up A1A, Lulu's Bait Shack (17 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., 954/463-7425) also overlooks the water from a wild and crazy second-floor perch at Beach Place, another yupscale complex for shopping and shoveling it in. Free live bands most nights and tropical breezes set the stage for bayou zingers like the $10.95 "Cajun Sampler": a jumbo of gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya, and red beans and rice-more than you can down in one sitting; otherwise, entrees average about $9.95 (fried catfish with sides). Yeah, you can certainly find cheaper eats elsewhere, but not with live tunes and beachfront breezes. Get even more informal at World Famous Parrot Fun Food & Libation (911 Sunrise La., 954/563-1493, parrot lounge.com), tucked a block in from the beach just below Sunrise Boulevard (a couple of blocks' worth of surf shops, tattoo parlors, and pizza joints anchored by a 7-Eleven). This cozy, paneled pub draws lots of locals for Marlins games and three to five daily specials like flounder stuffed with crabmeat, plus rice pilaf and steamed veggies for $8.99 (also check out drink specials such as Wednesday's $3.75 margaritas).

Las Olas Boulevard has plenty of great dining and lots of sidewalk tables - but usually at a premium. One exception is the venerable Floridian (1410 E. Las Olas Blvd., 954/463-4041), a rambling diner that draws a happening 24/7 crowd thanks to its prime location. It is virtually a symbol of frugal feeding in Fort Lauderdale. From breakfast (starting at $3.50) to overstuffed sandwiches and salad platters ($4 to $7) to hot combos served with potato and vegetables (from $5.95 for meat loaf), the food's fresh and well prepared, and the service is friendly and attentive (and some of those waitresses are live wires).

More information

Most major U.S. airlines fly into Fort Lauderdale International Airport. Thanks to stiff competition, you can sometimes find rates as low as $98 round-trip from New York, $118 from Chicago, and $198 from San Francisco (but only in the deeply off-season weeks). Even at other times, the price structure to "FLL" is one of the gentlest in the U.S.

As in most of Florida, you're nada without wheels. From the national rental chains, typical subcompacts start around $200 a week in winter (at Enterprise, 800/736-8222), though prices can vary from day to day. For even better rates, try local outfits like Royal Rent-a-Car (954/768-0222), from $129.95 a week. Another fun and scenic way to get around is by water taxi (954/467-6677, water taxi.com), with scheduled service hitting most major waterfront stops for $7.50 one way, $14 round-trip, or $16 for an all-day pass.

There's plenty more varied info-including quality budget lodgings listings-from the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau (800/356-1662, sunny.org).

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