Jonathan Beaumont is a TV Producer, travel journalist and cruise expert. He spends much of his time cruising, reviewing hotels and writing LGBT travel related stories. He’s a regular guest panellist at The Telegraph Cruising Show and broadcasts on cruising stories for both television and radio.
South Florida, it’s a destination that has been attracting the international traveller since the 1940’s in search of endless sunshine, great beaches and a tropical vibe.
One part of the Sunshine State that’s becoming more popular every year is Fort Lauderdale. It’s the sort of place that manages to be totally unique in its ability to be able to attract just about every type of holidaymaker and give all of them a totally different vacation experience. Admittedly its location and setting have a lot to do with it. Twenty-three miles of beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean and 300-plus miles of Intracoastal Waterway and inland canals have given Greater Fort Lauderdale the nickname ‘Venice of America’. Add to that year round warm weather and a web site simply called sunny.org and you start to get the picture why it’s so popular.
It was Spring breakers and cruise ship passengers who first put Fort Lauderdale on the map back in the 40’s. The spring breakers eventually moved on but the cruise business just kept on growing and today the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal is the busiest cruise port in the world. In recent years however, Greater Fort Lauderdale and its neighboring cities of Oakland Park and Wilton Manors, have been attracting a more sophisticated and affluent holiday maker, including a significant rise in the number of gay travelers.
Up until the late 90’s if you were heading to South Florida Miami was probably the place you ended up. It was one of the top LGBT holiday destinations in the US but it was also a hedonistic party place that attracted the pumped up circuit crowd who danced until dawn. Key West, at the Southernmost tip of the state, attracted the opposite end of the spectrum; here it was all about cozy guest houses with rocking chairs on the veranda, quiet days spent around a clothing optional pool, a nice meal and a couple of beers in a drag queen bar before bed. As such it attracted an older crowd.
Fort Lauderdale on the other hand manages to sit comfortably somewhere between the two. It’s completely unpretentious and welcoming with its mix of friendly cocktail bars, clubs, coffee shops, restaurants and stunning gay beach. You’ll also find a big bear crowd here and one of the best leather bars in South Florida for those who like their entertainment a little bit more on the harder side!
So when is a good time to visit? Well having a tropical climate means pretty much any time of the year, however the height of the season is November to April when the high humidity and threat of hurricanes has passed. You’ll find better deals however in low season which is May to October, but be prepared for some extreme weather usually climaxing in a tropical thunderstorm sometime each afternoon.
Most international passengers arrive at Miami Airport and hire a car from there. Driving the 23 miles to Fort Lauderdale takes around 45 minutes. But if you’re arriving from other parts of the US then you can fly directly into the Fort Lauderdale / Hollywood airport.
If you’re a non-driver Fort Lauderdale may seem a bit daunting. Things tend to be fairly spread out, the roads are big and people drive everywhere. Public transportation isn’t particularly easy to deal with and although all hotels will get you a cab to where you want to go they’re not particularly cheap and can be difficult to hail on the street. The easiest way round this is to add the cab number to your phone and call for one.
One way of getting around without a car that is as enjoyable as it is practical is water taxi. Jump on / jump off points can be found located at strategic places around the city linking many of the popular areas such as the beach, The Galleria shopping center and Las Olas Boulevard. It’s doesn’t take you as far as the gay area of Wilton Manors however. If you’re staying on the beach take a cab to Wilton Manors and then everything is within walking distance.
So what to do and where to go? Listed below are some tried and tested highlights that should be on the list of all LGBT visits to this incredibly friendly and laid back destination.
Officially ranked as the second gayest city in the US, Wilton Manors isn’t officially part of Fort Lauderdale but is instead a city in its own right a ten minute drive away. It is however the center of all things gay for the whole area and this is where you’ll find most of the bars, cafes, shopping and nightlife.
This one size fits all Wilton Manors institution packs them in every night although Friday and Saturday nights are by far the most popular nights with the locals when their infamous happy-hour promotions pack in the crowd. Something of a contradiction in that it’s a saloon style bar with dark lighting and a pool table yet from what I could see most of the guys were ordering martinis! Hot friendly bar tenders and food that’s served on the patio including Fort Lauderdale’s best burger!
For those who like their bars on the rough side and their men even rougher the Ramrod is South Florida’s most popular dress code bar. This being Florida however where the temperatures can reach ridiculously high levels even at midnight the thought of squeezing yourself into a tight pair of leather chaps may not be as appealing as it might elsewhere. Don’t worry. Just stick on a pair of jeans, the odd leather accessory and butch it up a bit and you’ll be fine. Look out for the themed nights especially the Pig Dance which was fun.
Something of a mix between Starbucks and local information centre this coffee shop with sofas should be your first place to head to in order to collect all your listings magazines and browse the information board (situated near the restrooms) and cruise the boys popping by for a chilled latte on their way back from the beach. Plan your weekend while enjoying a piece of the famous pumpkin pie.
The Shops of Wilton Manors
This is where you’ll find amongst others Java Boys, Georgie’s Alibi, and Gay Mart. Hell!! You can eat, drink, shop and pick-up in the Gayest strip mall in America!
Monday nights are margarita nights at La Bamba, one of the most popular Mexican restaurants in the area. Monday is also the unofficial gay night where the entire restaurant is almost swamped with boys. If there’s such a thing as a gay Mexican restaurant this is it. Great food, great atmosphere and great fun. But be prepared to wait if you arrive between 7 and 8 as the place will be packed. But you can always down a margarita or two at the bar while hitting on the hot daddy that’s likely to be sitting on the bar stool next to you.
Serving fabulous Mediterranean style food just across the road from the gay beach. Sit on the patio overlooking the ocean or if it’s too stifling hot it’s fully air conditioned inside. Open for lunch and dinner every day while Sunday brunch is the most popular time before hitting the beach. Always a good atmosphere and a super location.
Could this be the most fun you’re going to have eating anywhere in Fort Lauderdale? Probably. Having visited Rosie’s once before on a previous trip for a quiet mid-week lunch nothing quite prepared me for the party atmosphere on Sunday’s for brunch. Having managed to secure a table very last minute by my very helpful concierge at The Atlantic Hotel (thanks Sheryl) I was shown to a table on the patio where you can enjoy pancakes, crab cakes, burgers, omelettes and salads with mimosas, iced tea and beer. Occasionally you walk into a place where you immediately get the feeling the entire town is there and you’re part of some big party. That’s the way you feel at Rosie’s. Not to be missed.
And so to the beach. And a fabulous beach it is too. Clean white powder sand, plenty of loungers if you want one (at a price) and lots of eye candy. Across the street is the Casablanca Café if you fancy a bite to eat.
Huge store for all your fetish needs. Lots of leather, T-shirts, accessories and brands such as Nasty Pig and Inseam Men.
The Galleria / Sawgrass Mills
Along with eating, drinking, sunbathing and cruising, shopping is something you’ll definitely want to add to that ‘must do’ list when in Fort Lauderdale. As well as all the small shops and boutiques dotted around the city and numerous antique and small curiosity stores, you’ll find one of the largest shopping malls in the US. Sawgrass Mills is home to over 350 stores and 40 outlets. It’s a shopper’s paradise and if you’re not driving you’ll be pleased to know they’ll pick you up from the beach and drop you back again all for just $25 round trip.
The Galleria is the local’s mall. Nowhere as huge as Sawgrass Mills but there’s still plenty of well-known stores and an amazing food court. Situated on Sunrise Boulevard just five minutes from the beach.
Las Olas Boulevard
As close as it comes to ‘a strip’ this attractive boulevard is home to several of Fort Lauderdale’s most famous restaurants. It’s also centre of all things arty with several galleries and museums. Have lunch, buy some art and grab a frozen yogurt then take the water taxi back to the beach. A great hotspot both during the day and especially with all the twinkly lights at night.
Plan your visit to Fort Lauderdale with the official tourism information at www.sunny.org
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