Balcony View from W Hotel Fort Lauderdale, Florida

37 Hours in South Florida: Wild Diversions in Fort Lauderdale and Beyond

As a long time Florida native, The Sunshine State has always held a special place in my heart. It’s hot, brash, bold and, if recent news is any indication, a little bit nuts. What’s not to love?

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Although I moved away some twenty years ago, there’s a part of me that still connects with it on a visceral level. And so I go back a few times every year. On my latest trip — this time with Mrs. Vagabondish in tow — I set out to show her some of the best (and perhaps oddest) things to see and do near Fort Lauderdale.

If you’ve just a day and a half in town, here’s what I recommend …

Day 1

Lunch @ Lulu’s Bait Shack

Lulu's Bait Shack in Fort Lauderdale, Florida
View from Lulu’s Bait Shack, Fort Lauderdale

Lulu’s Bait Shack has been a staple of the Fort Lauderdale Beach strip for as long as I can remember. It’s perhaps the closest thing to a saloon-cum-tiki bar you’re going to find this far north of the Florida Keys.

Sure it’s technically in a sort-of strip mall and it can get a bit touristy. But it also boasts a helluva view and the patrons are always out for one thing: to have a tipsy good time. And the consistently good, no-frills Cajun pub food doesn’t hurt either.

2p / Take an Airboat Tour

Closeup of alligator in Florida Everglades
Alligator in the Florida Everglades © Jamesy Pena

Few experiences are as quintessentially “South Florida” as an airboat ride through Florida Everglades National Park. It’s fast, it’s loud, it’s wild (literally and figuratively) and … it’s just so damn fun.

Head into the vast, swampy Florida Everglades to Everglades Holiday Park for a one-of-a-kind trip aboard an airboat. The hour-long trip is guaranteed to fly by as you zip through the marshland, thick with one of the densest populations of alligators in the world. You’ll also spot a wide variety of endemic plant life, birds, amphibians, reptiles and more.

(Bonus: Stick around afterward for the live alligator show courtesy of Animal Planet’s own Gator Boys. They got their start in Everglades Holiday Park where they still perform daily shows to a packed house.)

5p / Visit Coral Castle Museum (or “How to Travel Like Billy Idol”)

Coral Castle Museum in South Florida
Gardens of Coral Castle Museum, Florida © Coral Castle Museum

How to describe Coral Castle … it’s a fascinating roadside attraction that’s not a “castle” in the traditional sense. It’s rather a coral “cottage” surrounded by a coral garden with bits of coral decorations, furniture and other oddities. Features include a 9-ton gate that moves with just the touch of a finger, a Polaris telescope and functioning rocking chairs – all made entirely of stone.

Kelsey with Ed Leedskalnin at Coral Castle Museum, Florida
Ed Leedskalnin, Life of the South Florida Party © Mike Richard

The interesting part is that it was all designed and constructed by hand in the early 19th century entirely by Ed Leedskalnin who was barely 100 pounds and a hair over 5-feet tall. Or so the story goes. Theories abound as to how he actually built the Castle. Some allege that, in the days before heavy machinery, it could only have been done by way of supernatural powers or alien assistance. No matter the truth because it’s a bizarre and fascinating diversion unique to South Florida. Don’t miss the gift shop at the end — it’s one of the strangest and most out of place I’ve ever shopped.

Oh, and Billy Idol and his leather vest visited once in the 80s:

Billy Idol Visited Coral Castle Museum, Florida

So there’s that.

Dinner @ Steak 954

Dinner at Steak 954, W Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Dinner at Steak 954, W Fort Lauderdale

The elevator pitch for Steak 954 reads like the plot summary of a saucy late night cable movie:

… a luxury boutique steakhouse. Where innovative flavors and modern interpretations meet classic cuts and artisanal ingredients, sparks fly and palates are seduced.

Marketing fluff aside, this place delivers. Our entrees were cooked perfectly and our well-versed waiter knew more about the dishes being served than even the chef. Mrs. Vagabondish and I agree that the truffle fries are among the best we’ve had anywhere in the United States. They’re out of this world good and served in a massive mound that you will definitely eat all of.

After Dinner …

Stick around for the goings-on at Whiskey Blue. Like other W Hotel lounges around the world, the sleek decor and funky vibe here feels more like South Beach than Fort Lauderdale Beach. Here, you’ll likely find more locals than tourists tipping a few back.

Day 2

Breakfast @ The Floridian

The Floridian Diner, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Booze + pancakes al fresco? But of course! © The Floridian

It’s tacky and kitschy, particularly for this corner of Las Olas Boulevard, but it’s been a go-to spot for locals for years. The Floridian is a welcome, down-home diner among the surrounding high-end, chi-chi Beverly Hills-ish vibe. It’s packed every day of the week and almost ridiculously so on weekends. With good reason: virtually everything is delicious, cooked to order and the portions are huge.

Morning / Do. Absolutely. Nothing.

Beach at Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale Beach, Florida © Daniel Dudek-Corrigan

One of the greatest joys of South Florida is finding a body of water (big or small), slipping into “island time” and simply doing … nothing. I won’t even argue the point that Fort Lauderdale Beach is the nicest, cleanest, largest and most relaxing in South Florida. Period. Even in high season, it’s easy to find your own football field-sized patch of sand, sprawl out and relax for hours. The best time to spend by the pool or in the sand is morning — before the scorching Florida sun is directly overhead.

Lunch @ Waxy O’Connor’s

Bar at Waxy's Irish Pub, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

I’ve a penchant for great beer, so naturally I’ll seek out a good Irish pub everywhere I go. Perhaps surprisingly, Fort Lauderdale offers several great options for those in search of a properly pulled Guinness or the like.

Waxy’s Irish Pub is everything you’d expect a great Irish pub to be: plenty of dark wood, lively conversation and bartenders who all too charmingly coax you into just one (or three) more Guinness than you’d originally planned on.

Afternoon / Get Out on the Water

After a morning of relaxing by the pool, there’s only one other way to truly experience Fort Lauderdale beach: out on the water! The beach offers every manner of watersport you can imagine. From kiteboarding, surfing, jet-skiing, paddleboarding, kayaking … you get the picture.

Head to nearby Lauderdale-by-the-Sea for some of South Florida’s best snorkeling opportunities, including:

a “Shipwreck Snorkel Trail.” Dedicated in May 2002 by underwater explorer Jean-Michele Cousteau, the artificial reef was constructed by the Marine Archaeological Council to promote Broward County’s maritime heritage. The trail has an anchor, five concrete cannons and a ballast pile.

For something completely different and completely awesome, check out Ride Rocketman South Florida.

Pro tip: if you’re looking to get out on the water and away from the maddening crowds, check out the Intracoastal Waterway. The canals give Fort Lauderdale the nickname “The Venice of America”.

Dinner @ Tarpon Bend

Tarpon Bend in Fort Lauderdale
Tarpon Bend in Fort Lauderdale

Tarpon Bend has been a staple of Fort Lauderdale for 15 years. It’s decorated in a polished nautical theme – just enough to let visitors know that they’re serious about seafood.

The walls are replete with various fishing and gaming accoutrement, including two chalkboards detailing the largest species of several types of trophy fish ever caught – one board outlines the Tarpon Bend staff’s personal conquests, the other world records.

It’s a great, laid back vibe and the bartenders are happy to spill about the best local restaurants, bars and things to do. All especially helpful for Florida first-timers. Oh, and the fish sandwich is the best in Broward County.

Nightcaps + A Taste of Fort Lauderdale Beach’s Past

There are few remnants of Fort Lauderdale Beach’s previous incarnation as the unofficial Spring Break Capital of the United States. The beach itself, the restaurants, the crowds … they’ve all changed. But one place has stood the test of time and remains virtually unscathed: Elbo Room.

Elbo Room in Fort Lauderdale Beach, Florida
Shirtless men, beer and a random parrot © Elbo Room

It’s the strip’s grittiest, most no-nonsense, cash-only dive bar with absolutely zero pretense. If any place in Fort Lauderdale can remind you that “you ain’t in South Beach no more”, it’s here. Grab a beer, pull up a chair outside and watch the tropical insanity rollerblade by. I guarantee the people-watching is unmatched by anywhere else in South Florida. (And, whatever you do, leave the kids at home)

Overnight / Lay Your Head Here …

Like most cities, Fort Lauderdale promises accommodations for every budget. Unlike most cities, it actually delivers. For far less than you’d pay almost anywhere else so close to the beach, it’s not difficult to find a great, affordable oceanfront/oceanview hotel room. Here are two of my favorite options …

The Over-the-top Room with a View: W Fort Lauderdale

If W Hotels were a pop star, it’d be Lady Gaga. It’s brash, bold, funky, and modern with a restrained sense of decadence. Which is why it fits perfectly with the Fort Lauderdale Beach scene.

Guestroom at W Hotel Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Guestroom at W Hotel Fort Lauderdale © Mike Richard

With sweeping views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Fort Lauderdale’s Intracoastal Waterway, our Mega Room balcony at the W Fort Lauderdale was among the best we’ve ever stepped foot on. After two short days, it became virtually impossible for Mrs. Vagabondish to accept the fact that we would, at some point, be required to leave.

Pool at W Hotel Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Pool at W Fort Lauderdale, Florida

What’s more is the view from the rooftop pool is every bit as stunning as well. A towering glass column guides guests literally “through” the pool and into the hotel lobby. It’s an insanely cool piece of architecture that one would only expect at the W.

Typical in-room amenities are legion, including wifi through the hotel, onsite bars and restaurants, pet-friendly rooms (with a W Pet Bed if desired), full-length windows overlooking the water from every single room, large LCD TVs, mini bar, 24-hour room service, a pillow menu (seriously) and, perhaps most importantly, the Signature W bed with feather duvet and 350-thread count line. The list goes on … and anything else you might want is available at the touch of a button, courtesy of W Hotel’s Whatever/Whenever service.

The True Oceanfront Resort: Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa

Outdoor pool at Marriott Fort Lauderdale Beach, Florida
Outdoor pool at Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa

If you’re looking for a true oceanfront hotel with plenty of resort amenities and stunning ocean views, the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort is where it’s at.

Overlooking the beach at Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa, Florida
Overlooking the beach at Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort © Mike Richard

From our oceanfront balcony overlooking the Atlantic, it was nigh impossible to get closer to the water without actually being in it. Few east coast destinations provide clearer, more phenomenal sunrises than Fort Lauderdale Beach. And you can’t get much closer to those sunrises than at the Marriott.

Sunset from balcony at Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa, Florida
Sunrise from our balcony at Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort © Mike Richard

The sprawling resort grounds offer one of the most laid back, relaxing pool atmospheres in the area. With poolside drink service, temps in the 80s with a cool breeze, occasional wildlife calls piped through the PA system and a smattering of steel drum music, it wasn’t difficult to imagine ourselves in the Caribbean.

Onsite amenities include:

  • Private balconies and ocean views are available
  • Artful decor is matched with modern amenities like Revive bedding and flat-screen TVs
  • High-speed Internet access
  • Beachfront location is conveniently only 6 miles from the FLL Airport
  • The location is fantastic with an endless array of attractions mere steps or a short drive away
  • 100% smoke-free

On a side note … if anything speaks to the level of a hotel’s customer service, it’s their response when something goes awry. On our first morning at the property, we realized that room service forgot to take our breakfast order card. An honest mistake – it happens. We called down, they apologized profusely and expedited our order. Within 20 minutes, there was a knock at the door, our food arrived perfectly and they removed the entire order from our bill. Now that is customer service!

Last and certainly not least …

The Beachfront Hotel on a Budget: Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel

Oceanfront property. Fort Lauderdale Beach. Less than $140 (USD) nightly.

Those are the kinds of words that inspire an impulse hotel booking in some place warm. Such is the case at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel where my last check for select dates in October revealed Traditional rooms for around $139 (plus tax), with ocean view room available for roughly $50 more. (Check out their latest specials for even more great deals)

Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, Florida (exterior view))
Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel

Budget doesn’t have to mean cheap, especially in this case as the updated art deco vibe provides a modern, upscale and inviting feel. It’s an ideal choice for families and budget travelers to South Florida who are seeking a balance between style, amenities and cost. Amenities of note include:

  • Sweet Sleeper Bed
  • Intracoastal, City or Ocean Views
  • Refrigerator Available (for a fee)
  • In-Room Safe
  • High Speed Internet Access in All Guestrooms ($9.95 per day USD)
  • 100% Non-Smoking Guestrooms
  • Onsite restaurants & bars, including modern Mexican cuisine at Dos Caminos
  • Gourmet 24-hour room service
  • Family-friendly mermaid shows every weekend at the Wreck Bar
  • The beachfront Beach Bar and Grill offers lunch, snacks and delicious cocktails while you relax in the sand
  • Did I mention the hotel is literally on the beach?

King Beach Tower Oceanview Room at Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, Florida
King Beach Tower Oceanview Room at Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel

The view from our room in the Beach Tower was entirely unique as the hotel is situated at the end of the beach rather than across the street from it (as most area hotels are). The building runs perpendicular to the waterline, affording an amazing view north all the way down the length of Fort Lauderdale Beach. It’s unlike any we’ve personally experienced in South Florida.

Ocean view from the pool at Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, Florida
Ocean view from the pool at Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel © Mike Richard

The best part of our stay was the fantastic view from the private infinity pool overlooking the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. On our last morning in South Florida we hit the water in the early morning hours — just after the sunrise, but well before the crowds arrive — and enjoyed the warm, beautiful calm of Fort Lauderdale Beach all to ourselves. The perfect end to another great tropical escape …

Founding Editor

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