By Kara Williams, on May 25, 2013

Relaxing, girlfriend style

To be frank, I didn’t know much about Fort Lauderdale before I headed to the coastal Florida city with a girlfriend recently. I always just associated the area with college kids and spring break. But what I found was a urban beach destination with long expanses of golden sand, pretty sunsets, sophisticated restaurants, amenity-filled hotels, and entertaining diversions. Here are the highlights of my quick 3-night trip:

Million-dollar view from our room at Il Lugano

Where to stay in Fort Lauderdale

My friend and I spent our nights at Il Lugano, a chic, high-rise hotel that’s not on the beach, but sits directly on Fort Lauderdale’s Intracoastal Waterway. For me, a gal who craves salt, sand, and surf on tropical vacations, I was wary of having this as our home base. But I was surprised at how much I enjoyed my eighth-floor one-bedroom suite. The living-room balcony had an awesome view of the canal below and the crazy array of yachts, fishing boats, and sailboats that passed by regularly. My favorite time of day sitting on the balcony was early morning, coffee in hand, watching the boat traffic. Another highlight: the hotel’s poolside cabanas and beach beds with shade covers that face the Intracoastal Waterway. They are first-come, first served, and we were always able to find an empty one for some much needed R&R.

Stellar beach and turquoise water front the Harbor Beach Marriott.


If I were to return to Fort Lauderdale, I’d likely book at the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. There are actually very few “on the beach” properties in the city, but this Marriott is one of them; it fronts a gorgeous, uncrowded strip of pristine beach that’s ideal for long walks. The property also has a watersports outfitter that rents jet skis, catamarans, and boogie boards. The huge, lagoon-style pool surrounded by lush foliage has plenty of lounge chairs and friendly poolside food and beverage service. Splurge on a pricey poolside cabana for even more perks: a comfy, shaded poolbed, two lounge chairs, your own umbrella, and a TV. This Marriott has all the bells and whistles of a large oceanfront resort: a full-service spa, fitness center, kids’ club, oceanfront casual restaurant, fancier bistro, and a Starbucks.


Where to eat in Fort Lauderdale

Il Lugano’s on-site Italian restaurant, da Campo Osteria, was hands down our favorite meal. The highlight: Watching fresh mozzarella being “pulled” (or made and shaped) tableside. The two of us devoured a plate of cheese drizzled with balsamic and olive oil that was likely meant for a party of four. The generous portion of complimentary bread and plate of divine mozzarella would have been plenty for an entire meal, but we also managed to sample a roasted artichoke and arugula salad, crispy eggplant, lobster tagliatelle, and a jumbo meatball. And yes, we saved room for decadent tiramisu souflee and plenty of wine. Hats off to a fabulous, filling dinner and the top-notch service here.

Viewfinder Tip: For a quieter vacation, visit Fort Lauderdale when it’s not spring break.

A few other restaurants we enjoyed in Fort Lauderdale included upscale Market 17, for its clever cocktails and farm-to-table cuisine; Aruba Beach Cafe, for casual seafood and Caribbean-inspired entrees served on a deck right on the beach; and Seasons 52, in the Galleria Mall, where we enjoyed the budget-friendly “Flights and Flatbreads” special that mixes three wines and a generous portion of gourmet pizza for just $15.


Where to play in Fort Lauderdale

Since the bulk of our days were spent lounging poolside (don’t judge!), we didn’t fully take advantage of the cruises, airboat rides, parasailing, and fishing charters available in and around Fort Lauderdale.

Start out kneeling, then graduate to standing, on a SUP tour


We did, however, sample a sport that I’d only tried once and my friend, Kristina, had never done: Stand-up paddleboarding (SUPing). We tried this not on the ocean, but on the Intracoastal Waterway, as part of a tour with a local outfitter named Precision Paddleboards. This tour was first-rate. First, our college-age instructor Joel was a friendly, patient, and knowledgeable guide. He had us out on the waterway within minutes of giving us short instructions on the dock. We quickly got our bearings – and balance! – and were stand-up paddling alongside boat traffic in no time, all the while greeting boat captains who were relaxing on their docked sailboats.

One truly shocking moment during our SUP experience: spotting a pod of four dolphins in the main channel. Joel couldn’t believe it – he hadn’t seen dolphins in the Intracoastal in the 17 years he’d lived in the area. After that amazing sight, we paddled off the busier channel into a narrower, mellow canal lined by small ranch-style homes. Here, we spotted ducks, geese and a bunch of iguanas. It was a great workout under sunny skies, and we enjoyed seeing a part of Fort Lauderdale by water that we wouldn’t have otherwise explored.


What’s your favorite beach destination for a girlfriend getaway?