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Fun times, great food + tiki bar supreme in Fort Lauderdale Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE – I wasn’t sure about this. I generally trust tourism board folks when they suggest things for me to do in their area. After all, they’re the experts.

Still, as a long-time lover of Hawai’i and Polynesian culture, I was a bit skeptical when the folks at Fort Lauderdale’s tourism office hooked me up with dinner, drinks and a show at a place called Mai-Kai Restaurant, a short drive from the city’s famous beaches.

The rum drinks at Mai-Kai pack a punch. And then some. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

Having seen some pretty lame Hawaiian dancing in various parts of the world and having sampled a few too many too-sweet Mai Tai’s that bear no resemblance to the Real McCoy, I was more than a little leery. But I went along.

And was proven wrong. Way wrong.

The Mai Tai was great, and so was the Barrel of Rum drink with, I believe, two types of light rum and two types of dark and just a hint of fruit juice. I think there were some bitters in there for balance, as well; always a nice touch for a classic drink.

Shows at Mai-Kai include both male and female dancers. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

So that got me in a good mood. As did the wild interior to the place, which looks like the inside of a ship and uses lots of props from the 1960’s version of Mutiny on the Bounty. It’s very cool, with fake rain slanting down windows and carved tiki gods and ropes and beams and lots of wood and, yes, waitresses dressed in rather scanty costumes with grass skirts and skimpy tops. (Hey, I didn’t choose the costumes, I just went along for the ride.)

Convinced the place looked good and offered strong, authentic Polynesian drinks, I turned my eye to the menu. I ordered the duck which was roasted in an old-style wood-burning oven and was very tasty. Even better was the Hawaiian poke (marinated, raw ahi tuna) and the yellowtail ceviche and the perfect sushi rolls.

Dancers at the Mai-Kai show go through frequent costume changes as they perform dances from various parts of Polynesia. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

The meal was followed by a wonderful show, with Maori dancing, Tahitian hula, Hawaiian-style dancers and, I believe (it’s hard to keep track when the food and drinks are so good) a Samoan performance. The men were powerful and inspired ooh’s and aah’s from the women around me, and the female dancers were outstanding. They finished things off with some fire dancing that was most impressive.

The next day I went back in the light to check out the fantastic gardens, complete with waterfalls and tropical plants in brilliant shades of red and yellow. Not to mention piped-in bird noises, carved tiki gods and towering palm trees.

Don’t miss the gardens when you visit Mai-Kai Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

Touristy? Sure? But also tasty and hugely enjoyable.

I didn’t have a lot of time in town, but I also snuck in lunch at B Square Burgers (great Brussels Sprouts) on pretty/trendy Las Olas Blvd. and a happy hour appetizer dinner at Shooters Waterfront, a fun and extremely lively spot on the Intracoastal Waterway with a great vibe, a fantastic patio packed to the gills on a Thursday night and tons of pretty people.

I ordered one beer and two appetizers during happy hour at Shooters: some coconut shrimp and a plate of calamari. It was supposed to be an appetizer portion of each, but there were five thick shrimps and probably 40 or more pieces of calamari. I couldn’t even finish two appetizers, such are the sizes of plates. The total? $19.61 USD. And I was stuffed.

God Bless America.

The Pelican Grand Beach Resort is on a fine stretch of sand in Fort Lauderdale. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

I had the good fortune of staying at the Pelican Grand Beach Resort, an independently owned spot right on the beach with a great, relaxed feel. I was fortunate enough to be given a top floor suite, with tons of natural light and gleaming white and sand/beige furniture and a separate living space. Best of all was the balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with killer sunrises and glorious beach views all day.

The hotel has a nice pool and even a lazy river; something I can never resist. At night they have lovely fire pits and big chairs you can sit on to watch the fire go, just steps from the beach. There’s also an enormous porch overlooking the water, with a number of rocking chairs that almost certainly you’re your name on them.

The back porch at Pelican Grand Beach Resort is a huge treat. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

I didn’t get a chance to try the restaurant but they have a very pretty dining spot with fresh seafood and plenty more, including outside dining with tiki torches.

The hotel is pretty enough and luxurious enough to be considered high-end, but still comfortable to the point you can wear your bathing suit and a t-shirt almost anywhere. To me, that’s ideal.

My suite at the Pelican Grand Beach Resort. Nice! – JIM BYERS PHOTO

I had just enough time for a couple of cool activities in town, checking out historic Bonnet House Museum and Gardens and taking a ride on the Jungle Queen ship, which cruises Fort Lauderdale’s glorious waterways and skims past luxury homes with garages most of us couldn’t afford.

Try a ride on the Jungle Queen ship for great views of Fort Lauderdale. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

The Jungle Queen tour guide showed us homes owned by famous NFL stars and actors and celebrities, including Sonny and Cher back in the day and Wayne Huizenga, who started Blockbuster. We also passed gleaming yachts and a couple of iguanas sunning themselves on part of a metal bridge.
It’s a tad on the touristy side, but lots of fun. And it’s always good to get out on the water when you’re in Florida.

As a gardens guy and history fan, I found The Bonnet House more to my liking. It’s a wonderful, artsy spot built in the early 1920’s by an artist and his wife from Chicago. Tour guides are fun and interesting and you can learn about the area’s history and the family who built the place, which features lovely courtyards and fun, wooden animals scattered about.

I absolutely loved the gardens at Bonnet House in Fort Lauderdale. Wonder if they need a full-time caretaker? – JIM BYERS PHOTO

They also had a good deal of money. One fun story I heard was that a guest from the cold north came for a week one time and had three meals a day at the house. Despite all the furnishings having been sent from the northern U.S., the guest remarked that she never saw the same set of dishes twice. At my house, we use the same set of dishes twice in one meal.

Even better are the luscious gardens out back, with still and quiet reflecting pools and a straw-covered resting area that looks like something out of South Pacific or Swiss Family Robinson. You’ll spot wild monkeys in the trees and large iguanas that seemed to startle and dash away on their funny legs whenever I got close.

The NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale offers several stunning exhibits. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

My final recommendation in Fort Lauderdale is the city’s NSU Art Museum. I had only a quick visit but discovered several stunning and thought-provoking exhibits, including highly imaginative works by a German artist named Anselm Kiefer and some lovely work by Italian artist Francesco Clemente.

For more information visit https://www.sunny.org/

GOT A COMMENT OR COMPLAINT? Email me at jim@jimbyerstravel.com. Twitter: @jimbyerstravel. Instagram: @jimbyerstravel1

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