FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — This was a popular spring break destination until the 1980s, when crazy college kids started cramming themselves by the dozen into hotel rooms and throwing furniture into the pools in an orgy of beer-soaked fun. That got them all promptly disinvited by the city.
These days Fort Lauderdale beckons us to its sandy shores. There are direct flights from Boston to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. You can get there in a mere three hours. And — the best inducement for sun-starved New Englanders — the city claims 3,000 hours of sunshine a year. The average temperature is about 77 degrees. There’s a friendly, laid-back vibe. “It’s a baby Miami, with zero attitude,” according to a local chef.
And there’s much more to do than bake on the sand. Here’s our top 10 to-do list.
1. GET YOUR BEARINGS You’ll probably rent a car — this is, after all, Florida — but do spring for a water taxi ride (954-467-6677, www.watertaxi.com, $20 unlimited all day ride, $15 after 5 p.m.). This will get you to such local hot spots as Las Olas Boulevard (so you can drink without driving) and Bahia Cabana (stop 7, a nice dockside spot with tasty fish tacos), plus, you’ll get a drive-by tour of the vacation homes and yachts of the rich and fabulous along the Intracoastal Waterway. Look, it’s Leonard Nimoy’s place! Sonny and Cher lived there! Rocky Marciano, Dan Marino, Scotty Pippen, Lucille Ball . . .
2. BOW TO THE SUN GODS It’s hard to imagine those spring breakers of yore passed out on the beach. The brick-lined beachfront promenade now features joggers, inline skaters, and other wholesome types. You’ll also see folks doing yoga on the toast-colored sand of the city’s 23 miles of beaches. Slather on some sunblock and join them, or simply loll on a blanket and watch the cruise ships glide past in the distance.
3. GET YOUR SNORKEL ON You don’t even need a boat to snorkel the reefs off Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, they’re just 100 yards offshore. Or take a dive boat (check www.sunny.org) to a 69-mile natural reef system just two to three miles offshore. Making things even more interesting: 80 wrecks and artificial reefs that draw sealife such as queen angels, Spanish hogfish, grouper, amberjack, barracuda, and sea turtles.
4. COMMUNE WITH BUTTERFLIES A must if you’re traveling with kids, Butterfly World (Coconut Creek, 954-977-4400, www.butterflyworld.com, $24.95, ages 3-11 $19.95) is aflutter with 20,000 butterflies amid aviaries and tropical gardens. Some of these neon-hued butterflies are as big as your hand. It takes a minute to get used to them whirling around your head and occasionally landing on you, but once you do . . . wow. There are also free-flying hummingbirds and lorikeets, plus a Bug Zoo full of giant creepy crawlers.
5. DINE OUT The local scene is heating up. We tried Steak 954 at the W Fort Lauderdale, and had an amazing meal of se-
viche, petit filet mignon with smoked cauliflower and toasted kale, and chocolate-peanut butter cake. All this and a view of a wall-length tank filled with 130 moon jellyfish.
6. PEEK AT OLDE FLORIDA One of our most beloved excursions is a freebie: a visit to the Anne Kolb Nature Center (954-357-5161, www.broward.org/parks) in neighboring Hollywood. This 1,500-acre mangrove estuary — with an observation tower and boardwalk nature trail — is a habitat for wading birds and wildlife. It’s definitely worth it to rent a kayak and slip through the tangles of mangroves.
7. WANDER LAS OLAS BOULEVARD From the Museum of Art to the beach, this is a nice zone for strolling. Mediterranean-style storefronts are fringed with palms; you can meander for a mile and not run out of shops (specializing in everything from swimsuits to cigars), galleries, and sidewalk cafes. One spot we like for a bite: Grille 401 (954-767-0222, www.grille401.com), for sushi, inspired entrees, and a “fit and healthy” menu with choices like wood-grilled mahimahi and sweet potato mash; follow up your meal with Key lime pie.
8. WORK YOUR CREDIT CARD Sawgrass Mills (954-846-2350, www.sawgrassmills.com), located about a half-hour from Fort Lauderdale in Sunrise, is North America’s largest outlet mall, home to more than 400 retailers that would impress even a non-shopper. Look for names rarely seen at outlet malls, including Prada, Versace, and Tory Burch. It is also home to Barbie, the Dreamhouse Experience. Seems fitting.
9. PLANT YOURSELF BEACHFRONT Fort Lauderdale has a range of lodgings, from bed-and-breakfasts to luxury hotels, but if you can swing it, spring for a hotel on the beach. We’re smitten by the W (954-414-8200, www.WFortLauderdaleHotel.com, rooms from $289), with its “living room” lounges that face the Atlantic, onsite bliss spa, and beachy-cool style.
10. ADMIRE THE ART AT THE BONNET HOUSE Not your typical historic house, this 35-acre property (built in the 1920s and ’30s) is filled with an eclectic mix of artwork, including 629 paintings by owner Frederic Clay Bartlett and his third wife, Evelyn Fortune Bartlett. (Evelyn later moved to Beverly and had a farm in Essex. She died at her home in Beverly in 1997, at 109.) Guided tours lead visitors through the main house and lushly landscaped grounds, now owned by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation (954-563-5393, www.bonnethouse.org, $20).
And finally, for a whiff (perhaps literally) of spring breaks past, pop into the famed dive bar the Elbo Room — just to say you did. For more ideas, visit www.sunny.org.