Fort Lauderdale: Venice of America

The Greater Fort Lauderdale area contains more than 300 miles of canals that weave through the area. About 165 miles run through Fort Lauderdale itself, giving it the nickname found on the city seal, “Venice of America.” The canals sport their own South Florida flair with a mix of both romance and edginess and are a part of the urban sprawl, visible from train tracks and the skyscrapers.

Canals Shaping History
Frank Stranahan is considered the founder of Fort Lauderdale, or previously known as the New River Settlement when European settlers ousted the local Tequesta Indians. Stranahan moved to the settlement in 1893 and, like other pioneers, made his home along the New River. At the time, there weren’t the miles of man-made canals that one sees today. Managing the mail route for the region, Stranahan gained notoriety after creating the first ferry service to cross the river. The Stranahan House, the oldest surviving building in the county, still sits on the New River and is open for tours.

The New River Inn was built in 1905 along the Florida East Coast tracks, both of which are still there today. Visitors can explore the inn, which has been converted to a historical museum. Inside are old books telling the story of Fort Lauderdale, black-and-white photographs chronicling the changes as the canals expanded, and tour guides to walk you through the area.

Today, the New River is far from a small pioneering settlement and is cradled between downtown fixtures like the Sun Sentinel building, Museum of Science and Discovery, Broward Center for the Performing Arts and Huizenga Park. When exploring the river, just walk one block over to Las Olas Boulevard for shops, restaurants, bars, parks and more.

Explore the Waterways
Walking alongside the canals just isn’t the same as cruising down it. River cruises, water taxis and gondolas take people out on tours to learn both the history and geographical past of the New River and offshoot canals that run through neighborhoods, such as Tarpon Bend or Rio Vista. They’re all man-made, aside from the New River.

Water taxis traverse the canals of Fort Lauderdale and farther south in Hollywood to give their customers a fresh outlook of their surroundings on three-hour tours. Whether it’s a private trip or joining other explorers, from the taxis you’ll have views of mansions and yachts and can explore what each stop has to offer. With the Cruise & Save program, riders get discounts at dozens of participating bars and restaurants. If you’re more of a night owl, the water taxis provide cheaper rates for those who want to see the city by moonlight.

Another form of transportation on the canals is a river cruise, most notably, riding aboard the Jungle Queen Riverboat. During the day, choose from one of two three-hour sightseeing cruises on the 550-person boat. At 6 pm, the boat heads out to the water again on a dinner cruise for an evening of food and entertainment. The all-you-can-eat menu includes barbecue ribs, chicken, steamed shrimp, fixings and drinks. Also planned for the evening is a revue show.

For a quieter time on the canals, a bit of Venice is brought to the water with romantic gondolas. Whether it’s Valentine’s Day or another special weekend, gondoliers have seen their share of proposals and blossoming love on the waters. Las Olas Gondolas is just one of about 30 companies in the entire country that offer the gondola experience to visitors. In Venice, gondoliers tell couples to kiss whenever they pass under a bridge. But in Florida, gondoliers joke with lovers to kiss at the sight of a palm tree. That’s a lot of kisses.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
When you’re out on the water, something that will catch anyone’s eyes is Millionaire’s Row; the waterside mansions of the rich and famous. While there aren’t any celebrities living on the row like Miami’s Star Island, these rich are local business owners. In the greater Fort Lauderdale area, there are 42,000 yachts registered. If this number seems far too high, just look out from the boat or walk east along Las Olas Boulevard: There are never-ending rows of canals lined with yachts of all sizes parked alongside homes.

These miles of canals weave their way through both the downtown scene and as the backyards for many city residents. Families use the canals as secondary driveways to park their boats, which makes for a perfect day on the water for swimmers, underwater explorers or just lounging on the deck.

From Canal Town to Local Hot Spot
Just 100 years ago, Fort Lauderdale and its surrounding communities were barely the maze of canals that they’ve become today. While residents no longer rely on the New River and its offshoots as a means of transportation, the river and its canals do serve the purpose of bringing together the community, and visitors alike.