I was slurping down juicy raw oysters at Burlock Coast, the Prohibition-inspired seafood restaurant at The Ritz Carlton, Fort Lauderdale (1 N Fort Lauderdale Beach, Fort Lauderdale), when I chomped on something hard. I spit it out and found a shiny 1/4-inch white pearl. My discovery sufficiently amazed the staff to fetch the restaurant’s oyster shucker, Ronaldo. “I’ve shucked about 800 thousand oysters and never found one, he said. “You’re very blessed.”
My lucky find in the restaurant’s rum room, lined with bottles from Florida and the Caribbean, was just the first of many hidden jewels I discovered on my recent trip to the Greater Fort Lauderdale area. The city was once primarily known as just a party town for spring breakers. College students still descend every spring, but what’s happening the rest of the year is much more interesting. The city is experiencing a building boom, both residential and commercial. There are new hotels and more than $1.6-billion worth of property renovations, plus dozens of new restaurants and bars opening the last few years.
“We’re evolving and it’s happening at a rapid pace,” said Stacy Ritter, President & CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (sunny.org). “Hospitality development continues to be strong with 39 hotel properties projected to open within the next five years throughout the county. And we’re completely renovating the Broward County Convention Center, which will include a brand new 800-room hotel.”
Fort Lauderdale will also welcome its first Four Seasons hotel and condo project late next year. The AC Sawgrass Mills/Sunrise and Tru by Hilton are on the way. The Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach (551 N Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale) is the latest luxury property to open in October 2017.
“Conrad is really at the helm of the resurgence of the luxury traveler coming to Fort Lauderdale,” said Chintan Dadhich, the hotel’s General Manager. “That resurgence is very important for this market as we move forward and get this destination back on the map.” The property was formerly residential, so the all-suite hotel offers 290 water-view units that are unusually large, with small kitchens, a big advantage for families. There’s even a mini wine dispenser to pour a glass of red or white. Overlooking the Atlantic, a 20,000-square-foot pool deck provides a base for activities, including the Go H2O! day camp for kids, centered around marine discovery. Mommy and Daddy can destress at a daily beach yoga class and at the boutique spa, where aromatherapy accompanies every massage on baby-soft microfiber sheets.
Down ocean in Hollywood, the spa is the last piece of a $100-million renovation completed in May at The Diplomat Beach Resort (3555 South Ocean Drive, Hollywood, FL), the host of this year’s ASTA Global Convention. If you attended, you found a resort conducive to working and playing. First, the work. The expansive lobby is styled in the likes of WeWork offices, with cozy nooks to hold meetings or grab drinks, under a glass ceiling that streams in the sun. The resort is the largest hotel and convention center in South Florida, with 1,000 rooms and 209,000-square-feet of meetings and event space, big enough for groups of 5,000.
“It’s gone from a typical group hotel, it now has a dual functionality, where we can be anything we want.” said Laurens Zieren, the hotel’s General Manager. “You can have a really cool experience on the weekend, and not even use the meeting space. And at the same time when we do very large conferences, we can make it feel very large. And when we want to make it feel small, we can make it feel very small. I don’t think those opportunities were there before.”
Then there’s the play. Two pools, a small water park with two slides, a beach lined with chairs, on-site water activities and a Kids’ Club help entertain all ages. But it’s the restaurants that set the resort apart. The renovations include two new celebrity chef-owned eateries. Michael Schulson’s Monkitail has already picked up a handful of awards and the reason is clear. The chef’s ten course tasting meal is just $65, and it’s fabulous. The edamame dumplings, robatayaki Kobe beef, miso caramel tofu and Toro tuna are all exceptional.
Across the lobby at Geoffrey Zakarian’s Point Royal, order the monster Bloody Mary topped with shrimp, crab legs and a raw oyster, only available at dinner. The restaurant has an extensive raw bar and offers an enticing Sunday brunch. But don’t overlook the hotel’s older steakhouse, Prime, helmed by the charming and charismatic Remyl Coleman. Both the quality and preparation of the nine different types of steaks rival any big city steakhouse.
At the spa, ask for Yelena, who used to be a doctor in Ukraine. She certainly knows her anatomy, able to quickly zero in on your tension areas. As she found one of mine, she giggled as I grunted, and said with sympathy and perhaps a little glee, “I know it’s painful.”
The spa is also a big draw at the Ritz, where a much-requested therapist named Mark works his magic. The Intuitive Ocean Treatment buys you two hours of bliss, including a salt scrub, mud or algae wrap and massage. Trust me, it won’t feel long enough. The hotel is going through a rebirth of its own, now midway through a renovation of its swanky club lounge, exterior and all 166 rooms and 34 condos.
“Everything in the rooms will basically be changed, as well as the bathrooms: the vanities, the mirrors, things like that will be updated,” said General Manager Greg Cook. So when you walk in, it will be a completely different room.”
The project will be complete by the end of October, before the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, the largest boat show in the world and the city’s biggest event. The Ritz was Fort Lauderdale’s first luxury hotel 11 years ago.
That’s one reason Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood (1 Seminole Way, Hollywood) is embarking on its jaw-dropping $1.5-billion renovation. It includes the 35-story guitar-shaped hotel tower, bringing an additional 638 rooms to the resort. An adjacent tower will add 168 more, for a total of almost 1,300. Not surprisingly, the guitar tower will be the world’s first. It was the brainchild of Hard Rock’s Chairman.
“Jim Allen has actually thought about this, for I think, seven years,” said Drew Schlesinger, Vice President of Hotel Operations. “The first time he talked to an architectural company, they didn’t take him seriously. And he said no I’m serious, I want to build this. And they came up with a rectangle that had the glass in the shape of a guitar, but the building was still a rectangle, and he said no that’s not what I want.”
A team at Klai Juba Wald Architects eventually brought his vision to life. But the process certainly was not easy. “It cost a lot more money to build, building in the shape of a guitar,” said Schlesinger with a laugh. “There are so many different points where you have to have more structural support in order to facilitate that shape, so just from an engineering standpoint, the hours it took to do that is an added cost.”
It’s just one of the new offerings that will be unveiled October 24th, including an expanded gaming floor, 42,000-square-foot Rock Spa, a 13.5-acre pool lagoon, a state-of-the-art nightclub and concert hall, more retail space, 19 restaurants and 20 bars and lounges. The L Bar is already open, with food-themed cocktail options like Avocado Toast and Coffee & A Doughnut, a tequila-based drink mixed with cold brew coffee, finished off with half a chocolate doughnut. At the high-end Japanese restaurant Kuro, the Toro Tartar arrives lightly smoking and the Hamachi sashimi is paired with cucumber radish salsa, cilantro and jalapeno ponzu sauce.
With all the options inside hotels, you don’t need to venture out much, but then you would be missing the city’s charms. Fort Lauderdale is known as the Venice of America, for its 300 miles of waterways in the greater metro area. Marinas are filled with boats offering sightseeing or fishing trips. Jet skis are also widely available. Take a paddle boarding trip with Waterway Adventures (1112 North Ocean Drive, Hollywood), which is a quick Uber or taxi ride away from The Diplomat. You’ll get a quick lesson if you’re a newbie. Or someone else can do all the work aboard a catamaran booked through TropicalSailing (801 Sea Breeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale). There are daily afternoon and sunset sails. Jason Jones captained one recent trip and talked about his love for the city’s relaxed vibe, compared to its glitzier neighbor, Miami.
“Fort Lauderdale is a place that’s more family oriented,” he said. “We get people that are here for weeks at a time, during the summer, especially. And we’ll have families come out with us three, four times while they’re here. Which for me, preferably it’s that. Miami is the more uptempo party scene….very different crowds.”
There’s still a touch of the celebrity life as the boat sails past homes previously owned by Sonny & Cher, Leonard Nimoy and Cindy Crawford. Another option to get off land is the Water Taxi, with stops from Hollywood through Fort Lauderdale. Take it to Las Olas Boulevard to stroll past tourist-friendly shops and open-air restaurants and bars. That’s also where you’ll find two stops on the Greater Fort Lauderdale Ale Trail, Royal Pig Pub & Kitchen (350 E Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale) and American Social (721 E Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale). The trail includes more than 50 craft beer stops. Some are further away, like LauderAle Brewery (3305 SE 14th Ave., Fort Lauderdale), in a marine industrial park near Port Everglades. Here the slogan is, “Hard to Find, Easy to Drink.” The brewery has 30 different beers on tap and brews right behind the bar, allowing brew makers to chat with customers. “That’s one thing that’s kind of unique,” said Kyle Jones, one of the brewery’s owners. “You can sit at the bar and you can watch the guys brew, and cellar, and fill kegs and dry hop beers.”
Jones led me to another locals’ hangout, Southport Raw Bar & Restaurant (1536 Cordova Rd., Fort Lauderdale), an institution in the city that opened in the early 1970s. There’s a roll of paper towels on the table and you’ll go through about half of it, as your fingers drip with melted butter. The seafood dishes, served on paper plates, are large and cheap, like the daily special of one-and-a-half pounds of snow crab legs and corn on the cob for less than $30, and $5 chowder or chili.
The city’s many old and new offerings may already sound enticing, but Greater Fort Lauderdale’s tourism bureau is trying to up the ante for travel advisors. “We’re executing an aggressive international travel schedule to ensure we meet face-to-face with our partners across the globe,” said Tracy Vaughan, Senior Vice President, Tourism & Travel Industry Sales. “We’re launching a new initiative this year that will reward travel advisors for their bookings into our destination. So be on the lookout for more details about this important incentive program.” The bureau wants you-and all visitors- to uncover the many hidden gems in the region. I’m turning one of mine into a ring.