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By Mickey Charles, Roz Charles / Travel Editor, Photojournalist
Spring Break is Over. Y'all come, hear!
Philadelphia, PA -
Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and environs, much to the pleasure of its residents, is no longer the Spring Break destination of over-exuberant and high-spirited collegians whose effervescence, energy-laden libidos and enthusiastic love of life created an annual Rites of Spring interruption of civility to this area. The monetary benefits were not worth the final tallies. It was fun in the sun while it lasted and the tabloids exploited it as fodder for their "look at what the next leaders of the world are doing in their spare time" features. But the wet t-shirt contests, more bikinis being discarded than worn, beer bashes at local pubs all lost their luster. The trashed hotel rooms didn't help much either. The lack of judges and jails to mete out fines and incarcerate those who blatantly broke the law and a wearied police force were only too happy to see this vacation paradise return to normalcy.
Welcome to the swamps of South Florida. 'Gators rule this marsh paradise of incredible natural beauty and they leave no doubt about whose turf it is.
The assemblage from the institutions of higher learning found new vistas in the Caribbean and below the border in Mexico. A fond farewell was bid and now there is a fantastic Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood area waiting for those who want to enjoy a respite from the travails of the every day tedium that we all face from time to time.
Those with parents from the north, New York to Montreal, who have found Miami Beach and Greater Fort Lauderdale, have smilingly referred to it as "God's Waiting Room." Taken with a grain of salt, there is some credibility to that and it is deserved since retirement and waning years are much better served basking in the glow that is Florida than in the frozen tundra of the north, albeit those months are fairly limited to November through the beginning of March, almost half the year. For the rest of us, to whom Greater Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood are a vacation "port of call," it has much to offer these days with higher levels of Romper Room being conducted elsewhere. For more information on Greater Fort Lauderdale, please visit their website at: www.sunny.org or call them at 1-800-22-SUNNY.
Our first stop was the
Sheraton Yankee Trader Beach Hotel on North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard. No, it is not the Ritz-Carlton, Hyatt, Four Seasons or Hilton but, then, none of those were what we expected. This is a Starwood property located along 23 miles of beaches and 300 miles of navigable inland waterways. We wanted to be in the midst of all we had set our sights on and this was perfect. Ideally located, there are 459 rooms and just about every one has a view of the Atlantic Ocean and beach or the Intra-coastal waterway. However, facing reality with any vacation taken, how much time do you realistically expect to spend in your room other than sleeping, preparing for the day ahead or relaxing for a few moments before dinner? If the room fits, take it, especially if there is an exercise center and high speed Internet access...work and stay in shape. Sounds good.
Sheraton Yankee Trader Beach Hotel
The Yankee Trader is attractive, has a refreshing ambience, as cordial a staff as you are likely to encounter anywhere along the beach and our stay there turned into a delightful experience. The activities offered on site are not intended to keep you from shopping or heading down to Las Olas Boulevard...just to amuse you at dusk on the sports deck with bocce, basketball, shuffleboard, ping pong, and a four-hole putting green. There is also Shula's on the Beach with elegant dining, patio seating overlooking the beach, steaks and seafood.
When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping or out to eat. That is the credo of the vacationer so a locale that is just minutes from dining, shopping and more is the near perfect destination.
Which brings us to Las Olas Boulevard and its splendid selection of upscale boutiques and interesting shops. This is not the local discount center or flea market. Make sure that you have all of your credit cards handy and that they are not maxed out. Predictably, you will find that is a near daily excursion destination for everything from browsing to buying, dining to people watching. Make certain, public transportation or taxis aside, that you either park in an outdoor facility or bring enough quarters to fill the meters for hours and hours. They are watched carefully and, whatever their system is for monitoring, they know when you have run over a minute or two. Yes, we paid the fine.
We stopped at Johnny V's for dinner one evening and were justly rewarded with one of the better selections of cuisine available along the Boulevard. It is one of those places where you can ask for the house specialties for that night and not have to worry about your taste buds flinching at the choices coming your way. Just be daring, you'll diet tomorrow! They are at 625 East Las Olas Boulevard and you can't miss it.
Choice two the second time you venture forth for an evening out is Indigo, right across the street from Johnny V at the Riverside Hotel. Not quite mirror-images of one another but pretty close so you are going to enjoy it just as much.
It was time to become tourists before heading over to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino for a sneak preview, an appetizer if you will, of what would take place in early September at the official opening of this rather luxuriant and lavish resort.
That meant the Mai Kai with its re-creation of a Polynesian Village complete with tiki torches, thatch roof, wooden plank bridge entrance and the sound or drums to begin the 45-minute Islander Revue. Is it commercial? Absolutely. Touristy? Without a doubt. But they have an award-winning menu that boasts prime steaks, fresh seafood and exotic Asian fare. If there are two, or three, of you the best advice we can offer is Peking Duck, Rack of Lamb and Lobster Bora Bora...all to be shared. Savor that while enjoying the wedding dance and Samoan fire and knife dance but do not try either at the next affair you attend, unless you are wearing a lamp shade on your head at the same time.
After you do one side of the Boulevard at Los Also one evening, and the other the next, a pleasant diversion is, believe it or not, the Jungle Queen River Cruise and Dinner. Despite the title attributed to it, I am not sure that this is the "Venice of America" or represents anything even comparable to Italy and its city with singing Gondoliers to ferry one about but they certainly do make a credible attempt at it. There has to be a reason or two why some 14 million people have signed on for the cruise up the New River, the all you can eat barbecue dinner (ribs, shrimp, chicken and trimmings) and variety show that is "dessert" before bringing you back to your point of embarkation. It is more fun than it appears to be at the outset.
The Jungle Queen River Cruise and Dinner is a relaxing evening along the byways of the rich and famous capped by dinner and entertainment.
Along the way, the banks of the river are crowded with breath-taking homes that you will never own (sorry about that) and boats that should really be referred to as "ships," beyond yachts and all reflective of the lifestyles of the rich and famous or just rich
Buying a few things for yourself, the children, grand-children or folks at the office can best be accomplished at the Festival Flea Market or Sawgrass Mills Mall. Florida's largest retail and entertainment center with two miles of 400 name brand stores. This is war, as shoppers know it to be, so arm yourself accordingly and go for it!!!
Our next stop was the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, located on 100 acres of the Hollywood Reservation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida with a 130,000 square foot casino, lush 4-acre lagoon-style tropical pool area of more than 19,000 square feet complete with a 182-foot waterslide, swim up bar, poolside cabanas and Hard Rock Caf?. Throw in some hot tubs, lush landscaping, sunny day and a good book. You have it made!
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino imposingly overlooks a magnificent pool area that is simply splendid in what it offers to guests - relaxed dining to unbridled fun.
Amazingly, it wasn't even officially open yet despite the crowds forming at the valet to park or retrieve their cars and guests lining up at the more than 2,000 slot machines and 40 live action poker tables. That comes in a few weeks and, happily, we will be there to see the final result although the reality of the matter is that hotels and casinos, like highways across America, always seem to be under construction adding, changing, redirecting, expanding and redecorating. It is the nature of things.
Although the Hard Rock theme is seen everywhere in unstinting fashion from the 50-foot signature Hard Rock guitar and fountains at the entrance of the hotel and casino to the one-of-a-kind music memorabilia evident everywhere highlighted by a massive "Tower of Power" casino bar that includes a multi-media entertainment extravaganza with its 75 plasma screen monitors broadcasting music videos and more, be assured that this is a tribal experience unfolding and they are the last word at every level.
There is no exploitation here and Hard Rock exists in name only. The focus of this inexhaustible facility is, for now, the local population and those within easy driving distance but the future is certainly planned with travelers from afar in mind. We sat with David R. Cypress, Big Cypress Reservation Tribal Councilman; Max B. Osceola, Jr., Hollywood Reservation Tribal Councilman; William Osceola, Tribal Council Liaison for Trail Seminoles; and Moses B. Osceola, Tribal Council President and it was evident that this, as with other of their projects - completed and/or planned, is much more than a commercial experience with monetary expectation. It is one of many enterprises whose major intent is to take care of the tribal members and provide them with every advantage possible including, but not limited, to: education, medical, employment, housing and supplemental income. Their focus is clear and, frankly, their view of life is admirable, as well as enjoyable since I found that they are possessed of a marvelous sense of humor that flows from informative conversation right down to a quick game of billiards. Whatever happened to bows and arrows?
There is no doubt about the theme and ambience that awaits when you enter the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
Shopping again was in store. Did someone say "Shopping?" How about an adjacent 300,000 square foot outdoor entertainment center that includes restaurants, nightclubs and the hippest designer retail shops, all wrapped around a courtyard fountain and fronting the appropriately dubbed Lake Paradise? Take note of the Seminole Cultural Museum and Village with its zoo and 1,500-seat alligator wrestling arena. Two-out-of-three falls and they will probably comp your stay.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is decidedly "the prettiest girl in town" and total make-up has not even been applied yet. For example, there is an unparalleled entertainment complex in the works that will attract name performers whose first class airline tickets and private jets normally take them to Las Vegas, Branson, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. A detour to the south is in the offing in the months ahead.
Dinner at Council Oak, signature restaurant of the resort, is a gastronome's fondest wish come true. Named for the old oak tree where council members of the Seminole Tribal Council regularly met, the savory steaks and fresh seafood will provide a flavorful and somewhat ambrosian encounter for the epicurean among you.
We have been to spas from Cannes to Los Angeles, Bangkok to Scottsdale, Rome to San Francisco but the Contour Spa at the Hard Rock, still unfinished during this visit, presaged the completion of a facility unlike any other that has ever catered to your prurient and rapacious longings to satisfy your body in ways you never imagined. Even during the construction stage, the expectation, the imminent, titillated the senses. A bit of an overzealous description? Only until you are there.
Each exercise facility at the Contour Spa is equipped with the very best that users focused on physical betterment need and want.
Fanit Panofsky, the owner and driving force behind this 22,000 square foot fitness center, a full service European-style spa, knows what penultimate pampering is all about. This is self-satisfaction of the highest order. The treatments available are, indeed, creative, romantic and luxurious in one of the most exquisite settings you will ever visit. Body massages, pedicures, manicures, hair treatment, hydrotherapy baths, body scrubs, foot reflexology, facials, Turkish baths and water therapies. And, as the song says, "We've only just begun."
Indulge yourself is clearly the message conveyed by Fanit (we doubt she would allow us to refer to her as Ms. Panofsky). Every now and then you do something that is different, that you will regret not doing if you pass the moment. This is that instance. Treat yourself. You've earned it.
When asked to play billiards against Vivian Villareal, known throughout the Women's Professional Billiards Association circuit as the "Texas Tornado," it did not take long to realize that more practice was necessary at home and that Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, not to mention Minnesota Fats, would have helped considerably. She has consistently been ranked as one of the world's top women billiards players for the past 10 years and is now sponsored by the Seminole Tribe of Florida using the WPBA tour to promote the Tribe and its new hotel and casino in Florida. One of the first items on the agenda is a major women's tournament in September of this year, 2004, at the resort. She plays, by the way, as good as she looks.
Mickey Charles, pictured here with Vivian Villareal, ladies professional billiards champion, before she took him to task at a game of 8-ball.
Soon after, we were off to Billie Swamp Safari. It might not be the Serengeti or a boat trip down the Amazon but, as the photos here will illustrate, it is a heck of an informative, picture-taking, fun-filled experience. The two absolute "musts" are the swamp buggy eco-tour and the airboat ride. Bounce along the edge of the Everglades in the former and go like the wind along the trail of the latter. To think that Don Johnson got paid for doing this every week.
Impress your guide with "che-hun-ta-mo" or "Hello!" Then, later, when you are ready to return to the resort, with "sho-na-bish" or "Thanks!" Say those ten times fast.
If you've never been on an airboat you are missing the ride of your life. Just ask us as we prepare to head out.
You're more likely to see alligators, owls, raccoons, egrets, buffalo, deer and southern Razorback hogs than you are the rare panthers that roam this land but you never know how lucky you might get. Lucky? Sure, you're not taking him, or her, home with you. The ladies will view the alligators with visions of shoes and pocketbooks swirling around in their minds and the men will find luncheon offerings tastier than imagined at the mention of a 'gator serving such as tail nuggets. Options are catfish, frog legs and traditional Seminole fry bread.
This is nature in very much the same state as it was thousands of years ago as the past, present and a peak into the future unfold before you. It is said by some researchers that the first Floridians made their home here some 12,000 years ago, as well as the Seminoles taking refuge from the Wars of Removal in the 1800's. This is the Big Cypress frontier of the Florida Everglades, 2,200 lush acres of it in an adventure that is as educational and informative as it is exciting and serendipitous.
Even those who live at night chance to venture out during twilight hours, inquisitive about visitors. A quick eye and even faster lens are your best bets.
We are heading back to the grand opening, the official one, of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in early September and you can rest assured that we will be out at the Billie Swamp Safari once again, cameras at the ready and binoculars in hand. You can't see it all in one trip, no matter how hard you try.
This, then, is Florida the way it should be seen, from Fort Lauderdale and Las Olas Boulevard to the Hard Rock and then the swamps of the Everglades with its resident alligator population. It is apparent that their Spring Break is an every day ritual and you are invited to attend and enjoy. Go for it!