By: Andrew Collins*/Special to TRT—
Since its rapid transformation in the early 1990s into one of the world’s leading gay vacation destinations, Fort Lauderdale has continued on a steady path of exciting new developments. Swanky contemporary hotels have risen along its neatly manicured beachfront, which is within a short walk of several excellent gay resorts. The small city of Wilton Manors, which fringes Fort Lauderdale to the northwest, has become a vibrant hub of LGBT-popular nightlife, dining and shopping. And a growing number of impressive arts and historic attractions have helped turn Fort Lauderdale into one of Florida’s premier arts and cultural hubs.
High season in Fort Lauderdale (www.unny.org/lgbt) spans from late autumn to early spring, but Broward County is more of a year-round destination than you might think. As the region has become a top getaway among LGBT travelers, many gays and lesbians of all ages—from recent college grads to retirees—have moved here full-time. The acclaimed gay men’s resort Pineapple Point is currently developing an upscale retirement complex in an up-and-coming corridor of downtown Fort Lauderdale—plans are for this flagship residence to serve as a prototype for similar communities throughout the country. And throughout the city, neighborhoods, businesses and hotels tend to draw a diverse crowd. [pullquote]Owners of the former lesbian bar New Moon, Nancy Goodwin and Carol Moran operate one of the most enjoyable and romantic restaurants in Wilton Manors, 13 Even.[/pullquote]
Fort Lauderdale also has a number of LGBT-driven events throughout the year: Pride Fort Lauderdale in late February and early March, Stonewall Pride in Wilton Manors in June, the transgender Southern Comfort Conference in late September and early October, the Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in mid-October, Wicked Manors over Halloween, and Gay Days Fort Lauderdale week in late November.
What to See and Do
Fort Lauderdale has several notable attractions of particular interest of gay visitors. Adjacent to the city’s public library in the historic Victoria Park neighborhood, the Stonewall National Museum & Archives contains an amazing trove of artifacts and exhibits on LGBT history (the lending library and archives contain countless gay publications, from vintage erotica to community newspapers). The Stonewall Museum has a second gallery in the heart of Wilton Manors, with compelling exhibits on everything from the battle for transgender civil rights to timeline of key moments in LGBT history.
Opened in fall 2014 in Wilton Manors, the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center is both a moving tribute to those who have battled with the disease and an eye-opening, informative awareness center on HIV and AIDS. Exhibits here trace the beginnings of the disease, and how public perceptions and media coverage about it have changed over the years. Additionally, it may not sound like a conventional attraction, but the Pride Center at Equality Park in Wilton Manors is well worth visiting—it’s one of the more impressive LGBT community centers in the country, and a great resource for learning about the local gay scene.
As for the region’s many other appealing draws, Fort Lauderdale is one of the state’s top shopping destinations. Fans of retail should definitely visit the famed Sawgrass Mills Mall, whose more than 300 designer outlets include Giorgio Armani, Barneys New York, Kate Spade, Michael Kors and Steve Madden. Or just stroll along lovely Las Olas Boulevard, which abounds with fashion boutiques and jewelry shops. [pullquote]Fort Lauderdale also has a number of LGBT-driven events throughout the year: Pride Fort Lauderdale in late February and early March, Stonewall Pride in Wilton Manors in June, the transgender Southern Comfort Conference in late September and early October, the Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in mid-October, Wicked Manors over Halloween, and Gay Days Fort Lauderdale week in late November.[/pullquote]
It’s also a city built on and around water, and there are myriad opportunities for sightseeing cruises, fishing charters, sailing trips, scuba-diving excursions and kayak tours (many of the local accommodations work closely with area boating and sailing outfitters). Something of a hidden gem, Hugh Taylor Birch State Park is close to the beach and makes an especially nice spot for canoeing and jogging (you can also rent Segways and jet skis from M. Cruz Rentals). Also, be sure to visit the nearby Bonnet House Museum & Gardens, which comprises a grand historic estate filled with art and acres of lush gardens.
In the vibrant downtown corridor, you can catch a play or concert at the superb Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale is also a great place to while away the occasional rainy afternoon. It’s known for its first-rate collection of works by leading American impressionist painter William Glackens.
Where to Eat and Play
Broward County’s dining scene has evolved rapidly in recent years. For creative contemporary cuisine, check out stylish Johnny V (www.johnnyvlasolas.com), helmed by celeb chef Johnny Vinczencz. At this hip Las Olas Boulevard restaurant, you might try jerk-seared local black grouper or duck served three ways (foie gras, leg of confit and breast). At the trendy W Hotel, sup on choice chops and creatively prepared seafood at Steak 954 (www.starr-restaurant.com), part of the buzzy culinary empire of celeb chef Stephen Starr. A casual option overlook Fort Lauderdale Beach, airy Casablanca Café (www.casablancacafeonline.com) has a breezy patio and serves reasonably priced American and Mediterranean fare, including delish lobster rolls.
The outstanding Market 17 (market17.net) is just a short drive from the beach and serves deftly plated, farm-to-table cuisine—it’s become quite celebrated for its intriguing “Dining in the Dark” option. Downtown’s Tap 42 Bar & Kitchen (www.tap42.com) offers an outstanding craft-beer list along with well-prepared gastropub fare. For a lavish night out, look to Lobster Bar Sea Grille (www.buckheadrestaurants.com/lobster-bar-sea-grille), a see-and-be-seen downtown brasserie that serves superb seafood and has one of the city’s best wine lists. For stellar Pan-Asian food, head to Dapur (www.dapurkitchen.com), a trendy gay-date spot with a lively bar area that serves colorful cocktails (the lycheetini being a favorite). Chef Edi Mulyanto turns out delicious modern cuisine with a Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian bent.
Owners of the former lesbian bar New Moon, Nancy Goodwin and Carol Moran operate one of the most enjoyable and romantic restaurants in Wilton Manors, 13 Even (www.13-even.com) which earns praise for its menu of reasonably priced, creative small plates, from smoked-salmon tostadas to crisp pork belly tossed with feta and watermelon. On the same block, Mind Your Manors is a convivial spot for filling and tasty pub fare. The neighborhood is also home to Rosie’s (www.rosiesbng.com), a dishy and very social spot for casual pub fare, including huge burgers, sandwiches, coconut-shrimp platters, and more. The Naked Grape (www.nakedgrapewinebar.com) is a handsome little wine bar with light food and a well-curated selection of vino from all over the world.
Fort Lauderdale pulses with gay bars, with the lion’s share of them in Wilton Manors. The handsome two-level Manor (www.themanorcomplex.com) complex can be a fine place to kick off the evening or dance into the wee hours. This snazzy space has a nightclub aglow with crystal chandeliers plus myriad bars and a kitchen serving inventive tapas. B. Bar & Grille (www.billsfillingstation.com), formerly Bill’s Filling Station, is popular especially among the 35-and-older crowd. There’s food, excellent cabaret and saucy drag shows, and four different bars. Another good bet for piano cabaret is Tropics (www.tropicsofwiltonmanors.com), which offers above-average dinner fare too.
Sidelines Sports Bar (www.sidelinessports.com) draws a great mix of folks to shoot pool and watch sports on TV, the Village Pub (www.villagepubwm.com) has a nice little dance floor, a good-size patio, and a stage with drag shows; and the hip and stylish Progress Bar (www.progressbarsouthflorida.com) is a friendly neighborhood spot with great dancing on weekends and a strong following among both men and women. Hunters (www.huntersftlauderdale.com), Rumors, and the Alibi are slick, happening video and dance bars nearby, all three of them good places to meet locals and converse with friends. And leather bars like the dungeonesque Ramrod (www.ramrodbar.com), with its Tom of Finland artwork, and Cubby Hole (www.thecubbyhole.com), always draw dedicated crowds of butch guys. At just about any of the bars, themes changes nightly—from karaoke to country-western dancing to drag bingo.
Where to Stay
Many of the top gay resorts in Fort Lauderdale are just two or three blocks in from the beachfront (and the popular gay beach at Sebastian Street and A1A). One of the classiest and most relaxing options, the Grand Resort (www.grandresort.net) stands out for its warm and professional service and thoughtful amenities, which include a first-rate day spa (open both to non-guests and those staying on property) offering a wide range of massage and body treatments. There’s also a gym, a large pool with a swimsuits-required policy, a more secluded courtyard and sunning area with a hot tub that’s clothing-optional, a nice gym, and some of the largest suites of any gay resort in town. Some of the 33 units have full contemporary kitchens, separate living rooms and private outdoor showers.
With its dapper Mid-Century Modern design, the Royal Palms Resort & Spa (www.royalpalms.com) exudes sexiness. The thoughtfully maintained resort has an “all-welcome” policy but caters heavily to the LGBT market. There are 66 rooms with a sleek and unfussy aesthetic and such cushy perks as iHome docks and rain-forest-style glass showers, close proximity to the beach, a scene-y bar and grill, and a luxe spa, and a well-designed fitness center with yoga classes available. Another good bet is the sister property, the Lush Royale (www.lushroyalefortlauderdale.com), formed when two neighboring resorts (the former Royal Palms and Orton Terrace) combined. The 28 upscale units here are eclectic and attractive, ranging from compact Junior Queens with small kitchenettes to Superior Royal Suites with king beds, huge living-dining areas and full modern kitchens. There are two pools and ample, clothing-optional sunning areas. The same owners also operate the nearby Grand Palm Plaza (www.grandpalmplaza.com) and Elysium Resort (www.elysiumresort.net).
Another good bet in the neighborhood is the complex comprising three neighboring, mid-priced gay resorts: the Worthington (www.theworthington.com), Alcazar Resort (www.alcazarresort.com) and Villa Venice (www.villavenice.com). Together, these centrally located, clothing-optional hideaways rank among the cruisiest resorts in South Florida, with playful vibes, energetic fun-in-the-sun patrons, and attractive grounds for sunning and swimming au naturale.
For pure luxury, it’s hard to beat Pineapple Point (www.pineapplepoint.com), a handsome 1930s spread that has the grace and style of a Caribbean plantation, and quite possibly the cushiest suites of any gay resort in the country. With top-notch service and gorgeous grounds spread across two tropically landscaped acres, this compound is slightly inland, in the desirable Victoria Park neighborhood, and offers standard rooms, cozy cottages and fabulous villas—the latter with rooftop decks, big kitchens and other perks.
One of the closest resorts to the many gay bars and restaurants in Wilton Manors, Cabanas Guest House (www.thecabanasguesthouse.com) appeals to social butterflies (note the10-man Jacuzzi and eight-man aromatherapy steam room). The posh rooms have goose-down comforters, DVD players and CD/MP3 players. There’s also a full-service day spa. Also in the heart of Wilton Manors, the Calypso Inn (www.calypsoinnwiltonmanors.com) is a fun little B&B with four charming, reasonably priced rooms.
Fort Lauderdale also has some terrific, gay-welcoming mainstream resorts. The chic W Fort Lauderdale (www.wfortlauderdalehotel.com) cuts a dashing profile along the Route A1A beachfront, its sybaritic Bliss Spa offering deluxe treatments, and its large pool hosting fab parties all weekend; rooms are decked out with state-of-the-art media centers and supremely comfy beds. The nearby Atlantic Hotel & Spa (www.atlantichotelfl.com) offers unobstructed ocean views from the majority of its spacious, airy rooms, all of them with Bose CD-stereos, lovely patios and small kitchens. Other mainstream properties along the beachfront with fine views and attractive rooms include the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort (www.westinftlauderdalebeach.com), the Courtyard Fort Lauderdale Beach (www.marriott.com), the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach (www.hilton.com) and the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale (www.ritzcarlton.com).
*Andrew Collins produces the site GayTravel.About.com and contributes to many other travel magazines and websites. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.