Residents of Greater Fort Lauderdale have earned the right to the hashtag #ilivewhereyouvacation. After all, their zip codes belong to a lush, sunny city with beaches straight out of a postcard. This is where the Atlantic turns turquoise, like a neon highlighter run wild along the golden sands of the Florida coast.
But take a look at any map, and you’ll see that the water turns, rushes, and winds far beyond the shore. Known as the “Venice of America” for its web of canals and waterways — 300 miles of them — Greater Fort Lauderdale is a hub of limitless aqua adventures. Between lakes, rivers, channels, and the wilds of the open ocean, here are six ways to get yourself lost in this magnificent maze of water.
Where to go: Head to Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, affectionately referred to as “Central Park” by locals because of its proximity to the city. This 180-acre green space — set between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway — is filled with trails, picnic areas, and its own freshwater lake.
What to expect: Be at the park’s boathouse around 4pm for a guided sunset ride. The one-hour, two-mile trip explores Long Lake, a placid spot ideal for all skill levels and both kayaks and paddleboards. Rent a double kayak if you’d rather enjoy the experience with a pal (furry ones with four legs welcome). Daily rentals on your own are an option, too.
What you need: Bug spray is provided by the park, but long-sleeve shirts and pants — stay away from cotton if you can — are a good way to protect from sun exposure and any pesky insects.
Where to go: Want tranquil? Head to Hillsboro Beach. Three miles long and 900 feet wide, this relaxing haven is where sea turtles come to nest. No hullabaloo here, just sand and surf and endless opportunities to take it easy.
What to do: For the best views, check out the 113-year-old Hillsboro Lighthouse on the barrier island’s southern tip. Tours are available to the top — 175 steps that will grant you a bird’s-eye view of the spectacular scenery below.
Where to eat: From the lighthouse, follow the sand north to find plenty of spots perfect for refueling. For a side of history with your meal, try Cap’s Place. Founded in 1928, the former “Club Unique” was a hideout for the rich and famous — the likes of JFK, FDR, and Churchill were known to be regular patrons.
Dining options abound farther up this stretch of beach, too. Casual spots like The Whale’s Rib and JB’s on the Beach are local favorites specializing in boozy cocktails and classic dishes including coconut shrimp and dolphin sandwiches (don’t worry, it’s not Flipper). If you want to get slightly fancier, Oceans 234 is a chic, oceanside seafood bistro serving up award-winning grub.
Where to go: With a Water Taxi pass, you’re able to explore the city as it’s meant to be explored: hopping on and off the inland waterways as you please. Ride to your heart’s content, but be sure to get off along Las Olas Boulevard — the Rodeo Drive of Fort Lauderdale — and spend some time meandering throughout the shops and art galleries.
What to expect: Mansions, mega-yachts, and excellent commentary from your boat captain. There are 10 stops in Fort Lauderdale, as well as one in Hollywood at the festive Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. The complimentary Riverwalk Water Trolley adds an additional eight stops along the River Route.
Where to eat: The waterfront Casa Sensei mixes up Latin-American flavors with Pan-Asian classics, but don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re dining in Venice. Gondola rides down the picturesque Himmarshee Canal get you scoping out mansions and checking for manatees between bites of bao buns, lobster guacamole, and Korean-grilled steak chimichurri. After-dinner, glow-in-the-dark rides are an option, too.
Where to go: This is the longest pier in South Florida — wander it, fish it, photograph it. If you’re driving in, there’s plenty of metered parking on the blocks surrounding the pier, and certain nearby garages go as low as $5/day.
What to expect: Because the pier is so long, different fish can be caught depending on where you cast your line. Mangrove snappers frequent the waters at the beginning of the pier, followed by pompano, snapper, and bluefish farther out.
What you need: Fishing rods are available for rent, and bait is purchased onsite. Those swearing to not leave until they’ve caught a fish the size of [insert your ambition here] may want to purchase a foldable chair sold at one of the many stores lining the beach.
Where to eat: When you need a break, walk over to Aruba’s Beach Cafe for fresh, local dishes like blackened snapper. Margaritas come extra heavy on the tequila, which helps with your story of how big that fish you caught was. (Note: Guests dining at Aruba’s can valet park for a flat fee of $5.)
Where to go: El Prado Park — a grassy seaside area lined with Adirondack chairs — is an ideal meeting point for people-watching and getting your beach groove on. There’s direct access to the sand and plenty of public parking nearby. If you’re there on a Sunday, you’ll be able to hit the weekly farmers market.
What to expect: Thanks to the abundant shallow reefs, snorkelers and divers can spot plenty of local sea residents, like nurse sharks, sea turtles, rays, parrotfish, and doctorfish. Both those with tanks and those with snorkels can also visit the SS Copenhagen shipwreck. This 19th-century British steamship wrecked in 1900 and has been designated an Underwater Archaeological Preserve. Divers, grab a wreck map at either of the scuba shops listed below — there’s loads more to explore.
What you need: For gear, head to Gold Coast Scuba or Deep Blue Divers, two local shops that will get you set up with the necessary equipment. They also offer dive-certification classes and excursions.
Waterproof sunscreen and sun shirts are strongly recommended for snorkelers. Nothing stinks more than ending a lovely day of fish exploration with skin that matches the color of those cool spiny lobsters you spotted.
Where to go: Start on the water at the Intracoastal Bridge on Atlantic Boulevard, in Pompano Beach. What was once a mass of drab concrete is now a huge, extraordinarily colorful homage to the marine environment you’ll find just offshore. The artist is Dennis Friel, and his ultra-vivid work combines traditional painting with digital art.
What to expect: Titled “Atlantic Harmony,” Friel’s captivating mural set on the bridge’s foundation displays over 50 species of Florida faves. No boat? No problem — pedestrians should head for the specially designated viewing platform to catch the wildly detailed piece.
What you need: Once you’ve seen the art and are ready for some beach time, there are beach chairs and umbrellas available for rent at A1A Watersports (located behind the Wyndham Royal Vista Resort). They also offer kayak, jet ski, and sailboat rentals for those who want to do it all.
Where to eat: You’ll find an upscale seafood scene in Pompano Beach, with hotspots like Beach House Pompano — be sure to end with the key lime pie — and Oceanic, which could easily be mistaken as a modern art museum thanks to its cutting-edge design. Beer aficionados will be well-served at 26° Brewing Company, a local craft brewery getting it done right.