In the midst of a modern-day Renaissance, Fort Lauderdale is fast becoming one of South FloridaÂ’s most sought-after destinations for dining, nightlife, shopping, and sumptuous hotels and residences.

As far as major cities go, 100 years represents a mere moment in time; but for Fort Lauderdale, a 2011 centennial birthday marks the peak of a metropolitan Renaissance. A small trading post circa the early 20th century, Fort Lauderdale received little attention until the 1960 film Where the Boys Are branded the city as America’s ultimate spring break hotspot. As society’s morals loosened during the disco era and hairstyles grew bigger in the ‘80s, Fort Lauderdale became synonymous with cheap beachfront shenanigans and raunchy motels only those with raging hormones could love.

However, alongside the Hawaiian Tropic tan lines, a less-publicized paradigm was taking hold along Fort LauderdaleÂ’s Intracoastal Waterways. Wealthy families were flocking to Fort Lauderdale to take advantage of affordable waterfront real estate and to establish a colony of no-frills barefoot luxury. Over time, city planners and politicians ousted AmericaÂ’s youth gone wild and embarked on a multi-billion-dollar growth strategy that would allow Fort LauderdaleÂ’s boating culture to thrive and for insightful developers to capitalize on the growing elements for a metropolitan revolution.

Flash forward to 2011, and Fort Lauderdale now plays host to the world’s largest and most prestigious boat shows and flaunts some of Florida’s most pristine and exclusive shorelines. Rightfully relabeled the “Yachting Capital of the World” and the “Venice of America,” Fort Lauderdale has become a shining star on the global map of luxury beachfront real estate and vacation destinations while still keeping true to its laid-back Tommy Bahama vibe. From the beaches to downtown and even into the suburbs, the city is flourishing with new multi-million-dollar homes, show-stopping hotels, farm-to-table restaurants, eclectic boutiques, and edgy galleries that represent the city’s latest steps in its evolution into a world-class metropolis.

Extreme Beach Makeover Reinventing Fort Lauderdale Beach was a long and arduous process that required far more than simply canceling MTVÂ’s annual Spring Break soirees. With an appearance on Good Morning America, Fort LauderdaleÂ’s mayor officially uninvited college students in 1986, and once the effects sunk in about a decade later, the extreme bulldozing finally began. The cockroach-infested, cramped motels were cleared and new, modern buildings erected in their place.

Most notably, The Atlantic Resort & Spa appeared as Fort LauderdaleÂ’s first major luxury property after the dawn of the millennium, towering over Fort LauderdaleÂ’s recently certified Blue Wave Beaches as a tiered structure granting immaculate, unobstructed ocean views from nearly every room and outlet on property. The AtlanticÂ’s success served as a green light for the likes of W, Ritz-Carlton, and dozens of modern skyscrapers to join the neighborhood. Soon, Fort Lauderdale Beach was unrecognizable compared to its not-so-distant past.

Collectively, this irresistible hotel trio continues to anchor Fort LauderdaleÂ’s beach reinvention. Doling out postcard-perfect panoramas of downy sands and the Atlantic OceanÂ’s crystalline waters, The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale, the W Fort Lauderdale, and The Atlantic Resort & Spa are not only Fort LauderdaleÂ’s most sought-after holiday havens, but theyÂ’re some of the beachÂ’s most prestigious residences. For those never wanting to relinquish their piece of coastal paradise or Fort LauderdaleÂ’s infectious beach vibe, the Ritz, the W, and the Atlantic offer varying ownership and property management options, from the purchase of a room as part of the hotel collection to bespoke suites and units simply housed within the hotel, where the facilitiesÂ’ luxury amenities remain at your disposal 24/7.

At the northern end of Fort Lauderdale beach, The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale dazzles with its maritime-inspired design, featuring carefully engineered floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies intended to showcase vast tracts of deep, blue ocean. Unlike the classic, old-school luxe feel of most Ritz-Carlton hotels, the Fort Lauderdale outpost channels modern seaside elegance with a coral, cream, and pale-blonde color palette that is complemented by both dark and light stained woods. The recently opened Club Lounge spans the width of the entire eighth floor, allowing patrons to enjoy sunrise Mimosas facing the ocean and sunset canapés while gazing at the city’s yacht-lined Intracoastal Waterway. The colossal Club Lounge serves light bites and drinks throughout the day, ideal for guests in transition between the beach, the pool, and their private accommodations. The hotel’s other tempting offerings make it difficult to even leave the immediate proximity. Below the heated infinity pool, part of the 29,000-square-foot pool deck, the hotel offers private cabanas with butler-style service. The elegantly appointed 8,500-square-foot spa is a favorite of in-the-know locals, as it’s blessed with South Florida’s most dexterous therapists. The seductive Wine Vault showcases more than 5,000 bottles from around the world, served in the adjacent Wine Room, which carries the charismatic elegance of a modern gentleman’s club. Downstairs, Via Luna serves sensational Italian fusion cuisine and presents a not-to-be-missed Sunday brunch with a decadent raw bar, including fresh stone crab claws and dozens of ever-changing dishes representing diverse international gastronomy.

Nearby, the W Fort Lauderdale has brought an unprecedented element of fashion, funk, and trendiness to Fort Lauderdale, with an edgy attitude and youthful sophistication that easily rivals that of South Beach. The hypermodern W twin towers have been the talk of the town since opening in summer 2010. From a third-floor lobby jumping with bass-pounding music to a “see-through” swimming pool bisected by a grand staircase rising through the center to the kitschy white alligators snuggled on the high-thread-counts rugs, this W pushes the envelope of the brand’s signature forward-thinking approach, and it succeeds.

Meanwhile, the hotel responsible for Fort LauderdaleÂ’s upscale intervention, The Atlantic Hotel & Spa, shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, itÂ’s fresh from a refurbishment and is keen to play a major role in the post-recession vacation comeback through a slew of enticing specials. The rooms showcase a vision of understated seaside home-style luxury, each with a private balcony, a fully equipped kitchenette, and a spacious marble bathroom, perfect for families looking for kid-friendly accommodations without missing out on Fort LauderdaleÂ’s new glam factor.

*Images from Atlantic Resort and Spa, Ritz-Carlton, W Fort Lauderdale and Las Olas


Boating Behemoth The single greatest factor to propel Fort Lauderdale to its newfound big-city fame is arguably its evolution into the “Yachting Capital of the World,” a phrase that summarizes the coastal city’s nearly 50,000 luxe resident yachts, 100-plus marinas and boatyards, and hundreds of boat supply stores, as well as its annual hosting of two of the world’s biggest boats shows. Beyond the city’s main boutique- and restaurant-lined thoroughfare, Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale’s labyrinthine Intracoastal Waterways teem with the be-all and end-all of water toys.

While these dream boats tend to keep a low profile most of the year, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in late October and the Winterfest Boat Parade in mid-December (December 10 this year) is a no-holds-barred bragging, flaunting, and selling of the world’s greatest subjects of marine envy. During the International Boat Show, more than $2 billion worth of boats, yachts, superyachts, electronics, engines, and thousands of accessories from every major marine manufacturer and builder worldwide come together, prompting all-out VIP parties and floating who’s who extravaganzas. Come December, more than a million onlookers gather to witness 1,500 fully decorated jaw-dropping yachts as they parade along 10 miles of Fort Lauderdale waterways. Leading up to the event, Fort Lauderdale gets a sweet dose of Hamptons-style pretention, where invitations to the numerous lavish boat parade parties around town tend to define one’s social status. Naturally, the city also buzzes with events before and after the boat parade, like the official socialite “Black Tie Ball.”

Outside of these major events, the superlative method for experiencing marine wanderlust and checking out Fort Lauderdale’s big boats is via the public Water Taxi, which transports patrons between a dozen or so points throughout the city’s aquatic back lot.  Passing through inlets harboring multi-million-dollar waterfront homes and cruising by the city’s most renowned sights, Fort Lauderdale truly looks and feels like the “Venice of America” from the vantage point of this surprising sightseeing tour on the cheap. If you choose to hop on and off the wildly popular Water Taxi around town, you could quickly find yourself immersed in the glimmering lights of Fort Lauderdale’s version of Broadway, the Broward Center for Performing Arts, or iconic outdoor eateries like 15th Street Fisheries, where the massive tarpon eagerly await your lunch-time leftovers and where you’ll experience a refreshing hint of no-frills Old Fort Lauderdale, still untouched by the city’s extreme makeover.

 Fork Lauderdale A number of personality-driven eateries have cropped up around town in 2011 to complement the city’s existing 4,000-plus restaurants. Two newbies not to miss:

Market 17 This farm-to-table juggernaut is really two restaurants in one. 17’s restaurant-within-a-restaurant offers the über-trendy experience of “Dining in the Dark,” in which patrons endeavor on a multi-course eating extravaganza in the pitch black, relying on every sense but sight to determine what they’re eating and drinking. The principal restaurant is less about gimmick and more about the basics—namely fresh, organic cuisine. You’ll know the names and addresses of all the artisanal farmers supplying the sensational ingredients you’re experiencing through Chef Daniel Ramos’s gastronomic masterpieces, like the exotic ceviches made to order (think snapper, avocado, corn, honeydew, and jalapeno pepper) and the pan-basted Florida hogfish (which tastes like a giant scallop) over bulgur wheat with citrus and herbs, Swiss chard, zucchini, squash, and grape tomato sauce.

M Bar The latest restaurant on Fort LauderdaleÂ’s exclusive Las Olas Boulevard is the brainchild of South Florida restaurateur Jack Mancini, whose adjacent Tuscan-style ManciniÂ’s Restaurant stands as a perennial favorite of both locals and visitors. M Bar brings a much-needed infusion of tavern-and-tapas fun to the city, with the full gamut of European, American, and Asian-inspired small plates bursting with sweet and savory farm-to-table ingredients. Add a vast selection of 42 craft beers, dozens of sustainable wines, and a creative cocktail menu and itÂ’s clear where youÂ’ll kick off your start to the vacation.

The Details Fort Lauderdale

The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale, 954-465-2300; W Fort Lauderdale, 954-414-8200, The Atlantic Resort & Spa, 954-567-8020, Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show; Winterfest Boat Parade; Water Taxi; Las Olas Blvd.; Broward Center for Performing Arts; 15th Street Fisheries; Market 17; M Bar.