- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Say the words “Fort Lauderdale,” and chances are those within earshot will say, “Oh, that smaller city north of Miami, right?”

As the great Tim Curry said as the butler Wadsworth in “Clue,” this is both true and misleading. While yes, Fort Lauderdaleis in fact 20 miles north of Miami, it does in fact have a South Florida culture all its own. The Washington Times recently spent a pleasurable weekend in “the Venice of America” to soak in sun, sand, surf and many other surprises.

 

Day 1:

JetBlue offers direct, nonstop air service from the District’s Washington-Reagan National Airport (located, yes, in Virginia), and I’m on the 10:40 a.m to head down. It’s just over two hours from the nation’s capital to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Stepping out to the curb, I am met with a curtain of humid, sticky, hot air. I was advised to bring a jacket for #reasons, but I’m already regretting that decision.

Jessica Savage of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau picks me up and takes me just down the road a spell to Riverside Market Sout (3218 SE 6th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 33316, 954/524-8986). The interior boasts a tavern-style atmosphere, with beer taps a-plenty, several TVs (all of which were turned off for some reason) and, the piece de resistance, an old-school multi-game arcade setup that allows free play! After a round or two of Ms. Pac-Man, I sit down for lunch.

My first step on the menu is the local summer wheat from Hollywood Brewing Co., which is both refreshing and tasty. Jessica and I split the delectable buffalo chicken dip, which is absolutely out of sight and a feast for the tastes. My entree is the shrimp po boy, but if I had it to do over again, I’d have gone for a second helping of the buffalo dip and skipped the sandwich entirely.

Jessica then drops me off at my home away from home, The Atlantic Hotel & Spa (601 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 33304, 954/567-8020), a comfy and luxurious spot located right across the street from white, sandy beaches and clear waters. The accommodations are fit for royalty, offering not only a king bed but also a living area replete with ample seating, plus a kitchen already stocked with utensils and implements for cooking were I so inclined to fashion my own meals (which I am not).

My amazing suite has a balcony offering exemplary views up and down the coastline, with azure water and locals dressed as close down to nudity as local ordinances will allow ambling, rolling, biking and running by on the sidewalk afore the waves. It’s hot and muggy, but I take a few moments to chill out on the lengthy balcony and take in this panorama of paradise.

A representative of the property then takes me on the VIP tour of the rather extensive premises, starting from the bar and restaurant on ground floor, Beauty & The Feast, and then heading upwards in the Atlas-like structure. Several floors up is the spa and gym facilities, plus the delightful outdoor pool and spa area overlooking the sea, and where tonight will be a “full-moon” party to celebrate our celestial neighbor’s waxing to full illumination this month.

Aimee Adler with Kip Hunter Marketing, whose clients include the Atlantic, suggests we head a bit south of the hotel to check out the Friday Night Sound Waves, a free and open-to-the-public beach sidewalk series that displays some of the best local acts to rock out to on a Friday afternoon.

Today’s entertainment is courtesy of Suenalo, a Latin fusion group pumping out some rather uptempo tunes to get the audience into a groove.

Right across the street is the famous Elbo Room, the setting of the corny beach bopper flick “Where the Boys Are.” And just down the way is Spazio Italian Restaurant and Wine Lounge (239 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 33316, 954/764.8191), where Aimee and I pop in for a few rounds. There’s a rather healthy happy hour, and so we dive in to some serious margaritas and yet more local beers.

Having changed for dinner, Aimee and I head down to Casa D’Angelo (1201 N Federal Hwy #5a, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 33304, 954/564-1234) at the happening Sunrise Square Plaza. Consistently ranked as one of the best restaurants in South Florida, owner Chef Angelo Elia has been whipping up traditional Tuscan and other culinary delights in the area for decades.

Required for the establishment, I have on slacks and a button-down shirt, a bit out of touch with the casual atmosphere of the area, but a necessity for the classiness that is Casa D’Angelo. Chef Angelo comes out to say hello, and invites me to absolutely try the house wine, which he made himself, of course.

For openers, the staff provides us with a course of bread served with olives, parmesan and olive oil, which is so amazing I fear I might fill up on it prior the meal. Next up is a delectable tuna tartare that screams “more, please!” followed by one of the most unique dishes I have come across in some time: a so-called zucchini “blossom” served with mascarpone. I’m rather picky with my greens, but the combination of vegetable with the creamy cheese and sauce is a sensational delight unlike anything I have ever had.

For the entree I go with the seafood pasta, featuring fresh fish purchased at local markets just this morning. It’s a cornucopia for the palate, even if the dish is a tad heavy on the pasta.

Dessert comes in the form of a chocolate truffle and an apple tart, both of which go down the gullet with no complaints whatsoever.

A special shout-out must go to the staff for — and what writer likes to admit he was wrong? — steering me in the right direction on an aperitif. Typically at the conclusion of a hefty Italian meal, I go for a Sambuca. The waitron tells me it wouldn’t pair especially well with the dessert dishes, but I know what I want. However, when he returned, I ate crow and admitted to my error. Without an ounce of smugness, he recommended a dessert red instead, which was (duh) a more perfect complement to the dessert course.

Aimee drops me back at the hotel, where I’m torn between staying in and drinking — it’s been a long day, after all — or heading out to find more adventure. Before leaving the inn, however, I pop by the Atlantic’s ground-floor Beauty & The Feast bar, where some serious cocktail concoctions are on offer. Having recently been to Kentucky, I take my bourbon-drinking rather seriously, and this bar has plenty to offer. My friend Cindy said I should try Angel’s Envy if ever given the chance, and the bar has it. This mortal will happily imbibe some of the angels’ share this day.

Since I’m in a down-south kind of mood — whether or not Florida actually qualifies as “the South” is a topic of hot debate — I head out for some blues at Blue Jeans Blues (3320 NE 33rd St., Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 33308, 954/306-6330). It’s a funky joint a little bit north of my hotel, with a cramped but cozy space both for patrons and the musicians. It’s a bit undercrowded for a Friday evening, so I settle up close to the action and order up yet another whiskey.

I take my blues about as seriously as I do my bourbon, which is why I’m a little disappointed that tonight’s entertainment is the Blues Brothers Souls Band, a local act fronted by two leads dressed up as Jake and Elwood Blue from the classic comedy. The two leads positively have vocal prowess and stage presence to spare, and their backup band is about as tight as they come, but I’m still confused: Why channel a rather well-known band pioneered by two famous actors rather than craft a gag all your own?

After their set ends, I pay the tab and head back to The Atlantic for a good night’s rest after a rather full day at the beach.

 

Day 2:

By tradition and temperament, I dislike waking up early, but for a snorkeling session at a reef just offshore, I’ll suck it up.

At Sea Experience (801 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 33316, 954/467-6000) I sign my life away before we set off from the docks on a perfect morning that is holding back the rain. We slowly make our way through the marina until we hit the open water. The wind is brisk but warm, splashing all aboard as we head north, directly into the gales.

As soon as the vessel is anchored, we are allowed to jump overboard. I take in a deep breath and heave myself into the drink. The water is perfectly warm and perfect for a water-temperature wimp like me. Coral and sunny fish of all varieties live here. I float at surface level, kicking my fins to move about and take in the reef 20 feet below, snapping photos with my underwater camera. The fishies come in close for inspection, but any attempt to touch them as they swim results only in Sisyphusian frustration as they scamper briskly away.

After an hour, we pull up the anchors and head back into port. Back inside the marina, the staff of one of the sister ships of Sea Experience trades water gun shots with our vessel, but from my vantage, it seems to be a drawn.

In an hour I’ll be regretting the decision to try to self-apply sunblock to my back, where a giant red circle shows the spots I missed while lying prone in the Atlantic. (It’s worth purchasing the spray, or finding a “friend” to do your back for you, kids.)

All that pushing water about in the surf has made me hungry, so next stop is the nearby G & B Oyster Bar (429 Seabreeze Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 33316, 954/525-2421). Thanks to my pal Allison in D.C., I’ve become something of an oyster nut, so this definitely seems like the place to dine (of course, I text her to gloat).

I start off with an oyster course: Glidden Point and Norumbega from Maine and Golden Mantle from British Columbia — east and west. The Maine shucks are outstanding and delicious, calling for seconds, but the BC variety not so much. For the main meal I opt for the oyster and andouille sausage gumbo. It’s fine, if not stellar — which also sums up the service.

I take in some waves back at the beach across the street from The Atlantic and then lounge in the hot tub and the pool before laying down for a rest.

After a nap I head out for brewskies at LauderAle (3305 SE 14th Ave., Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 33316, 954/653-9711). A tasting allows for sipping of four choices, so I opt for the Mr. White’s Wit, Bush Brown, the citrus IPA and the Pieces of 8 Belgian tripel — cause that’s how I roll.

The wit certainly lived up to its name thanks to its color, and it offered a decent taste. The brown and the citrus IPA weren’t to my liking, but the Pieces of 8 was a good taste, if not stellar.

Returning to the barkeep, he suggests I try the C Porter, a coconut-infused brew that was aces, offering both the unmistakable nose of beer but with a distinct coconut aroma and taste. So darling was the sample that I ordered up a full pint as the capper of my hops tour.

I ask you: Is there anything more awesome than finishing a beer to find a Lincoln town car awaiting to take you to a baseball game? If there is, perhaps you’d better keep it to yourself.

Chauffeur Juan de Dios Urrutia shuttles me the 20-some miles south on I-95, fighting traffic even on this Saturday, toward Miami, where the Miami Marlins await. It’s my 21st MLB stadium and, thankfully, Marlins Park (501 Marlins Way, Miami, Florida, 33125, 305/480-1300) has not only a roof but also blasting air conditioning, for which I’m grateful as I seem to be getting crankier about the heat as I age.

Of all the major league parks I’ve been to, I would describe Marlins Park as among the kitchiest. A giant display in the outfield has two marlins that “swim” in a circle whenever the hometown fish score a homer. Granted, I’ve also seen the “wiener run” in Milwaukee and the “Presidents’ Race” in D.C., but something about that outfield posting reminds me of the “Wheel of Fish” from “UHF,” and I just can’t shake it.

Whatever the case, it’s a great game between the Fish and the Nationals, who apparently have had the foresight to follow me here from Washington.

Since Marlins Park is situated right next to Little Havana, autentico Cuban food is in order. I pop into Virginia’s Cafe (119 NW 12th Ave., Miami, Florida, 33128, 305/325-8663). Almost no English is spoken in here, by staff or customers. When it comes to be my turn at bat, I’m hopeful to use my Spanish, but the gal behind the counter susses me out instantly, and our conversation is in the American vernacular. I go for a cornucopia of Cuban flavors, with rice, steak and cheese squares. I’ve just gotten it all ordered when Juan comes calling, saying he can’t find me, and who, upon discerning that I am in Little Havana, scolds me for it being “dangerous” to be here (an admonition I find more amusing than anything).

We head back north on 95 to Fort Lauderdale, where I chow down on my delectable Cuban food in my suite at The Atlantic and have a quick drink before bed.

 

Day 3:

Alas, all things must end. But before heading back to Hollywood airport, one final meal is in order.

Downstairs at The Atlantic’s Beauty & The Feast I dig into a hearty lobster benedict, which is refueling and sumptuous on this humid morn. The staff is unfailingly kind and helpful, both with choices and attentive refills of my iced tea.

After breakfast my car picks me up to head back to the airport for points north. I’m sunburned, mosquito-bitten and probably severely dehydrated, but it’s proof that I have lived the South Florida experience.

Eric Althoff is the Lifestyle and Travel editor for The Washington Times.

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