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What is the cheapest Florida destination for Bostonians?

Airfare to Fort Lauderdale is the lowest. We took advantage of this with a golfing and goofing off vacation.

Grand Palms golf features 27 holes and midday, weekday rates of $35.
Grand Palms golf features 27 holes and midday, weekday rates of $35.
Author Daniel McGinn (left) and his friend Dean at the Marriott Harbor Beach Spa & Resort.
Author Daniel McGinn (left) and his friend Dean at the Marriott Harbor Beach Spa & Resort.Daniel McGinn/courtesy of Daniel McGinn

This article is featured in the Nov. 9 issue of the Magazine.

THE DAVIE GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB, between a mobile home community and Interstate 595 a few miles west of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, isn't the kind of course most golfers would travel 1,200 miles to play. But for a certain kind of golfer — including my childhood friend Dean and me — it's the perfect place for a late-afternoon round. At just $29 apiece (the midday rate, for tee times from noon to 3 p.m., including carts), Davie (954-797-4653; daviegolf.net) costs a fourth of what we'd pay at nearby resort courses. With no foursome behind us, we play a relaxed round, wagering $1 a hole and dropping second balls after bad shots. We finish way over par — but after a short drive, we're settling into the nine-person hot tub a few steps from our hotel's poolside bar, with the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the dunes. So, really, who's keeping score?

Dean and I have been friends for 40 years, but today we live 600 miles apart. (He lives outside Detroit; I live in suburban Boston.) A few years ago, busy with jobs, families, and responsibilities, we started to drift apart. We'd try to talk by phone every few months, but mostly we just texted. In 2013, we resolved to fix that by creating a new tradition: an annual golf trip. For the second year in a row, we settled on Fort Lauderdale, which we triangulated to based on two factors.

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First, Fort Lauderdale is a ridiculously cheap place to fly to. According to an analysis by Hopper (hopper.com), a Cambridge-based airfare data website, Fort Lauderdale is consistently the cheapest Florida fare from Boston, with an average round-trip cost ($240) that's 18 percent cheaper than Orlando and 25 percent below Miami. Hopper data also show it's the cheapest Florida destination from the average US airport, though by a smaller margin than from Logan.

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Second, the city is home to the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa (954-525-4000; harborbeachmarriott.com), a 650-room oceanfront property with a sprawling pool with waiter service, on-site watercraft rentals, and a wide, sandy beach. While the Marriott can be pricey — in early October when we went, weekend rates were $299 per night, and they go higher in winter — on both our trips I've used Marriott Rewards credit card points to get a free room for our Thursday-to-Sunday stay. (The points don't cover the $25-a-day resort fee and $27-per-day self-parking fee.) The Marriott isn't for everyone: It's a mile from Las Olas Beach, where bars and restaurants are clustered, and it attracts lots of young families. People who want to walk to clubs or prefer fewer kids in their swimming pool may want to choose the W hotel or the Ritz-Carlton farther north. (There are also less expensive options off the beach.)

Golf getaways vary depending on how serious and single-minded the participants are. Some trips feature dawn tee times and 36 holes a day (which can take eight hours) at big-name, ultra-expensive courses. For other groups, these weekends are mostly an excuse to drink beer and carouse. Dean and I, neither of us good golfers, don't take our games too seriously. We aim to play 18 holes a day, usually teeing off at midday to avoid crowds and reduce greens fees. We avoid the priciest and most crowded courses, preferring places like Davie and Grand Palms (954-431-8800; grandpalmsresort.com), which has 27 holes and midday, weekday rates of $35. At Grand Palms we play conservatively, trying to avoid the water hazards (particularly after we are warned of aggressive water moccasins), celebrating the occasional par but mostly making due with bogies or worse (sometimes far worse).

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Our golf-in-the-afternoon routine leaves mornings free for other activities. By 10:15 a.m. one day we're aboard a glass-bottomed boat, heading out through the Intracoastal Waterway for an offshore snorkeling excursion run by Sea Experience (954-770-3483; seaxp.com). During the 40-minute ride to the coral reef, the first mate points out more than a dozen waterfront celebrity homes, including properties owned by Shaquille O'Neal, Scottie Pippen, Dwyane Wade, the founders of Petco, and one of South Florida's most prosperous plastic surgeons. "You'll probably see some of his artistry on the beach this afternoon," the tour guide says. After we drop anchor, we don snorkel equipment (included in the $35-plus-tip price) and spend an hour exploring the reef in 20-foot-deep water. It's my first time snorkeling off the mainland United States, and the colors aren't as vivid as in the tropics. But the water is luxuriously warm, and we're surrounded by schools of blue Bermuda chub. The outing is a welcome respite from New England's frigid ocean.

At 9:30 the next morning we take off on a slow 10-mile jog, following the ocean north. On the beach beside us, we pass boot-camp workout groups and after-church kaffeeklatsches. Back at the hotel, Dean takes out a stand-up paddleboard (included in the Marriott's daily resort fee), while I swim lazily in light surf. For lunch, we raise the flag on our poolside lounge chairs, signaling a waiter to visit. Soon we're smearing chicken quesadillas with sour cream.

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Throughout these activities, we talk — about our jobs, our children, our relationships, our disappointments, our hopes. What's striking about these conversations is how little we engage in the "Do you remember when?" chitchat that dominates high school reunions. Like the best long-lasting friendships, ours focuses mostly on the present and the future — and despite the cushy surroundings and activity-filled agenda, our warm-weather getaway is really meant to make sure we stay connected to each other's lives across years and miles.

The Marriott’s pool boasts waiter service.
The Marriott’s pool boasts waiter service.Fort Lauderdale Harbor Beach Mar

ALTHOUGH IT WAS HOME to Native Americans and early settlers, Fort Lauderdale remained largely undeveloped until the early 20th century. The region boomed as servicemen — some of whom had trained on a nearby naval base — returned after World War II. But the city's real ascent began after the 1960 film Where the Boys Are popularized it as a spring break destination. In the wonderfully (or horrifyingly) anachronistic film, Midwest coeds spend their spring beach vacation agonizing about the morality of premarital sex and trying to persuade Ivy League guys to marry them.

Whatever light it casts on the pre-feminist era, the film helped cement Fort Lauderdale's image as the nation's foremost college break destination. By the mid-1980s, the city had had enough. It enacted strict new laws prohibiting public alcohol consumption — and unlike many cities, it enforced them. Soon the students decamped to more tolerant destinations. Despite the infamous crackdown, Fort Lauderdale is still a place to party. Signs advertise happy hour specials. Beachfront bars serve margaritas in glassware better suited for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. For good reason, the city is sometimes known by the nickname Fort Liquordale.

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Against this backdrop, we aim for moderation. Since we spend late afternoons on the golf course and early evenings at the pool, we avoid the happy hour shenanigans. Our full schedule of morning activities limits late nights. And as we visit bars after dinner, we experience a Goldilocks effect: Most are too loud, too empty, or too young (particularly in the Himmarshee district, a raucous neighborhood dominated by twentysomethings). We make a special effort to learn to love the Elbo Room (954-463-4615; elboroom.com). The city's oldest bar, established in 1938, is the setting for several scenes in Where the Boys Are, and we have Northern friends who rave about the two-story, open-air, beachfront hangout. We visit the Elbo Room twice, sipping beer and enjoying a cover band playing Dave Matthews tunes. But the upstairs is closed for renovations, the downstairs is mostly empty, and this landmark proves nothing special. (In the city's defense, cabdrivers say the combination of the Yom Kippur holiday and a lousy weather forecast has made our weekend unusually quiet.)

We do much better with meals. Our favorite spot is Coconuts (954-525-2421; coconutsfortlauderdale.com), located on the Intracoastal Waterway a short walk from the Elbo Room (and a short cab ride from the Marriott). Coconuts is essentially two restaurants in one, sharing space with G&B Oyster Bar (954-525-2421; gandboysterbar.com). Ask the hostess to seat you at certain tables, and you'll be able to order off both menus; listen closely to the specials, which often trump what's on the menu. Our vacation routine is to eat dinner after 9 p.m., and we're typically famished. One evening, we share a dozen oysters, seviche, wild sea bass with a crab-and-garlic topping, and a seared filet mignon. It's perfection. The fresh seafood continues over lunch at Yolo (954-523-1000; yolorestaurant.com), 2 miles off the beach on Las Olas Boulevard, the city's upscale shopping and dining district. The fried snapper sandwich is so fresh, the chefs leave the caudal fin intact — and I wonder if it swam by us during our snorkel tour earlier that day.

Our most amusing dinner is on Sunday, just before we fly home. Through trial and error, we've learned to avoid golfing on our final day: It's hard to hit good shots when you're stressing about getting to the airport on time. So after a lazy afternoon by the pool, we head to Rustic Inn (954-584-1637; rusticinn.com), a decades-old crab house in an industrial neighborhood by the airport. We arrive just 35 minutes before we're due at the airport, and when we tell the waiter we're on a tight timetable, he points to various dishes he can have on the table in under five minutes. Dean orders mahi-mahi; I choose a sampler platter of the restaurant's crab dishes.

Coconuts offers views of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Coconuts offers views of the Intracoastal Waterway.Coconuts

The food arrives quickly — but as I begin opening crab legs, it's clear I've miscalculated. I rarely eat crab, and it turns out I'm astonishingly bad at the crack-and-pick process. Since this entree costs $48, I'm not leaving anything uneaten. The waiter, sensing I'm in over my head, sends a veteran chef out from the kitchen to give me special instruction on how to crack the crabs. (The main tip: Hit the legs with a mallet firmly on the wax paper-covered table, not the tray on which they're served.) Dean quickly finishes his meal and requests a second mallet and creates a pile of shelled meat for me. (He doesn't like crab.) Around us, families are eating at a leisurely pace. At our table, the frenzy resembles the annual Coney Island hot dog eating contest, but with mallets and crabs. The splatter of shells and crab juice endangers nearby tables. Despite the frenetic pace, the meal — particularly the restaurant's signature crabs sauteed in butter and garlic — is worth the labor.

The 1960 movie “Where the Boys Are” brought the city fame.
The 1960 movie “Where the Boys Are” brought the city fame.handout

In the parking lot afterward, Dean looks me over. "You have some crab on your face . . . and your shirt . . . and your hair," he says. On the drive to the airport, we talk about plans for next year's trip. "Myrtle Beach has direct flights from Boston and Detroit, and it has great golf," I say. Dean answers slowly: "I don't know. This place is pretty perfect. When you've found someplace that works, why change?" It's a sentiment that applies not only to vacation destinations but also to friendships.

PLANNING FOR A RAINY DAY

A week before our trip to Fort Lauderdale, the 10-day forecast showed an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms. As the trip neared and the forecast worsened, I worried: What do you do on a golf trip if it's too rainy to golf? The answer: Make plans.

For many duffers, the answer is simple: Golf anyway. With the right rain gear (my friends favor DryJoys), golfing in lightning-free rainstorms isn't as miserable as it sounds. New York Times golf columnist Bill Pennington, author of On Par: The Everyday Golfer's Survival Guide , argues that a good rain suit is every golfer's best investment.

Aqua Golf Driving Range (954-893-7767; aquagolfrange.com) offers golfers refuge under wide canopies, so if we faced hard rain and were desperate to hit golf balls, taking some swings at a driving range might be an option. A bucket of balls is $7, and club rental is $3.

And if it was truly too wet to golf, Coral Cliffs (954-321-9898; coralcliffs.com) is a massive indoor rock-climbing facility, with 87 roped routes, a bouldering area, gear rental, and private instruction. A one-day pass costs $19.

The point is, we'd prepared a rainy-day game plan before we stepped on the plane — and perhaps as a result, despite foreboding forecasts, the only rain we encountered all weekend came after dark while we were navigating to dinner.

THE FLORIDA AIRFARE BARGAIN

Fort Lauderdale is the least expensive Florida airport for Bostonians to fly into, according to Hopper, a Cambridge-based airfare data website. Here, Hopper compares the average round-trip prices for departures from June 2014 to June 2015 for the top airports in Florida.

Boston to . . .

Fort Lauderdale — $240

Jacksonville — $259

Tampa — $274

Palm Beach — $277

Orlando — $294

Fort Myers — $295

Miami — $321

Sarasota — $355

Pensacola — $429

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Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.