Ft. Lauderdale -- a Florida favorite

(c) Greater Ft. Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Fort Lauderdale Beach is a choice spot for both hardcore and leisurely exercisers.

Nobody's going to mistake Fort Lauderdale for Italy, but this seaside city lives up to its self-anointed moniker as the Venice of America.

You won't see many gondolas here, but water has shaped the city's destiny since developers began digging canals out of the mangrove swamp in the 1920s. And water is the best way to see Fort Lauderdale.

No boat? Hail a taxi. Water taxis ply only a fraction of the 168 miles of rivers and waterways that tie the city's nautical neighborhoods together, but they stop at all the hot spots.

And they chart a far different course from the one Connie Francis and the rest of the gang made famous in Where the Boys Are. About the only thing left from Fort Lauderdale's Spring Break heydays is the Elbo Room, the legendary no-frills watering hole at the corner of Las Olas Boulevard and State Road A1A.

The hordes of college students who tanned shoulder-to-shoulder on the shore by day and drank 'til they dropped by night are all but gone, replaced by a sun-starched and enviably clean seaside promenade laden with a smorgasbord of humanity.

Proud suburban papas push baby-strollers along the new, wavy neon-striped wall that snakes along the beach. Tuxedos, cutoffs and sun-screened tourists share the sidewalk with skating cops.

The chi chi crowd arrives in Jags and Benzes to sip wine at sidewalk cafes. Punksters converge on foot with pit bulls as snarly as their masters. Bell-bottomed teens cruise in convertibles and clunkers. Cyclists and in-line skaters zig-zag amid the chaos.

Got your fill of people-watching? Hop aboard a water taxi and coast the New River for some real culture. Stops include the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the Museum of Art and the Museum of Discovery & Science. Or entertain yourself at Beach Place or Las Olas Riverfront, two new mega complexes with water vistas.

For relaxation, amble among the oaks on the winding Riverwalk esplanade and soak up the tranquility. Dive among natural reefs in the Atlantic, or take a dip at one of the best-known swimming centers in the world. Where else would the International Swimming Hall of Fame be but the Venice of America?

Maya Bell is the bureau chief of The Orlando Sentinel's Miami Bureau.

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