A few years ago, my husband Tony and I visited Venice, Italy.
We were on a tight budget and a personalized gondola ride, as romantic as it looked, was definitely out of reach. Instead, we opted for a multi-day pass on the Vaporetto, the ubiquitous Venetian water “bus” which provides public transportation through the city’s myriad canals and to the surrounding islands.
For three days, we traveled in this manner, hopping on and off at our pleasure to explore the wonders of Venice and its environs.
Fast forward a few years to our first trip to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. We were on a whirlwind tour and had only two days to take in the sights of this aquatic urban wonderland which is branded as the Venice of America. Okay, good start, since we were very familiar with the Italian version.
With the fond memories of our Venetian boating adventures still vivid in our minds, we happily took the suggestion of a friend to buy an all day Water Taxi pass. This pass, available for purchase on board, allows the holder unlimited access to the fleet of boats that sail the intercoastal waterways of Ft. Lauderdale from 10:00 am to 12:30 am on day of use. For $26 (there are reduced rates for seniors and kids), one can float to one’s delight from one stop to another—each stop leading to a different urban experience.
We parked our rental car at a convenient (and at $10 a day very reasonably-priced) lot a few blocks from our first destination, the Riverwalk. True to its name, the waterway was never far from our path as we strolled leisurely past boutiques, restaurants, and galleries.
In what I took as a very good omen for our first day in Ft. Lauderdale, as we were strolling along the walkway, a manatee briefly raised its head out of the water before making its dive into the river. Alas, by the time I raised my camera, only his flipper was visible as he made the plunge. Nonetheless, the thrill of seeing one of these gentle, and endangered, sea creatures quite unexpectedly just a few feet away certainly made my day!
We soon viewed the yellow Water Taxi placard (the water taxi is well marked with signs at each destination) and we waited just a few minutes for our boat to arrive. Schedules are posted at each stop, with Stop #7 connecting you to all 14 water taxi stops on the route.
Our adventure began as our water taxi glided under several bridges and entered the famous Intercoastal Waterway. We learned from our extremely knowledgeable and affable guide Matthew (whose badge identified him as hailing from Toledo Ohio) that this 3,000 mile navigable route was begun in 1919 and runs from Brownsville, Texas to the Manasquan River in New Jersey.
Being from San Diego, Tony and I are no strangers to yachts of all shapes and sizes, but I must admit, our mouths dropped at the size of the mega-yachts docked along the piers during our cruise.They actually matched the opulence of the mega-mansions we were soon to see along “Millionaire Row.” These sprawling estates were owned at one time or another by such luminaries as Tom Bodett of Motel 6, Sonny & Cher, Lucille Ball, the owners of Hooters and Wendy’s restaurant chains, and the former CEO of Blockbuster Video, among just a few of the names Matthew dropped while awe-struck passengers clicked away on their cameras to capture the moment.
It wasn’t all glitz. There were also some natural pleasures to be enjoyed along the route, too. Matthew pointed out the best spots to view the iguanas sunning themselves along the shore. Sure enough, we happened across quite a few of these plump, lazy, and colorful reptiles that co-exist with coastal residents and are definitely a tourist attraction in their own right.
We also got a second fleeting look at the tail fins of a few manatees as they began their dive into the water, as well as stately pelicans perched on the dock posts eyeing us calmly as we passed by.
We awoke to another warm and sunny day. Being from San Diego, mild temperatures in early February are not foreign to us, but we were nonetheless delighted to have such perfect weather for our explorations.
Our first stop from the taxi was Las Olas Boulevard, the “style-mile” of Ft. Lauderdale. According to the local visitors bureau, the area was once a sleepy road to the beach but it is now “where the chic shop and people go to see-and-be-seen. “ It reminded us quite a bit of its West Coast cousins, Beverly Hills and Palm Desert, for example, with its stylish fashion boutiques, art galleries, sidewalk cafes, clubs and restaurants.
We couldn’t leave Ft. Lauderdale without a look at its famous beach. Then again, we in San Diego have our share of spectacular beaches, but I must admit, after hopping off the water taxi and walking a few blocks down some side streets, we were rightly impressed with the pristine sands and bustling activity of this “beach-chic” destination.
True again to the visitor bureau’s information, Ft. Lauderdale beach has some of the best people-watching in Southern Florida. Not only were the bathers diverse and interesting (we chatted with a family from Rome who were spending two weeks in the city), but the avenue fronting the beach is lined with impressive high-rise hotels, upscale boutiques, funky shops and restaurants. The strollers, joggers, bicyclists, and rollerblade enthusiasts were also out in full force, adding their touch of colorful beach ambiance to the scene.
Connie Francis romped on this very same beach back in 1960 filming the movie, “Where the Boys Are.” Forty years later, it was clearly obvious why any traveler would want to spend an early February vacation on these sandy shores.
Our next adventure was to ride the water taxi to Hollywood, Florida. This 45-minute cruise is included in the price of the day pass, so we couldn’t resist. The trip to Hollywood was relaxing and informative, taking us past Ft. Lauderdale’s cruise ship terminal, which is one of the nation’s busiest terminals. It boasts the capacity of berthing up to twelve cruise ships at a time.
Along our way, our guide (ever present on the Water Taxi vessels with their knowledge, wit and charm) pointed out pristine state beaches, endangered flora and fauna, and other interesting facts. Alas, we were not able to visit Hollywood because of time restraints, but we promised ourselves we would return to spend a day discovering its charm on our next trip to Ft. Lauderdale. We did float past the Saloon Le Tub on the way to the dock, extolled by Oprah Winfrey as having the nation’s best burgers, and regretted the fact that we didn’t have the time to lunch in this eclectic and historic community.
Our final evening in Ft. Lauderdale ended with a sunset tour on the water taxi. The crew does invite their passengers to bring drinks on board, and I imagine a bar-hopping tour, as suggested by our guide, would be another fun adventure to orchestrate when we return. Tony and I ended this short, but sweet, trip to Ft. Lauderdale sipping Chianti as we glided once again through the city’s magical waterways, toasting to life and watching the winter sun set in a massive ball of flame over the horizon.
For detailed visitor information, contact the Greater Ft. Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.sunny.org, (800) 22-SUNNY.
All Photos © Joanne DiBona, © Tony DiBona