Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is a go-to destination for many gay travellers seeking a mix of pool- or oceanside sun and diverse nightlife with a backdrop of reliable shopping and food. Last year, the city welcomed 992,813 Canadians, according to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. A gay visitor’s tracks are most likely to fall in three areas: the beach, Las Olas Boulevard and Wilton Manors.
Fort Lauderdale’s beaches are well showcased by generous sidewalks, restaurants with tiered, ocean-facing patios and towering hotels lining the west side of Beach Avenue. Walking along the beach you’ll see areas occupied mostly by families and gay sections full of bears, twinks and everything in between camped out near their hotels, whether it’s the W Hotel hipsters or the Ritz-Carlton types sporting designer swimwear. At the southernmost end of Greater Fort Lauderdale is the clothing-optional, primarily gay Hallandale Beach.
When hunger rises like the tide, head to Steak 954 on the main floor of the W Hotel. Opened in 2009, the steakhouse with a twist is a welcome addition to the many underwhelming restaurants that otherwise line Beach Avenue, emphasizing beach-facing sightlines and icy drinks over creative and flavourful cuisine. Steak 954 — 954 is one of Lauderdale’s area codes, FYI — offers dry-aged beef from select ranches, a variety of seafood, such highlights as tuna-and-foie-gras tacos, and a brunch menu that features four variations on eggs benedict.
If your visit aligns with the W’s annual Blissguy competition, be sure to shoehorn this sexy poolside pageant into your itinerary.
Beach life in Fort Lauderdale doesn’t have to mean keeping your resting heart rate below 40. Since March of 2012, Rocketman, operating out of a quiet bay at English Park, has been strapping water-powered jet packs onto its customers and letting them fly through the air across the water. A guide on land controls the water-jet engine and provides instructions through a radio earpiece. A pre-flight safety orientation and a wingman in the water put riders at ease while they hover like superheroes 30 feet above the water. “Simply put, it’s better than sex,” says Rocketman owner Ben Smith.
Las Olas Boulevard
A mix of galleries, restaurants and boutiques set amongst sidewalk-lining palm trees and gardens keeps Las Olas Boulevard foot traffic humming all day long. In the morning, dog walkers and their leashed pooches work out the kinks of sleep. Suit-wearing professionals descend on Las Olas over the lunch hours from office towers to the west, followed by discerning afternoon shoppers. Partiers dressed in star-bright bling climb out of stereo-blaring cars well into the evening.
South Floridian first-timers should be cautioned on the fashion scene. Local designers and retailers ignore the “less is more” rule. Gold lamé T-shirts, jeans with excessive stud embellishments and collared shirts with detailed embroidery fill boutiques. Owners of Affliction garments will feel at home. Diesel die-hards will find it pushes boundaries. Banana Republic loyalists are likely to run screaming. Shop 603, at the corner of Las Olas and South Federal Highway, offers its steady stream of customers top labels that are a balance of South Floridian and tamer options.
The boulevard’s galleries follow a similar style. Big, bright, bold pieces displayed in vast showrooms tempt passersby in search of culture or air conditioning. Bellagio Gallery features local and international original paintings, while Blue Gallery displays grand sculptures, many from Israeli artists.
Fort Lauderdale’s local food scene is centred here on Las Olas and shows promising signs of further development. Chef Robyn Almodovar has tracked its evolution over the last decade. “Fort Lauderdale’s food scene changes dramatically since restaurants open and close so quickly,” says the former Hell’s Kitchen contestant. “It’s very fad-driven, and what’s hot today is closed tomorrow. Locals aren’t terribly loyal to a neighbourhood restaurant.”
Because of this, Almodovar follows customers with gourmet munchies in her food truck, Palate Party. She says tourists should look for locally sourced ingredients, such as crab and star fruit, on menus. Her favourite spot in the city is Italian restaurant Casa D’Angelo, but she also favours YOLO (You Only Live Once) for great small plates. Her burger cravings are satisfied at Rosie’s or Georgie’s Alibi in the gay suburb Wilton Manors. “They’re the best burgers in the city,” she says. “Period.”
The key to unlocking Wilton Manors’ nightlife is knowing where to go and, most especially, when to go. There’s a strict calendar in this gay strip mall, according to the front desk coordinator at The Grand Resort, one of the city’s popular gay guesthouses. “With such a diverse community and also a transient city, there are certain scenes on certain nights,” Roy Dunn tells his guests.
“Georgie’s Alibi is a staple on Thursdays, with $3 Long Island iced teas. It’s always a crowded scene. Friday nights are the popular bear nights at Bill’s Filling Station, and Saturdays are all about The Manor, a multi-complex with salsa dancing that appeals to the Latino community. Sundays are all about Rosie’s Sunday Fundays. Folks even come off the beach early to be there.”
Fort Lauderdale’s gay scene also offers up the new Village Pub, for a younger set, Sidelines, for sporty types, and Ramrod, for the leather scene.
The strip-mall neighbourhood even features a dab of culture. The River City Art Walk, now in its seventh year, transforms this suburb from one that normally caters to car traffic into a neighbourhood bustling with pedestrians, as local businesses — from realtors to barber shops to cafés — show the works of local artists. One such artist is Henning Haupt, who moved to Fort Lauderdale from Berlin in 2000. His art underwent a transformation as he settled into sunny South Florida. “I started using so much more colour,” the previously monochromatic artist says. “I was inspired by the natural surroundings here.”
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is located three miles southwest of downtown Fort Lauderdale. Broward County Transit’s #1 bus shuttles passengers between the airport and downtown Fort Lauderdale. A taxi to Fort Lauderdale costs roughly $12; a ride to Wilton Manors is approximately $25.
Broward County Transit offers an expansive system of buses covering many parts of the county. A one-way fare costs $1.75; an all-day pass is $4. The Tri-Rail commuter train stops at the airport and in downtown Fort Lauderdale. A roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale to Miami costs just $5 on weekends.
For map locations and website links to more than 150 area places of interest see our gay Fort Lauderdale listings pages.