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Locals enjoy al fresco dining on A1A, Fort Lauderdale's beachfront avenue (Photograph by Ian Dagnall, Alamy)

Why I Love Fort Lauderdale

In Fort Lauderdale, water and land are of equal significance. There may be some 165 miles of canals in the “Venice of America,” but this city isn’t sinking. Instead Miami’s little sister is rising in popularity with its laid-back chic-meets-beach vibe and year-round sunshine.

Even though I only scheduled a day in Fort Lauderdale, I found a lot to love (including a fabulously in-and-out international airport) that made me want to extend my stay.

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People stand-up-paddleboarding through the canals of Fort Lauderdale (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Fort Lauderdale was my first stop on a two-week journey to explore some of the sunniest places in America. And after an epic East Coast winter, I was more than ready to cast off the darkness and skip ahead to summer. I was armed with my warm-weather essentials: Maui Jim sunglassesWakaya ginger pills and Aloha green juice powder (two of my favorite power tools to stay healthy when I’m traveling), and a stack of beach reads.

Fort Lauderdale used to be known as a raucous spring break haven in the 1980s, with hundreds of thousands of college coeds descending upon the city each year for a 24-7 celebration of all things frivolous and decadent. But after the locals finally put their foot down and declared, “Enough!,” the binge-drinking crowd has all but vanished, paving way for new, more grown-up kind of place.

I sought out the the city’s welcoming waterways within a couple hours of arriving, hopping on a catamaran tour led by Mike and Gary of Tropical Sailing. We glided past canal-side mansions, from grand plantation-style beauties to warm-hued stunners with a decidedly Mediterranean vibe, with the wind in our hair as the sun set on the Atlantic.

My fellow passengers included three families–with a total of nine kiddos–that vacation together in a new destination each year. Why’d they pick Fort Lauderdale? Their tale of fishing in the canals for what would become their dinner–freshly caught snapper grilled with lemon and olive oil–said it all.

Back on land, I quickly learned to allow extra time for the drawbridges that stop traffic to allow boats to pass. “They only go up when I am late for something,” one local complained. Just another example of the minor delays that always seem to hinder a traveler’s hurried path.

Many of the historic homes I toured were formal and staid, which made Bonnet House Museum & Gardens so refreshingly appealing. This whimsical oceanfront treasure, with its wrought-iron railings imported from New Orleans, was built in 1920 as a tropical retreat for Frederic Clay Bartlett, a wealthy artist from chilly Chicago. By the time you’re finished exploring the mansion, you feel as though you know the man who had it built, as every corner of the place is stamped with Bartlett’s unmistakable brand of quirk.

Highlights of the tour included the artist’s studio, walls brimming with Bartlett’s cheeky pieces (Hello, giant giraffe!), a grandiose kitchen that oozes 1930s charm, and the life-size carousel animals that line the hallways. With any hope, the second-floor bedrooms will be open to the public one day; the video that shows these areas at the end of the tour is a tease.

I was told Butterfly World,ten miles north of the city, was an essential stop, but had my doubts (add “world” to a place name and it rarely bodes well). It turned out to be a fascinating, colorful place, as well as the largest butterfly park in the world, with more than 5,000 live specimens flitting about. An obvious boon for the curious child, the space, which also includes a hummingbird aviary, offers hours of quiet respite for adults.

Back in town, I explored Las Olas Boulevard, a delightful tree-lined stretch of shops and restaurants in the heart of the Fort Lauderdale. And, unlike many strips like it, Las Olas is hyper-local (I spotted only one chain store the entire day)–from the inviting stained glass doors at circa 1939 clothing store Maus & Hoffman to the sparkle-studded dresses from local designers at Zola Keller. With so much to see, you may want to pop in for a snack at La Bonne Crepe or the Cheese Culture, or relax with a glass of vino in hand at Las Olas Wine Café.

Speaking of food, I booked a table at one of the city’s best new restaurants, Lobster Bar Sea Grille, with a vaulted tiled ceiling, just-caught fruits de mer, and a killer kale salad that will turn kale haters into proselytizers. Behind the Grille, you can easily pick up the red-brick Riverwalk path, and indulge in a lovely after-dinner stroll past upscale residential buildings and tony yachts to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. (Close to the center is local favorite O-B House, a great choice for a weekend brunch.)

My “all-suite” hotel, Il Lugano, felt especially like an insider pick. There are hundreds of places to stay on A1A, the beachside artery that runs up Florida’s east coast, but the main drag can be touristy and crowded. Though it’s upscale, Lugano earns its price tag by shielding its guests from the beach madness while remaining blocks away from the surf. Basing myself in this residential neighborhood just north of the city center made it easy for me to feel at home (the fact that every room has a kitchen and laundry facilities didn’t hurt).

After a full day of fun and sun, I woke up to serene views of the Intracoastal Waterway. I’ll be sure to return to Fort Lauderdale, but next time I won’t make the mistake of planning a whirlwind visit.

Annie Fitzsimmons is on the beat in Florida and California. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, on Twitter @anniefitz, and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.