Data from the 2012 US Census confirmed what anyone who has visited South Florida has known for years: Fort Lauderdale is really gay. According to the report, same-sex couples comprise 2.8 percent of the total households in this seaside resort city, making it the destination with the highest concentration of LGBT couples in the country.
Thanks to the subtropical climate, 23 miles of beaches, 17 gay guesthouses and a well-established gaybourhood in Wilton Manors, it also attracts 1.2 million LGBT visitors annually. Friendly and unpretentious — and increasingly popular with bears: Beach Bear Weekend is now an annual May event — Fort Lauderdale is the kind of laid-back place where a tourist can easily feel like a local within moments of arriving.
1. Do a crawl down Wilton Drive
This is queer central, the bar-restaurant-shop-packed main street of the gaybourhood. Newcomer the Village Pub has become the go-to spot for casual drinks; Infinity Lounge sometimes has spotty service, but the handcrafted cocktails rise above the Drive’s ubiquitous well pours. New Moon dominates the local lesbian scene, and its owners have opened a small, charming wine and tapas restaurant, 13 Even, at the opposite end of the street from the bar; try the watermelon-and-pork-belly or blue-cheese-and-pear salads. No place on the Drive can compare to Rosie’s for alcohol-induced socializing and a relaxed nosh in one colourful package; the Wilton Manors mainstay is always busy and often overflows its outdoor patio for Sunday brunch. On the third Friday of the month (November to April), the shops of Wilton Drive host Island City Art Walk to support local talent.
2. Have dinner outside the gaybourhood
Two gay-owned restaurants with mixed clienteles have opened in Fort Lauderdale in the past two years, and both are worth a drive/cab ride. Tap42, where the cocktails match the quality of the craft beer, transcends typical bar food with organic, locally sourced ingredients and ample vegetarian options. Dapur covers more of Asia than Lauderdale’s typical Japanese-Thai combo in its inventive tapas menu; standouts include “bang-bang” scallops with brussels sprouts, hamachi jalapeno (even if it’s not listed, ask!) and the wahoo-filled Aloi roll.
3. Add some tea to Sunday on the sand
The gay beach at Sebastian Street is a veritable flesh parade on weekends, and the festive vibe carries over to the Royal Palms Resort & Spa on Sundays for their weekly poolside tea dance from 2 to 6pm.
4. Spend time on the water . . .
Fort Lauderdale beaches need no introduction, but it’s also worth noting the 266 kilometres of navigable canals that wind through the city limits. Even when the ocean is rough, the inland waterways are ideal for paddle boarding or kayaking. Hop-on, hop-off water taxis cruise the Intracoastal Waterway from Oakland Park Boulevard (just north of Wilton Manors) to 17th Street Causeway, providing a refreshing, affordable break from the city’s car culture.
5. … or under it
A three-tiered coral reef system runs the length of Greater Fort Lauderdale’s coastline and begins only about 90 metres offshore. Since 1982, more than 100 artificial reefs have been created as well, making the area particularly good for wreck diving. SAA Scuba, the local gay diving club, welcomes travellers on their local outings; check the website for the current event schedule. Gay-friendly Parrot Island Scuba runs daily dive trips to the wrecks and reefs.
6. Be a label queen, without paying full price
Sawgrass Mills, one of the largest discount malls in the United States, sits west of Fort Lauderdale, and its Colonnade Outlets section is devoted to high-end brands. Gucci most recently joined the lineup, which already included Theory, Prada and Burberry.
7. Leave time for history lessons
Established in 1973, Stonewall National Museum & Archives occupies 372 square metres of the Fort Lauderdale Branch Library/ArtServe building and hosts ongoing historical and cultural exhibitions. As Seen on TV: An Exploriation of LGBT Characters on TV from 1954 to 1979 runs until April 26, followed by Living In Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South, April 29 through June 28, 2015. The World AIDS Museum and Educational Center in Wilton Manors held its official opening December 2, 2014 and holds monthky mixer and special exhibits alongside a permanent exhibit that documents the chronology of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
For more information on LGBT Fort Lauderdale, visit sunny.org/lgbt.