Blame Connie Francis.
In 1960, the singer starred in (and crooned the memorable theme song for) MGM's "Where the Boys Are," the sole topic of which was spring break in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
What followed each year was a building human hurricane of swirling collegiate inebriation that blew in from the north, paralyzed city traffic and services, forced mass evacuations (among smarter locals) and left streets and beaches awash in broken glass, stale booze, wet T-shirts and makeshift restrooms.
I would blame Connie, except that from my spot along the elegant waterfront promenade -- an orchard of blue beach umbrellas in the golden sand behind me and the towering Ritz-Carlton in front of me -- the scenery seemed more Miami Beach than Mardi Gras.
Could it be that, somewhere in the past 25 years, Fort Lauderdale has quietly evolved from the capital of drunken spring pilgrimages into a chic beach destination in the mold of its neighbor to the south? Is it possible that, once the breakers moved on to Mexico, the city became both well-healed and well-heeled?
I was in town to explore Fort Lauderdale's newer attractions and tony food scene -- as well as the overlooked charms that were there all along -- and to find out whether it can achieve the urban sophistication of flashier, bigger Miami but still keep some of the beach-town feel. And, maybe, to see if a little latent spring-break nightlife still lingers.
The movie (which also starred a number of other actors who should be held accountable) was a 1960s version of "Girls Gone Wild," focusing on discussion (and demonstration) of premarital sex, underage drinking, good-natured rioting, skinny-dipping and illicit beach limbo dancing. The story had a moral -- which, of course, was buried under the idyllic surf, sand and potential for "backseat bingo."
"It started with the college swimmers who would come down for the winter break," said Francine Mason, spokeswoman for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They would come back all tan and say how great the beaches were."
Fueled by word of mouth, the movie and, eventually, MTV, the already rowdy crowds grew annually. "By the time the '80s came, it really was out of control," said Mason.
During spring break 1985, the city trembled as more than 350,000 partiers filled the beaches, bars and streets, as well as the hospitals and jails. After the debacle, then-Mayor Robert Dressler urged the nation's students: "Go somewhere else next spring and give us a break."
There were local efforts (alcohol bans, traffic diversion, hotel occupancy enforcement), but in the end the state's raising of the drinking age to 21 probably had the biggest impact, forcing U.S. students to seek booze-fueled high jinks in Cancun and Cozumel.
My base of operation was the über-stylish W Hotel, the newest luxe property on the Fort Lauderdale Beach strip that once was lined with faded weekender motels (presumably all named some variation of "Sea Breeze" or "Vista del Mar"). Other properties nearby include the Westin Beach Resort, a Hilton resort and the Atlantic Hotel.
The W, the first in Florida, is walking distance from most of the strip's attractions and, most important, the beach.
Strolling south along Fort Lauderdale Beach, it was easy to spot two of the biggest changes since the dark days of 1985: the swerving and sloping wall of the 2-mile beachfront promenade, complete with grand entries and handy showers; and the host of signs clarifying the city's position that sand and booze do not mix.
The palm-fringed stretch is a wide ribbon of golden sands to rival Cancun or Miami Beach to the south, but with fewer topless sun worshippers and hung-over clubbers. The advantage here is that it's all public beach, not cordoned off into first-class and steerage zones by swanky resorts.
Hitting the strip
After watching the evening sky turn purple from the Las Olas gateway to the beach, I crossed the street to survey Seabreeze Boulevard. The strip has plenty of dining and drinking options, although most beach-view nightspots are geared to tourists.
Better dining in this part of town, in general, is in the high-end hotels, including Cero inside the Ritz-Carlton, and Steak 954 at the W, where I was pretty sure any steak would cost more than the $22 the women in "Where the Boys Are" paid for a room -- and the innkeeper was gouging them.
The next day, our boat floated past a mansion belonging to a successful plastic surgeon that Capt. John called the Silicone Villa.
"You can see some of his work at the Hot Bod Contest at Cheetah's," he said with a chuckle. The Water Taxi in Fort Lauderdale is not a typical ferry service, although Capt. John definitely was a colorful cabbie.
While the service covers only a fraction of the city's 165 miles of navigable waterways, the $20 hop-on hop-off all-day ticket offers the best (and cheapest) view of Fort Lauderdale beyond the beach. The boats ply the Intercoastal Waterway, the canals and the New River up to downtown, although the voyeuristic highlight is the stretch through the harbor and the "isles," past rows of millionaire -- and billionaire -- homes and super-tanker-size yachts.
We chuffed past the former homes of Sonny and Cher, Lucy and Ricky, and Gloria Vanderbilt (including the yard where little Anderson Cooper used to frolic).
Capt. John (who legally isn't supposed to give tour information) may have unintentionally pointed in the general direction of "Wayne's World," a neighborhood of canal-front homes owned by local magnate H. Wayne Huizenga, the founder of Blockbuster, who at one point owned the Miami Dolphins. And the Florida Panthers. And the Florida Marlins.
The scene felt like a flooded Beverly Hills, without the fences, although most big names here are celebrities only in Fortune 500 circles.
Stop No. 5 was the harbor-view Bahia Cabana bar, a fabled watering hole where, supposedly, actor and Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller would get drunk enough to leap up on the bar and fire off Tarzan's trademark jungle call.
Along with Connie Francis, Las Olas Boulevard is at least partly to blame for the popularity of Fort Lauderdale as a beach destination. Before 1917, you could only get to the beach by boat. City leaders, oblivious to the impending wet T-shirt contests, built a bridge that extended the street to what is now Hwy. A1A.
The tree-lined Las Olas district these days is stocked with elegant bistros, boutiques and upscale chain stores that are geared as much to locals as to tourists. Many of the restaurants are French Riviera flavored, including St. Tropez Bistro, where I scored a sidewalk table, with Julien Clerc wafting from the speakers.
On the hunt for nightlife
After lunch, I wandered Las Olas Boulevard into downtown, cutting south through Huizenga park (yeah, that Huizenga) to the Riverfront area, a center for local nightlife, and the red-bricked Riverwalk.
Among the hot spots are the Pirate Republic Bar on New river's south shore, and on the north side, Briny Riverfront Irish Bar and Restaurant, which appeared at once crusty and encrusted (in what can only be described as "flotsam chic").
After exploring a bit -- past the Old Fort Lauderdale pioneer buildings, the Broward Center for Performing Arts and the Museum of Discovery and Science -- it's easy to find another Water Taxi stop and catch a leisurely ride back to the beach.
In the spring-break wars, few landmarks better qualify for monument status than the Elbo Room.
The two-story bar factored heavily in "Where the Boys Are" and was the eye of the spring-break hurricane most years thereafter. While it was obvious the dress code had changed since 1960 (fewer party dresses, more tattoos), the place still looked as though it were built for rum-fueled festivities.
I grabbed a stool and a Corona. It was clear that on that night most of the patrons were not the casual tourist revelers, but the hard-core partiers for whom spring break probably is a year-round lifestyle.
I then landed at Lulu's Bait Shack, an unabashedly politically incorrect "bayou bar."
Festooned with signs bearing unprintable double-entendres of every kind, and serving a "cocktail" made of fruit punch and grain alcohol that's served in a fishbowl, Lulu's struck me as two things: first, an oasis where the spirit of spring break thrives (the event is more about tourist culture than local culture); and second, the yin to the yang of the trendy lounges in the upscale hotels up the strip. You can't really have one without the other.
Maybe it's time to forgive Connie Francis.