In the ’70s and ’80s, Ft. Lauderdale was known as Florida’s debaucherous spring break capital. Today, the city, located just 30 miles north of Miami on the east coast, has shed the party rep in favor of a chic shopping scene and relaxed beach vibe, as evidenced by Las Olas Boulevard, a shady, palm-tree lined street with more than 65 boutiques and international art galleries.
The elimination of Jell-O shots has paved the way for a burgeoning restaurant scene, but be wary of overpriced waterfront dining. Head inland instead for brunch at the Foxy Brown, where the doughnut holes served with post-cereal milk fit with the cartoons on TVs. For lunch and beyond, look past the mini-strip mall setting and dive into authentic Peruvian cuisine (the leftover rice-and-bean dish called tacu-tacu, fried plantains, etc.) at Bravo! Gourmet Sandwich.
But, yes, Florida is still all about that beach. Ft. Lauderdale Beach can get crammed, so try the sand five miles north at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, where there is also a pier that’s $2 to walk on, $7 to fish, and open 24 hours. Plus, the dress code is a bit more family-friendly. The Foxy Brown, myfoxybrown.com
A historic downtown may not be what first comes to mind with this part of the Gulf Coast, what with the shopping malls and sprawling McMansions. But urban redevelopment has taken hold, bringing this old-Florida city center—where the skyline is low and the vibe is languid in the heat—back to life via the River District. Original brick streets are surrounded with wide sidewalks, eclectic boutiques, and no shortage of bars and restaurants. Enjoy the sun (or let that second margarita wear off) on the Caloosahatchee River walkway. The unabashedly Art Deco Edison Theatre, built in the ’40s, may now be home to law offices, but you can experience more of that namesake history at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. The museum and 20-acre botanical garden (at the winter homes of Thomas and Henry, respectively) are just southwest on McGregor Boulevard, a stately street lined with old villas and bungalows—plus McGregor Café, where the breakfast regularly draws a line of patrons.
Try a beach that’s more on the wild side—with animals, not spring breakers—at Lovers Key State Park. The two-mile stretch of unspoiled, shell-filled beach (accessible by tram or boardwalk) is backed with native grasses, not condo buildings. Rent a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard to explore the mangrove estuary, or take to the hiking and biking trails of Black Island. In either case, keep a lookout for the manatees, osprey, dolphins, and other wildlife that reside there. Ft. Myers River District, myriverdistrict.com
A few hours north of Ft. Myers, there are beaches straight from St. Pete up to Clearwater. But break from the sand to see the city: Downtown St. Pete has been booming in recent years, and beer has certainly helped fuel the growth. Get a taste at Cycle Brewing, 3 Daughters Brewing, St. Pete Brewing Co., and Green Bench Brewing Co.—all within a few blocks of Central Avenue, where you can stop for Latin American food and fresh juices at Bodega; charcuterie, cider-braised mussels, and craft cocktails at The Mill; or a latte and homemade gelato at Craft Kafé.
Dip your toes and do some dolphin viewing from the seawall in sprawling Vinoy Park, adjacent to the historic, massive, and mind-blowingly pink Vinoy Renaissance hotel. Built in 1925, it was used in the ’40s to train military cooks before being converted back to a luxury hotel. From there, walk the mile and a half south along the coast—much of the way through bay-facing parks—to the Dali Museum, where the largest stateside collection of his work is housed in a cement and geodesic-glass building befitting his surrealist style. The Dali Museum, thedali.org
Side Trip: Key West
You won’t get to cross the seven-mile bridge, but you can get to Key West more efficiently (and make like Gilligan) with a three-hour boat tour from Ft. Myers aboard the Key West Express ferry. Once on the island, head to Old Town to visit the lush, charming grounds of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, and say hello to the resident six-toed cats. Have a drink in his honor—and in the company of roaming chickens and live music—at nearby Blue Heaven, where you should not skip the Caribbean/Floridian–style food and key lime pie. Walk to the Southernmost Point; climb the roots of the massive kapok tree in front of the courthouse; and enjoy the human circus in Mallory Square. Keep your days easy and nights long—that’s what life on the island is all about.