Before you collapse in a heap of Florida frustration at the very thought of traffic, noise, bar hoppers, trash, and a skyline reaching twelve stories into the sky, let me assure you that there is a spot on this busy coast that belies all of that.
Yes, in Broward County. The charming town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea chose long ago to freeze the calendar and keep the Florida charm this stretch of beach towns used to embody. Fewer than 10,000 people call the town home and if they and their elected leaders have any say in the matter, it will stay that way forever. It’s not that they don’t want progress; they simply don’t want it to destroy the small-town way of life they have chosen on Florida’s famous, but frantic coast.
The town is essentially walled in, shadowed by high rises to the north and south, the Intracoastal Waterway to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Lateral growth is simply not an issue. And since ordinances prevent any new buildings taller than four stories, vertical growth is a no-go as well. What that leaves is a town that knows what it wants with the kind of beach and attractions you dream about, but rarely find anywhere north of the Keys.
Leave the traffic behind
Obviously, A1A, as it passes through town, sees it’s share of bumper-to-bumper, but one block off in any direction and you’ll find streets with so little traffic that you can ride bicycles or safely walk to the grocery store or to a locally-owned restaurant for breakfast. And the safety does not end at sunset. Locals and snowbirds (in winter) show up at their hangouts (complete with New England Patriots flags hanging from the rafters) for evening drinks and the fun is likely to spill onto the sidewalks, but there is a feeling of comradery as tourists join the fun.
Eat your way through town
The center of action night or day is on Commercial between Ocean Blvd (A1A) and El Mar, where you’ll find everything from candy and ice cream to burgers, lobster and craft tacos. Ever heard of Burger Fi? Their first location was in LBTS. The best grub, however, is often tucked away in strip centers, alleyways, or even hotels a block or two off the center of activity.
Look for authentic Jamaican jerk chicken, handcrafted chocolates, and no-fuss cookie shops, in business long before such a thing was popular in malls. Because it’s Florida, there are coffee bars, dive bars, and juice bars, but surprisingly, there is only one beach bar. You’ll find it tucked away at the quiet end of El Mar in the beachfront building of Plunge Beach Resort. Non-guests are always welcome to stop by for a beverage, taco, or burger — all with a toes-in-the-sand vibe and a stunning view of the sea.
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The reefs (both natural and man-made) between Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach are known to scuba divers across the world, but much of the good stuff is too far offshore to access easily from the beach. Few places exist here where you can literally don your gear in a parking lot and walk into the surf for a good dive. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is one of those spots.
At the corner of El Mar and Datura, you’ll find a public parking lot with beach access, designed specifically for scuba divers. You’ll hit clear water and the reef just a few meters offshore. Hard corrals with giant holes form a Swiss cheese reef. Take the time to peer into the holes. The area is known for a healthy population of lobster, octopus, sea turtles, and nurse sharks, all of which love the cover the reef provides. You can swim toward the fishing pier, just be aware that people actually fish from it, so it’s probably best to avoid the area directly beneath.
And then there’s the beach
It’s hard to find an ugly stretch of beach on this coast, so the things to look for in a great beach include cleanliness, easy access, public facilities, private facilities with beach service, preservation of both the beach and it’s natural inhabitants, and probably most important: small crowds.
Do you actually think you’re going to find an uncrowded beach in Florida during high season beneath a 15-story resort tower? This is how the lack of high rise buildings in LBTS works to create what may very well be one of South Florida’s best beaches. As far as access, other than the low-rise ocean-front hotels, the one-mile stretch of El Mar includes four public access points, one of them a lovely park with colorful Adirondack chairs and all with showers.
Caring for the beach, including the beach grasses and dunes, as well as turtle nesting sites is a priority for both the town and its people. Stop in a local art gallery and you’ll find they have art made of beach trash collected by the artist. Walk the beach in any season and you’ll find businesses who have chosen to restore native grasses along their property boundaries with the beach rather than the more glamorous, but non-native landscaping barriers often found separating the high rises along the coast from the sand.
The level of service found at the hotels in LBTS varies from the beach bar and lounge-chair service of Plunge Beach Resort to the low-key “Mom and Pop” atmosphere of the smaller resorts, many of which have been family-run businesses for decades. The beauty is that Lauderdale-by-the-Sea offers you those choices — something that grows increasingly rarer in Broward County.
Melinda Crow has been writing about travel for 30+ years, long before there were “digital nomads” and “influencers.” And while at any given moment, she would rather be on a cruise ship anywhere in the world, she lives in Central Texas (yes, near Waco, and no, she does not know Chip and Joanna Gaines) with her award-winning photographer husband, Gary, 12 peacocks, two horses and one lazy cat. She is the author of Camping Colorado and Camping New Mexico by FalconGuides and blogs at FirstRead.Me and here on Medium.