Six shoppertainment malls, three eager mallrats, one day of shopping nirvana

Don't try to drive there on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Traffic is a mess. Not only are dozens of cars all trying to turn north from Las Olas on to State Road A1A, a never-ending supply of sunbathers and skaters prevents the passage of even one vehicle. The New Times minivan idles for what seems like an hour, watching shirtless boys check out their physiques in the reflective window of a T-shirt shop. While this delay murders our tight schedule, it's no problem for the I-Team, which presses its collective nose against the minivan window to ogle at the passing parade of, to use their vernacular, "cute guys."

It costs a flat fee of six dollars to park at BeachPlace, ending our string of free rides. Parking at the mall is a well-publicized problem, but we find a space in no time. "Look!" shrieks Gabriella when we step off the garage elevator. "An Express!" The I-Team sprints inside the clothing store, which is advertising a 30 percent-off special.

While Riverfront is reminiscent of CocoWalk, BeachPlace is damn near an exact replica. The stucco looks the same. The bars shoot up three levels, à la the Grove. The dearth of Coco Gelato stands is troubling, but the dominant architectural feature, just like CocoWalk, is a centrally located staircase. No movie theater, unfortunately, but who needs a theater when there is a beach right across the street? Steady customers are guaranteed in part by a Marriott time-share resort built into the complex. Most of the steady customers we see have their fingers wrapped around the long necks of Bud Light bottles.

The I-Team is in love. "There are more stores!" squeals Michelle, pointing her arm like a weathervane to identify a Banana Republic and a Gap -- the day's first! Other stores keep time with the CocoWalk vibe, including the White House, a clothing boutique that was a charter occupant in the Grove. The Blue Water Gallery features the art of T-shirt hero Guy Harvey. The I-Team buys red licorice twists from a small candy shop.

BeachPlace is mostly one giant bar. From the first floor to the third lie seven separate places to buy a frozen daiquiri -- Adobe Gilas, Hooters, Cafe Iguana, and others [see sidebar story, page 15], with more bars opening soon. Sloppy Joe's advertises an upcoming bikini contest, which is a refreshing sign, actually, a triumph of local culture. This mall may look exactly like CocoWalk, but it feels just like Fort Lauderdale beach always has: It's a little edgy, a bit buzzed, and proudly raunchy. It's a great place to have a frat party. If Arturo Fuerte ever performed here, his sidekick flamenco dancing girls would probably have their frilly shirts sprayed down in an involuntary wet T-shirt contest.

Not exactly the place to leave our intrepid investigators. We quickly run through the checklist:

Howl at the Moon Saloon? Check!
Gap? Check!
Hare Krishnas? No.
Pina coladas? Check!
Faux Mediterranean architecture? Check!
Destruction of historic property? Check!
Cute guys? Check!
Bathroom quality? "Really small and dirty," Gabriella says.

Northport Marketplace
By now it's after 4:30 p.m., and the I-Team is wailing with hunger, no matter how much licorice they've just consumed. We decide to eat at the CocoWalkish Planet Hollywood at Northport Marketplace, a mall connected to the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center. Our initial research indicates that Northport is a CocoWalk clone, too. It's not. It features a few restaurants and a few bars, along with some boutiques, but there is no movie theater, no Hooters, and no place for a flamenco guitarist to play even if he wanted to. Our disappointment manifests itself in a surly impoliteness. We're barely past the cement handprint of Luke Perry when Michelle starts to complain.

"Do we get to watch a movie while we eat?" she quizzes Phil, the waiter. Phil points to an active TV screen. "What?!?" Michelle snaps caustically. "We get to watch commercials?"

Despite the earlier complaints of starvation, Vania barely eats her hamburger. Gabriella only nibbles on her turkey sandwich. On the wall hang the leg braces Tom Cruise wore in the film Born on the Fourth of July. We get out of there as quickly as we can.

The Shops at Sunset Place
What's the main impediment to visiting six different shopping malls in one day? Traffic. As we get back on I-95 for the drive down to Miami-Dade County, we run into a traffic jam that makes the backup in Fort Lauderdale look like a day at the beach, which it sort of was.

Some kind of merging issue stops us dead on the freeway and further imperils the likelihood of us seeing all the malls before we return Michelle for her birthday party. The driver of the minivan is a laid-back sort of fellow, but even his irritation grows as he is continually asked to "Please change the station to 99 Jamz!" followed seconds later by, "No, turn it back to Power 96!" The supply of potato chips is exhausted, and no one wants to touch the Oreos, for which good money was paid. The oft-repeated complaint, "We're sweating back here!" is followed inevitably by, "Now we're too cold!"

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