Fort Lauderdale is a city seemingly afloat: Some 165 miles of canals crisscross neighborhoods, earning the South Florida city comparisons to Venice. Mansions line residential canals (and are often dwarfed by the yachts docked out front), while pleasure craft bob down the New River that cuts through downtown. Locals and visitors alike embrace the boating life, congregating in Before Times at the world’s largest boat show or at the Port Everglades cruise port on the Atlantic coast, which was one of the busiest in the world and saw over 3.5 million passengers pass through in 2019.
If you have any doubt that one of the best ways to maximize your time here is by getting out on a boat, just ask a local.
“Boats are part of the lifestyle down here. If you come here and don’t get out on the water, you’re missing out,” says Bryan Nelson, a captain for 4Ocean (a Certified B Corp that works to remove plastic from the world’s oceans, rivers, and coastlines).
Nelson, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, says, “There isn’t a canal I haven’t driven through”—and a boat is your key to exploring the city, too.
We talked to Nelson and another Fort Lauderdale native son, Captain Todd Fopiano of charter company YachtsUp, for their best tips on where to make the most of a boat day in Fort Lauderdale.
Where to rent a boat in Fort Lauderdale
Boat rental companies like GetMyBoat offer a range of rides: private yachts for charter; self-captained catamarans; pontoons and Jet Skis. (Rates start at $50/hour for a small powerboat and go up from there to private luxury charters.)
Fopiano, who charters aboard three of his boats through YachtsUp and GetMyBoat, says, “Most people want something larger that you can comfortably move around in without bumping into each other.” That’s especially true now during our socially distanced days.
Once you pick the best boat for your group—and if you’ll need to hire a captain—you can pick it up at the marina where it’s docked. Some boat owners can even trailer smaller boats to the public dock you want to launch from.
Best spots to cruise
Simply floating along Fort Lauderdale’s many canals makes for an exciting day on the water, and you hardly need to be an expert navigator to get around. “Fort Lauderdale is easily navigated since it’s mainly all deep canals with very few shoals,” says Fopiano, who points to the canal-lined and gated neighborhoods of Las Olas Isles and Harbor Beach, both accessed via the Intracoastal Waterway, as particularly scenic. “On any given day, with the ocean being too rough to venture out into, the canals make for a safe haven for inland boating.”
Nelson recommends heading to Whiskey Creek, a sheltered area within Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park, as a fun place to land by boat and spend a few hours relaxing. The park also has a concessionaire, Whiskey Creek Hideout, where you can rent paddleboards and beach chairs or grab a waterfront table for lunch. Try a South Florida classic like a mahi-mahi sandwich or conch fritters.
Another picturesque (and free) Fort Lauderdale anchorage awaits at Lake Sylvia, a sheltered canal that opens into a wide lake-like waterway within the Harbor Beach neighborhood, says Fopiano. It’s a fine spot to anchor for a wave-free floating lunch onboard, with views of the good life all around.
Dock and dine at these local restaurants
You’re rarely at a loss for a waterfront restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. The New River, which runs right through downtown Fort Lauderdale and is accessed via the Intracoastal Waterway, has some excellent options to dock the boat and grab a meal, says Fopiano.
“Rendezvous Bar and Grill is one of our favorites,” he says. “A lot of people don’t even know it’s there [within the Marina Bay luxury yachting center]; it’s kind of a little secret.” Order whatever fresh seafood they’re serving, he advises, which might be mahi tacos or a grouper sandwich, depending on what’s biting.
At Yot Bar and Kitchen, Fopiano says to grab a table right at the edge of the New River for views of mega-yachts cruising past or being repaired right next door at the Lauderdale Marine Center. The restaurant’s lobster roll is on par with anything you’d find in Maine, and you can also opt for Florida seafood—say, the shrimp tacos and blackened mahi.
Nelson swears by the crab claw lollipops and oysters shucked right in front of you at Coconuts, a long-standing waterfront haunt on the Intracoastal Waterway with dockage for boats and good vibes all around.
And both captains say not to miss 15th Street Fisheries on the Intracoastal Waterway in Lauderdale Marina, where you can indulge in more seafood-centric dishes like Bahamian conch chowder, fresh mahi tacos, and king crab legs.
Before hopping back on your boat, stop to feed the giant tarpon with shrimp you can buy from a store on the dock—the silvery scaled fish can grow up to eight feet long and swirl hungrily in the waters below.