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Florida's Best Beach? Fort Lauderdale or Miami's South Beach...

As I sit on our oceanfront balcony overlooking the beautiful blue waters, and a seemingly endless stretch of coral sand beach, I am so glad we added Fort Lauderdale to our Miami trip. You see, I had wanted to go to “South Beach” since I heard it was the most hip and happening spot on the East Coast. My husband Greg searched flights for our South Florida getaway, and JetBlue popped up with direct flights from Boston to Fort Lauderdale. It was Kismet I guess, since Greg was more excited about Lago Mar, a posh Fort Lauderdale resort he had read about right on the beach.

So began the “his and hers trip,” four days of sun and fun – two days of his choice, and two on my time. Sunscreen applied, game on!

Arriving at Lago Mar, we received a most gracious reception, as if they’d been awaiting our arrival. The lobby alone is extraordinary from the trompe l’oile ceiling and grand chandelier to the sea mosaic tiles in the entry, just a precursor for our two days of luxury and relaxation.

Lago Mar is a four-diamond resort extending over ten lush acres. We couldn’t wait to explore our surroundings, which revealed two gorgeous swimming pools draped by tall palms, the Promenade poolside bar, an elegant full-service spa, tennis courts, mini-golf, and 500-feet of private uninterrupted beach.

Most of the 200+ rooms at Lago Mar are suites, and ours was beautifully appointed overlooking the beach and ocean. I could have been content just to sit on our fabulous deck, watching the cruise ships heading for the Bahamas, listening to the surf.

But there is so much to do at Lago Mar, with daily activities scheduled, live music, fruity drink specials and fabulous dining. And you can walk the sun soaked beach or simply bob in the crystal blue 85° sea.

It had been 17 years since we’d been to Fort Lauderdale so we were eager to see the sights, known as the yachting capital of the world, and now the biggest cruise ship port in the US.

We drove the strip, savored native conch fritters at the waterfront Bahia Cabaña – which hadn’t changed a bit fortunately. Then we boarded a water taxi boat tour from Las Olas Riverfront Plaza to see the incredible yachts and homes of the rich and famous. Our witty Captain pointed out multi-million dollar mansions and mega-yachts belonging to the likes of Tiger Woods, and the Miami Dolphin players and owner. I called it the “I feel poor tour,” but it was fun getting on the water to see why Fort Lauderdale is called the “Venice of America” –featuring a labyrinth of 200-miles of inland waterways.

Back at Lago Mar, we took turns lounging at the lagoon pool and the marvelous private beach…(eeny-meeny-miny-mo). The staff seems to know every guest’s name and desire, a credit to the three generations of Banks family who have owned the resort since 1959 and continue to polish their Condé Nast Gold winning property. It’s pricey (at $459 for a 2 night package, with a bountiful buffet breakfast and one candlelight dinner thru October), but I had to tip my hat to Greg for finding the finest resort, with the very best location on Fort Lauderdale. If you don’t stay at Lago Mar, finding yourself up the beach at a chain hotel, at least treat yourself to dinner at Acquario…delightful and delicious fresh seafood with a superb sea view and topnotch service.

Just a 30-minute drive south and we were in Miami, heading over the causeway to the island of Miami Beach – called South Beach since its revitalization in the late 80’s back to its heyday of the 1920 and 30’s. Today it is a pastel parade of art deco hotels, trendy shops and “see and be seen” cafés. I immediately sensed a different vibe to my side of the trip as we cruised Ocean and Collins. People were out strolling the beachfront boulevards in bikinis, celebrity look-alike sunglasses and designer swag.

So many movies and celebrities have brought South Beach to the limelight in the past decade, so much so - it is now named Hollywood East as stars, wannabes and designer boutiques have made the scene. The South Beach diet also brought acclaim to this Mecca of body conscience beach goers.

As if on cue in our first five minutes, we saw hot bodies (of course, it was over 90° in the shade so everyone’s body was relatively “hot”). Prada-wearing pooches escorted buff bods in thongs along the sand and the walkway that lines the expansive beach. If there is one thing in common between Fort Lauderdale and Miami – it’s the huge beaches that both possess, long and wide stretches of sand meeting surf. South Beach has adorably decorated lifeguard shacks – each unique and postcard perfect.

We stayed at the
South Seas, a boutique hotel of the Atlantic Star group owned by a Newport Rhode Island entrepreneur. The property featured a pool with an outdoor bar and café, a sandy hammock area, and private gates to access the famous beach.

South Seas is ideally located amongst the big boys of SoBe. The National, the chic Delano, and the posh Ritz Carlton all don distinct but flattering architecture that conjures the Golden Era with playful hues and Hollywood-esque facades. Hard to believe some hotels met the wrecking ball just a few decades earlier, but then came a Hollywood-style makeover.

There was a decided foreign flavor, as the South Seas staff was predominantly Spanish speaking and the clientele was a melting pot (not just because of the steamy Miami climate) of Europeans and South Americans. SoBe has international flair, which puts it on the map for people watching. Another fun activity is just checking out the lobbies of all the fashionable hotels, each with its own designer décor ranging from new wave to minimalist to fabulously funky.

I should mention the shopping along the pedestrian-zoned Lincoln Boulevard is worth a browse. Deals on knock-off fashions can be unearthed here, and there are plenty of mod sidewalk cafes to maintain your stamina.

One of the highlights of our South Beach stay was our evening at Tantra. To say we dined here does not suffice. Tantra, as its name implies, is a spiritual immersion of the senses – tantalizing and so very South Beach. From the grass entryway (seriously, real grass) and marble waterfall to the fiber optic skyscape, Tantra is extraordinary. Exec Chef Sandee Birdsong prepares aphrodisiac cuisine, which is flown in fresh, innovative and beautiful to behold. I can see why Tantra’s guest list reads like a who’s who of the box office. After indulging in the Tantra seafood appetizer for two – Greg & I gladly add our names to that A-list (yeah, right). As the evening proceeds into the wee hours, Tantra becomes a vogue nightclub with pulsing music and “glamorous” late arrivals.

We checked out a few nightclubs in South Beach…but we Mainers were too early at midnight since the hippest clubs are open from 1-5am (that’s no typo).

From the waterfront Bayside Mall, we took a boat tour of Miami’s Biscayne Bay. The tour brought us by the immense cruise ship port of Miami, then past the fashionable Fischer Island where Oprah and Britney apparently have pads. And our tour was complete with a glimpse of Star Island where Shaquille O”Neal escapes the “Heat” and Sean P. Diddy Combs hangs out in what was formerly Mariah Carey’s mansion. Enough name-dropping – another popular Miami pastime.

Our last night, we dined at “A Fish Called Avalon,” a superb seafood restaurant in the understatedly elegant Avalon Hotel (also owned by Tom Glassie of the South Seas Hotel. Our table on the veranda afforded us a distant view of the beach and an entertaining procession of passersby throughout our wonderful meal. A two-night package for two this fall at South Seas Hotel is $299 for lodging, daily Continental breakfast and an $80 dinner certificate to A Fish Called Avalon.

My expectations of South Beach were certainly met, it is hip and happening and “all that.” I even caught Greg engaging in people watching and a bit of shopping.

So who won the “his versus hers” vacation game? Definite win/win. While we each took a vested preference in our own spot, we also made sure the other enjoyed our own pick (an ironic twist).

Fort Lauderdale is a great destination for a classic Florida beach vacation, lounging by the pool, the beach, or on a magnificent yacht. If not a yacht, Lago Mar is the place for old world beachfront elegance with the trimmings of a modern resort and spa. Its also a great place to stay in Ft Lauderdale before or after a cruise to the Caribbean aboard Royal Caribbean or one of the big cruise ships that docks in Ft Lauderdale.

South Beach is the cool place to go for hot nightlife, shopping and celeb-spotting. And the Florida sunshine followed our every move throughout our vacation competition.

Florida

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All Stories by Heather Burke
All Photography by Greg Burke