Perhaps nowhere in the entire state exists a better spot to bear witness to the forces of change than this small strip of land in downtown Fort Lauderdale. A hundred years ago, someone standing at this spot would have seen a single structure -- the clapboard, cracker-box Stranahan House, where the city started -- and maybe a Seminole paddling a skiff down the river. The area was surrounded by thick undergrowth and wild, vine-filled jungle. Now, Smoker Park sits in a thicket of multistory condominium towers, on top of the Federal Highway tunnel, next to a massive, noisy ventilation unit. Instead of Native American traders, the river is choked with pleasure craft and tourists. The Stranahan House (now a museum) is still there, surrounded as it is by a Cheesecake Factory and every other abomination developers could envision -- just wait for the 45-story-condo where Hyde Park Market now sits. Take a trip to the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society and ask to see a postcard of Smoker Park in the early 1900s, and marvel at the old wood-frame homes. Then go visit today, for a dose of future shock of the present.
Better have a thick wad of bills or a sturdy stack of plastic if you want to spend much time on Fort Lauderdale's version of Rodeo Drive. Shopping and eating along this upscale quarter-mile, it's easy to burn through cash by the hundreds. Amid this, the Christian Science Reading Room is an oasis of solitude and thrift. By offering no more than a friendly "howdy" and a tip o' the hat to the manager, you can relax in a comfy chair and read the day's edition of the Christian Science Monitor. You save the $1 price on one of the best English-language newspapers covering world events. Hey, a buck is a buck. Open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Atlantic Resort & Spa
Remember those driving vacations you took with your family as a kid? Motoring just outside Nothingville, USA, you'd spot a giant roadside sign touting "Miracle Hills" or the "Wonder Spot." You'd bully and sob your old man into making the detour, and he'd shell out the five bucks apiece for a tour led by an enthusiastic old man. Inside specially built hillside shacks that played with your senses, balls seemingly rolled upward, chairs balanced on two legs. You can recapture that childhood thrill at the Atlantic's dark-marbled restroom in the lobby, which also serves the adjoining Trina Restaurant and Lounge. As you gaze down at the automatic stainless-steel faucets, you realize that there is no sink basin beneath them. There is only a flat, faux-marble surface. It's obvious that water out of the spigot will have no place to go but over the front edge and onto your feet. Ahh, but the great joy of a potty pit stop here is the barely noticeable backward grade of that even top. The water is engineered to flow at just the right rate to not overwhelm the sink, and it drains out the back.
There was much grumbling and gnashing of teeth when the Broward County School Board laid out $29 million in the 1990s to build its new headquarters, soon derisively dubbed "The Crystal Palace." For many, the shiny, dark-blue 14-story juggernaut jutting up beside the county courthouse was an example of a bloated bureaucracy out of touch with its constituency. Then when Hurricane Wilma whipped through here last October, the K.C. Wright Building took a real pummeling and became the most visibly damaged structure downtown. Most of the glass on its west side shattered and rained down upon streets and sidewalks. Through the gaping holes vomited papers and folders and fixtures. In the days following, the palace became the leading sightseeing destination, an example of mother nature's wrath, poor construction, and official hubris.
Hibiscus House
The best area hotel is not a hotel at all -- it's a B&B, one of the few stalwarts of its kind to survive surrounded by sprouting condos and opulent resorts. Hibiscus House offers luxury on a small scale, trading the quiet ambiance of a palm-lined street in West Palm's Old Northwood neighborhood for the valet-lined drives that accompany the area's heavy-hitter luxury hotels. Owners Colin Raynor and Raleigh Hill maintain eight unique bedrooms, most with private porches and four-poster beds, and serve up a vast and elaborate breakfast every morning with china and Waterford crystal. The house, a 1922 historic structure in the land of vinyl siding and concrete-slab construction, is the kind of sprawling, multiroomed manse that populates Faulkner novels. It sits in a verdant jungle of a garden fringed with high palm fronds that provides each room with its own lush view. There's no concierge and no Swedish massage, but those would just interfere with the simple delights of staying in a unique and lovingly decorated home, far from the fetters of conspicuous consumption that chain the denizens of Worth Avenue to their monocles and bellhops. Best of all, a stay in Hibiscus House costs just $95 to $210, unheard-of affordability for an accommodation in West Palm Beach that both feeds you and swaddles you in simple elegance.
Argue all you want about whether Sears is "Where America Shops," but the vast parking lot at this long-in-the-tooth strip mall sits mostly empty. Not that Sears and a half-dozen other little businesses at this locale don't get business; it's just that there are so many cars bordering the shopping center, all bogged down in one of the worst designed intersections in Fort Lauderdale. First, there's all the traffic headed east on Sunrise from I-95, which meets the steady, tar-thick flow of north/south traffic on Federal Highway. In this intersection, they merge into one, with drivers who are jockeying into position or, worse, are clueless. Here's a suggestion: Let's get a couple of road engineers, give 'em slide rules and paper, and direct them to incorporate part of Sears Town to devise an intersection that's not a recipe for road rage and brain hemorrhage.
Less than a half-hour flight east lies Bimini, the closest foreign island to mainland America. This seven-mile-long sliver of the Bahamas offers a peaceful respite from the hectic pace of South Florida 50 miles away. You can split your weekend between hanging at the beach and biking and kayaking. The north end of the island is an intricate mangrove forest. In it is a natural phenomenon dubbed "The Healing Hole," which is a section of creek connected to a warren of underground tunnels. When the tide goes out, cold mineral water flows out of the tunnels that some believe has mystical healing powers. If paddling and self-healing isn't your bag, stick to the island's commercial strip, Alice Town, where you'll find saloons the likes of Compleat Angler and End of the World. There are a number of flight options to the island, but Lynx Air (www.lynxair.com) makes a weekend getaway simple and not too expensive. A round trip out of Fort Lauderdale airport for just under $200 leaves Friday afternoons at 12:30 and departs Bimini on Sundays at 2:15 p.m.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood
Cristian Costea
Hi, um, would you like to go out with me tonight? I don't know, what do you wanna do? I was thinking that, if you like steak and really good wine, we could go to the Council Oak restaurant at the Hard Rock. Oh, something more casual? Sure, well, there's the Jazziz bistro that's also part of the massive Hard Rock entertainment complex -- they play live jazz while you eat. I don't really like jazz either; I was just saying that to sound cultured. I know -- let's go have Mexican food and ride the mechanical bull at Tequila Ranch! You're not even hungry? OK, there's a comedian at the Improv there. Yeah, comedians can be annoying. Want to see a band at the Hard Rock Live? My ears hurt too. Do you like shopping? I'm broke as well... but if we play the slots, we might win something, and then we could go clubbing right next door at Pangaea and Gryphon or play pool at Knight Time Billiards or drink at Murphy's Law. What's that? You just want to get drunk at the poolside bar? Me too! Gosh, I just knew I would love you! We are meant for each other! Should we book a room?
Better-organized than the pagans, more regularly scheduled than the belly dancers, and more committed than wine enthusiasts, poets, or people with ADHD, Broward County atheists have a meetup group to be reckoned with. With 104 members and a weekly meeting that hopscotches around various pubs and restaurants in Davie, the group is part secularist society, part singles get-together, and part homegrown church substitute for the godless. Its members promote "logic and reason as basis for beliefs" and entice newbies with offers of "drink, some good food, and lively conversation." At their weekly non-Sunday meeting (usually held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays or Wednesdays), Broward Atheists form a lively community where potlucks are shared, anti-God (and anti-Bush) harangues are aired, and non-God-oriented group activities such as highway litter cleanups are planned. The group has even spawned its own website, www.browardatheists.com. While some might suspect that the Broward Atheists are merely a cover for closeted Democrats to mingle with like-minded folk without revealing their political affiliations, the atheists themselves say that they are simply creating a haven for freethinkers of all stripes in a land that's obsessed with God. But whatever their underlying motives, their success in the world of meetups is clearly unparalleled.
South Florida has worked hard earning its reputation for making noses shapelier, chests bigger, and chins tauter. Culture, schmulture -- give us the lipo, Botox, and scalpel any day of the week. But it's hard to keep up with the Joneses when you're a working-class stiff just trying to save enough cash for a trip to Disney World. Thankfully, credit card companies feel your pain and are now offering credit cards specifically tailored toward plastic surgery. For example, Capital One's card provides loans of $1,500 to $25,000 for up to 60 months. Interest rates vary from 1.9 to 23.9 percent. GE Consumer Finance offers a card called CareCredit that also provides the financial high road to higher brows.

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