Delightful Diversions Abound In Greater Fort Lauderdale
By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman

The noise is deafening, especially when I manage to lose one of the ear plugs provided us; the wind is rushing as we skid nimbly across a river of grass-the Everglades. This vast river of grass, that plods along at the rate of one mile a day, looks tranquil but is deceptively dangerous-even the sawgrass that seems to softly sway, can slice and cut. Of course, all of us are here to see alligators in their home turf.

But as we dash along, it becomes less important to get up close and personal with an alligator (we've had more intense encounters in a canoe and walking in Loxahatchee National Preserve), as we come to appreciate this unique and important ecosystem. And the ride on these nimble craft that skim noisily but deftly across the top of the water as little as a few inches deep, is quite thrilling.

In fact, as our guide predicted, we only got to see one alligator he lured near to the airboat. His explanation made us realize why, though we had anticipation of seeing veritable flocks of alligators, most visitors only get to see one or two on their airboat ride. Between 350,000 and 500,000 alligators live in the Everglades, which sprawls 175,000 sq. acres; that means there are on average only 2 alligators per acre. Moreover, alligators are mainly active from dusk to 10 a.m., and they can stay underwater for 12 hours.

Besides the one alligator (later on, we spotted a massive alligator on the bank, looking very comfortable just next to a trailer home and picnic table), we spotted one great blue heron and some turtles. Like any wilderness experience, what you see is quite by chance-other possibilities include water snakes, Whitetail deer, raccoons, marsh rabbits, and possibly the Florida panther.

After the airboat ride, walk through a re-created 18th century Indian "village" (this was apparently an Indian trading post) and a small animal exhibit area with more alligators, lizards, and such. A newer section features a "Vanishing Species Wildlife" exhibit where you can see a Florida bobcat and other interesting animals. There is also freshwater fishing, boat rentals and guides (open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Highway 27, two miles north of I-75, 800-457-0788, www.evergladestours.com).

The Everglades is a highlight of a visit to South Florida. What is remarkable is how accessible it is from the asphalt and concrete of downtowns and neighborhoods. You don't really have to travel far or long. If anything, the only disappointment is that you are always in view of a telephone pole or even the highway.

There are a number of places to take such an airboat ride. Sawgrass Recreation Center has its advantages because it is so conveniently situated from Fort Lauderdale area; another is Everglades Holiday Park (21940 Griffin Rd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-434-8111, www.evergladesholidaypark.com). Our ultimate goal, though, is to get to the Billie Swamp Safari in the Big Cypress Reservation (about 1 hours further, on I-75), and ideally to stay overnight in a chickee hut, and also to visit Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum (the Seminole Tribe is opening a new Curatorial Building for restoration, preservation and storage of Tribal artifacts and will feature a special window through which visitors will see conservation projects in progress; 863-902-1113, www.seminoletribe.com/museum).

We combined our visit to the Sawgrass Recreation Center with a stop nearby at Sawgrass Mills, one of the largest collections of outlets in the world. There are more than 400 stores, and even though many are not actually outlet shops, they are supposed to offer at least some special bargains (Sunrise, 954-846-2350, www.sawgrassmillsmall.com). Other interesting shopping experiences include Swap Shop, an 80-acre indoor/outdoor entertainment and shopping complex (open daily, Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-791-7927, www.floridaswapshop.com); Beach Place, offering on-the-beach shopping, dining and entertainment (A1A, Fort Lauderdale, 954-764-3460); and Las Olas Riverfront.

Such enormous contrasts are common in Greater Fort Lauderdale, which is vastly different from the image of a rowdy Spring Break town. A delightful diversity of diversions abound in Greater Fort Lauderdale, easily accessible for daytrips even if you are visiting grandparents in South Florida.

World of Enchantment at Butterfly World

On another day, we visited Butterfly World, which is described as one of the most unusual "zoos" in the world. This place is dedicated to the study, care, and display of gorgeous butterflies from all over the globe. Entering here, is like entering an enchanted garden-you are quickly swept under its spell of serendipity and serenity. It is a place that brings an instant smile visits -it is as tranquil for parents as it is enchanting for kids--and is ideal venue for multiple-generations: every part is wheelchair and stroller accessible.

In the section called the Tropical Rain Forest, thousands of exotic butterflies and free flying birds soar about in this simulation of the real rain forest, complete with water spray, gurgling waterfall, and a "cave." We were amazed to learn that the average life span of a butterfly in the aviary is 14 days-twice that of butterflies in the wild-though some species, like the Zebra can life for up to 10 months. Monarchs also live on average two weeks, but, a guide explained, every fourth or fifth generation of Monarchs migrate and these survive eight or nine months. At any one time in the aviary, you can see up to 50 species, though in the course of a year, there are about 150 different species displayed.

A pleasant diversion-also new-is the Tinalandia Suspension Bridge, which links to the Sky Aviary. The sensation of stepping onto the swinging bridge, a rocking, rolling replica of one found in the real rain forest, is quite enthralling, and takes you into the aviary that is home to an amazing variety of hummingbirds including the Broadbill hummingbird, the long-tailed Peruvian sheartail hummingbird, the sparkling violet ear hummingbird as well as Gouldian Finches, Honeycreepers and Euphonias. Here, we were absolutely dazzled by the spectacle they made-an experience enhanced because the aviary is a relatively small space, so you are guaranteed to see a lot of these busy birds.

The Secret Garden harbors one of the largest collections of flowering passionvines and Dutchmen's Pipevines in the world, but what really attracted our attention was that it was here that we found the Streamertail hummingbirds from Jamaica and Sun Birds of Africa--species that cannot be seen anywhere else outside of their native countries

An interesting and unusual area is the laboratory, where you can veritably witness the miracle of metamorphosis-seeing the eggs and larva in different stages of growth. Butterfly World has raised over one million butterflies; indeed, all the butterflies in the exhibit were raised here. Another unusual area is the Hanging Garden and Butterfly Emerging Area, where flower-filled baskets line one side, and butterfly pupa emerging cases line the other; you may also see some plants that are so sensitive, they close at your touch. There is also a museum and insectarian with spectacular displays of insects, butterflies and moths from around the world, giant water bugs, spiders and wasps.

A new habitat within the three-acre "zoo" is the Lorikeet Encounter, where colorfully "clownlike" birds eat nectar right out of your hand.

Besides giving your kids a camera to try their hand at "capturing" the butterflies and birds they see, you can buy a marvelous guide which has pictures of many of the butterflies and hummingbirds, with a space to cross off the ones they spot.

Butterfly World was sheer delight for children and brought joy to the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, many who came in wheelchairs and walkers to share the youthful, exuberant glow. It is well worth an afternoon's visit, and the admission, $14.95 for adults, and $8.95 for children 4-12. Butterfly World is open daily (9-5 Mon.-Sat., 1-5 on Sunday). It is located four miles west of I-95, Exit 36 or just west of Florida Turnpike, exit 69; 3600 West Sample Road, Coconut Creek, 954-977-4400, www.butterflyworld.com.

A short distance away is one of the best flea markets, Festival Marketplace, with 800 shops (2900 W. Sample Road, Pompano Beach, 954-979-4555, www.festival.com).

Up, Up and Away in an MMU

We spent the better part of a day in the downtown area, starting off at the Museum of Discovery and Science, with its Blockbuster IMAX Theater. As science museums go, this one will appeal most to younger children, offering marvelous dynamic hands-on exhibits, a Discovery Center for toddlers, and a five-story high 3-D IMAX theater. The best exhibit, from our point of view, was the space science section, where kids can take a three-minute ride on a jet-propelled Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), simulating what astronauts do when they need to work in space outside the spacecraft (the 40-minute wait was worth it). Admission: $9/adult, $8/senior, $7/child, or combo with IMAX, $14/adult, $13/senior, $12/child. Museum of Discovery & Science, 401 SW Second Street, 954-467-6637, www.mods.org.

Just outside the museum is the entrance to Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale, a meandering promenade along the New River downtown, lined with lush landscaping, pleasant shops and dining, and outside entertainment. You can make a full day of it in this section, visiting Historic 2nd Street, the Museum of Art, Cinema Paradiso, and Las Olas Boulevard and Las Olas Riverfront.

After strolling around the Arts & Entertainment District, walk east down Las Olas Boulevard - Fort Lauderdale's version of Rodeo Drive. Explore the many shops, boutiques and galleries. While there, you can visit the Stranahan House, a beautifully restored turn-of-the-century riverside home of Fort Lauderdale's founder Frank Stranahan, and Fort Lauderdale's oldest residence (335 E. Las Olas Blvd., at SE Sixth Ave., 954-524-4736, www.stranahanhouse.com). You can also visit the Old Fort Lauderdale Museum of History, located in the city's first hotel on the banks of the New River (231 SW Second Ave., 954-463-4431). A new downtown attraction is the African American Research Library and cultural Center, a $14 million facility with more than 75,000 books, documents and artifacts (free admission, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-765-4544).

Then, hop on a Water Taxi, for a ride through "the Venice of America". Much of Greater Fort Lauderdale is criss-crossed with canals, creeks and rivers-300 miles of inland waterways in all--several making up the famous Intracoastal Waterway. With a one-way ticket for $4, or an all-day pass for $5, the taxis go anywhere within the nearly seven miles of Intracoastal Waterway, between Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale's Commercial Boulevard.

This is far more than mere transportation on the canals, though that is what locals use it for; this is a hugely entertaining narrated tour, so during an 1 hour ride (including getting off at the main terminal and waiting a couple of minutes for the returning taxi), you get all the gossip of who owns which waterside mansion and which yacht (there are some 44,000 registered yachts). Among them: Oscar Meyer, Blockbuster and Waste Management's Wayne Hunzinga (resident billionaire, bought five houses and knocked them down so he could have a place to land his helicopter, now just a weekend home); Alka Seltzer, Otis Elevator, Gloria Vanderbilt, Kohl's department store, Wells Fargo. (The water taxis can also be chartered for groups for special events.)

You can use the water taxi for access from hotels including Days Inn Bahia Cabana, Doubletree Guest Suites, Doubletree Oceanfront, Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six, Fort Lauderdeale Marina Marriott, Lago Mar Resort, Pillars Waterfront, Radisson Bahia Mar, and Riverside Hotel; as well as many popular attractions, including the Beach Place, Broward County Convention Center, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Galleria Mall, International Swimming Hall of Fame, Jungle Queen, Las Olas Boulevard shops, Las Olas Riverfront, Museum of Art, Museum of Discovery & Science, Riverwalk Esplanade, and Stranahan House.

The water taxis operate on a convenient schedule from over 20 locations throughout Greater Fort Lauderdale. Times are posted on the Internet at www.watertaxi.com, or call 954-467-6677.

For a wonderful evening entertainment that also takes you on the waterways of Fort Lauderdale, take the Jungle Queen Riverboat. There are daily three-hour narrated daytime sightseeing cruises (at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.), but the dinner cruise is loads of fun (ideal for multi-generational group): you are transported to an island for a barbecue and show (801 Seabreeze Blvd.,/A1A, Fort Lauderdale, 954-462-5596, www.junglequeen.com).

We were surprised at the many opportunities Greater Fort Lauderdale affords to explore nature; already on our "must do" list for a return trip: Anne Kolb Nature Center & West Lake Park Canoe Marina enables you to experience a 1,500-acre mangrove estuary, just minutes from the beach. There are wildlife viewing areas, narrated boat tours, an exhibit hall and observation tower. There are nature, canoe and bicycle trails, and an Intracoastal Waterway fishing pier (9 a.m.-5 p.m., daily, 751 Sheridan St., Hollywood, 954-926-2410); Flamingo Gardens and Wray Botanical Collection, once a spectacular estate, and now a 60-acre sanctuary featuring rare, exotic and native plants, a 200-year old oak hammock, citrus groves, wetlands, tropical flowering tree walk, the historic Wray home, bird of prey center and free flight walk-through aviary, plus alligators, flamingoes and bobcats ($12/adults, $6/4-11, 3750 S. Flamingo Rd., Davie, 954-473-2955, www.flamingogardens.org.

Other recommended attractions: kids will love Boomers, a center for mini-golf, batting cages, bumper cars, go-car racing, hurricane rollercoaster and bungee-like Sky Coaster Ride (1801 NWS First St., Dania, 954-921-1411, www.boomersparks.com); Dania Beach Hurricane is the biggest wooden rollercoaster south of Atlanta (1760 NW 1st St., Dania Beach, 954-921-RIDE. www.daniabeachhurricane.com). Check out the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum, a unique attraction where you can go "virtual fishing" and even choose what you want to catch; a museum, library and conservation center (10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, 300 Gulf Stream Way, Dania Beach, 954-922-4212, www.igfa.org). Also in Dania Beach: the Graves Museum of Archaeology and Natural History (481 S. Federal Hwy., 954-925-7770).

Downtown Hollywood, offers quaint, brick-lined walkways and the Harrison Street Art and Design District (954-921-3016, www.downtownhollywood.com); the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk is a 2 mile beachfront path for strolling, jogging, biking, rollerblading, shopping and dining; there is also dancing under the stars to nightly entertainment (Johnson St. & A1A, Hollywood, 954-924-2980). Hollywood also boasts the Seminole Okalee Indian Village and Museum (5845 S. State Road 7, 954-583-3404).

For further information, contact the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1850 Eller Drive, Ste. 303, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316, tel. 800-22-SUNNY, ext. 711, www.sunny.org.

Photo captions:

Being able to shoot photographs of hummingbirds (and butterflies) is a highlight of a visit to Butterfly World, a thoroughly enchanting place in Greater Fort Lauderdale (photo by Eric Leiberman).

Eric Leiberman prepares for lift-off in the simulated jet-propelled Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) at Ft. Lauderdale's Museum of Discovery and Science

2003 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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