It’s 2:45 a.m. in Fort Lauderdale, and I can’t find a taxi. It was my first night out in Wilton Manors, a section of the Florida city popularly known as the gay village. It’s here that I’d spent one Wednesday night taking advantage of the $1 vodka sodas at Rumors (rumorsbarwiltonmanors.com), a popular watering hole located in the thick of village strip.
I was beginning to see why the “u” in the Rumors sign is shaped like a wine glass: just five American bucks afforded plenty of enjoyment.
And I was certainly enjoying myself in the world-famous LGBT-friendly metropolis on the Atlantic coast. Out on the town solo, I was pleasantly absorbing the scene around me. A good hundred or so Floridians and visitors of all ages had come to the bar to flirt, dance, play pool and, oh yeah, knock back a drink or two—although at any given moment, it seemed about half of the crowd was outside in the parking lot smoking.
As the night at Rumors drifted into memory—I remembered a drag queen named Jazlyn Alezae and the throbbing music of disco diva Martha Wash—I was out in the dark in search of that cab. The sunny beach city, comprising 60 unique neighborhoods and a vast network of intracoastal waterways (which have lent Fort Lauderdale the nickname “The Venice of America”) is so spread out that practically everyone drives. Wilton Manors was a good 20 minutes’ drive from my ocean-side hotel. Fortunately, a man named Charles with whom I’d struck up a conversation at the bar came to my rescue. He and his boyfriend, both into leather, as Charles had volunteered, took pity on this hapless out-of-towner and offered me a lift. My leather guardian angels.
“The great thing about Fort Lauderdale is that if you’re personable and tip well, people get to know you,” shouted Charles from the driver’s seat of his black Cadillac Escalade, as he zipped down the freeway, passing rows of mansions and lush palm trees. I had to ask: “What makes Fort Lauderdale any more special than South Beach?”
If you’re a gay snowbird, most so-called A-gays—especially the contingent known as the circuit boys—would tell you to start with Miami’s posh South Beach. “[But] South Beach is pretentious, and people are cold as ice if you’re not in their circle,” contends Matt, the younger friend of Charles. “Fort Lauderdale isn’t like that.” I was hard-pressed to disagree. After all, here
I was sitting in a vehicle with two nearly complete strangers who were doing me a huge favour in the middle of the night. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: beyond its lively party scene, Fort Lauderdale has all the ingredients for a memorable gay-cation.
“We sell sun and beaches, but we have a very large LGBT scene,” says Richard Gray, managing director of the LGBT market for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. That includes almost 20 gay resorts, dozens of bars and attractions of LGBT interest, such as the world’s first AIDS Museum (worldaidsmuseum.com) and the Stonewall Museum (stonewall-museum.org). The latter is one of the few spaces in the U.S. devoted to exhibitions about LGBT history and culture.
Not to mention that lots, and I mean lots, of gay people live in Fort Lauderdale. The 2012 U.S. census revealed that it has the country’s highest concentration of same-sex households, out-gaying such obvious contenders as San Francisco. Same-sex couples in Fort Lauderdale make up 2.8 percent of total households.
What’s even more telling is Fort Lauderdale’s leadership in honouring the “T” in LGBT. The city’s visitors bureau recently led a groundbreaking study on transgender travel trends, in which 700 self-identified members of the transgender community were surveyed about their travel habits—from what kind of hotels they prefer to what they value in a destination. It’s no wonder the Southern Comfort Transgender Conference (sccatl.org) has signed on to bring its 2015, 2016 and 2017 events to Fort Lauderdale. And Gay Days (gaydays.com), the popular gay vacation series that takes place at Disney World inOrlando, held its first Fort Lauderdale edition last month at the W Hotel (wfortlauderdalehotel.com).
The W Fort Lauderdale is a trendy spot “where all the gays stay,” as one local told me. Coincidently, that was where I was staying, and I quickly discovered the W’s 50 shades of gay. Case in point: just 30 minutes after landing at Fort Lauderdale’s airport (which is relatively close to downtown), I was in the W lobby checking in and walked into the thicket of an Equality Florida same-sex marriage event set for the hotel that afternoon.
It’s clear that somewhere in the course of the hotel’s evolution, the W adopted a look and sensibility that many in the gay community would find welcoming. The lobby looks and feels like a nightclub, the men who man the front desk could be ordered up by Central Casting and the guestroom interiors have been appointed with attention to every plush detail. The hotel’s on-site Bliss Spa offers treatments that will make you feel like a new man—or woman (go for the Oxygen Facial). On a more practical note: my bed provided one of the most comfortable surfaces I’ve ever slept on. And, thanks to the hotel’s unique angle, all of the W Fort Lauderdale suites have stunning ocean views.
Because you’re in a city known for holidays, the W staff gets into the spirit of fun. They leave white stuffed alligators on your bed when they make up the rooms (sometimes even sneaking in when you’re out and leaving tiny mints in the alligator’s mouth). The hotel has a relaxed pet policy, too, so tiny dogs are going in and out at all hours. The rooftop pool deck, with its spectacular views of the Atlantic, is where you’ll find camps of guys basking in the sun on any given afternoon.
To help stay in shape, the W hosts early-morning fitness classes—from boot camp to yoga—on the beach, mere steps away.
The W’s attentive staff are efficient and friendly in giving directions. And they’re always happy to hail a cab for you—that is, if you haven’t met a local couple eager to provide car service.
Where to go in Fort Lauderdale for …
Dancing The Manor, 2345 Wilton Dr. Located along the gay strip in Wilton Manors, this two-storey hot spot is where to get your bump ’n’ grind on. Funky décor, smoke machines and chandeliers give the complex a vintage-meets-cosmopolitan feel. Fierce vocal remixes and drag queens included. themanorcomplex.com
Brunch Steak 954, 401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. A luxury boutique steakhouse with a wall of glowing blue jellyfish in the W Fort Lauderdale Hotel. Imagine a short-rib potato-pancake benedict with a side of applewood-smoked bacon. (A hot dinner destination, too; the Australian wagyu filet mignon is scrumptious). steak954.com
Sunbathing Sebastian Beach, Fort Lauderdale’s popular gay beach, Sebastian Street and North Atlantic Blvd. “It’s like a penguin colony on Saturday and Sunday,” says Richard Gray of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. “A cute guy walks by, and you see everyone move their head.”
Shopping Sawgrass Mills, 12801 W. Sunrise Blvd. Located in Sunrise, a city in east-central Broward County, this outlet mall is home to a world of luxury retailers—Gucci, Prada, you name it. “We get so many Europeans who literally buy suitcases and fill them up with clothes,” says Gray.
Culture It’s a city best known for fun in the sun, but in recent years Fort Lauderdale has stepped up its local museum scene. One standout—if only for that rainy afternoon—is the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, where the permanent offerings include one of America’s largest collections of works from the so-called CoBrA movement (so named for artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). 1 E. Las Olas Blvd. moafl.org
Dinner Dos Caminos, 1140 Seabreeze Blvd. The much-talked-about modern Mexican chain has foodies from New York to Miami swooning. Traditional Day of the Dead calaveras (skeletons) keep watch as patrons indulge in reposado tequila, spicy margaritas and smoked brisket stacked enchiladas. doscaminos.com
Nostalgia Trips The Worthington, 543 N. Birch Rd. A popular gay men’s resort with three 24-hour clothing-optional pools and two large hot tubs set among garden walkways and manicured palm trees. As Gray demurs, “It’s not a bathhouse but has a frisky vibe to it.” theworthington.com