Tuesday, March 26, 2013

This Week: Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Four days in Ft. Lauderdale

We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale before noon. Not bad considering we started in the Mountain Time Zone.  We found a cab and were heading to the beach, the Westin Beach Resort and Spa specifically. The cab took us down Ft. Lauderdale Beach Boulevard with the wide inviting beach attached to the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the promenade filled with shops, seaside restaurants and resorts large and small on the other. The day was warm, but windy.
The Westin lobby was utter chaos. Ft. Lauderdale is a major cruise ship port and the lobby was full of families who were either heading to board a cruise ship or heading to the airport to go home. An entire corner of the lobby was filled with bags next to a line of impatient people waiting to pick them up. The families going on cruises were extremely impatient, some even shouting to whoever would listen. We waited patiently in the SPG check-in line and once we got our turn, the check-in process was fast. Soon we were in our partial oceanview room. It was in the second building on the property and a long walk from the lobby, but it had a great view of the beach and boulevard and the quiet side street next to us.
We were in Ft. Lauderdale for two reasons. My reason:  It was my 45th birthday. My husband’s reason:  His alma mater, Northern Illinois University, was playing Florida State in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day. Since it was lunchtime, food was at the top of the activity list. During the cab ride, a three-story complex with bars, shops and restaurants caught my eye. On the top floor was a place called Big Kahuna with umbrella covered tables, green fake palm trees and tiki torches on a rooftop deck.
We walked two blocks south to the complex, which held a variety of places to eat and drink including a Hooters restaurant and a Fat Tuesday frozen drink bar. Even though I thought the name Big Kahuna was cheesy (Hawaii in Florida?) those rooftop tables on the top floor appealed to me. We found a table that was close enough to the bar so my husband could see the Bears games on the TV, yet close enough to the open doors for me to be in the sun. A young pretty blonde handed us menus.
“It’s my birthday today,” I announced. “What do I get?”
“Um, well, we can probably give you a shot,” she said. I glanced at the back of the menu to the dessert list.
“I was hoping for some cake.”
“Nah, it’s a shot.”
“Shotta what?”
“Whatever you want.” I asked for a gold tequila with a splash of lime juice. She came back with a small plastic cup and said it was Cuervo Gold. It was actually quite tasty, but I really wanted was the dark chocolate lava cake they had listed on the menu. We dined on a series of appetizers and Coors Lights. The beer menu at this establishment was minimal and the choices of draft beer were downright dreadful. At least the food was good. We had takaki (seared tuna) and wings. Not an unpleasant way to spend an afternoon.
My birthday dinner was at Shula’s on the Beach, a steakhouse inside our hotel. It was a steakhouse that was part of Don Shula’s Florida restaurant chain, which according to what I found on the internet, had a good reputation. The menu was fairly typical of a steakhouse, but again the beer selection was lacking. I ended up drinking a raspberry martini made with berry-infused rum. We both had steaks, mashed potatoes and green beans. Good, but nothing special. Since I didn’t get cake for lunch we also ordered Shula’s molten lava chocolate cake for dessert. It was so big that even with both of us eating it, we still couldn’t finish it.
The next day was New Year’s Eve and it was a beach day. Well, it would have been if it hadn’t been for the intense winds coming off the Atlantic. If you were a kitesurfer, a windsurfer, a paraglider or even a kite flyer, it was a great day. The wind didn’t stop people from hanging out on Ft. Lauderdale’s wide sand beach or dipping in the water, however, the lifeguards were busy keeping people close to shore because of the large waves. Apparently Speedos are making a comeback as evidenced by a game of co-ed volleyball at the public courts near the Sheraton Hotel.
Lunch was at Margarita Cantina Crab and Seafood House on the beach boulevard a few blocks south of the hotel. We picked it because it was close and it had tables on the front sidewalk so we could eat and watch the beach. Once again we were disappointed in the beer list, Coors Light and Bud Lite. They did have Landshark Lager in bottles so I had one. The food was typical American Mex. After the giant steak last night, I settled for a chicken taco salad and avoided the shell.
The only clothes Christian brought on this trip all had NIU logos all over them. T-shirt, polos, jackets, hats, he was all in. As we ate our lunch people walked up and down the boulevard and every now and then we’d hear shouts of “Go Huskies!” as similarly attired supporters walked by. Sometimes we even started the chants when we saw other Huskie supporters walking past.
New Year’s Eve would be at McSorley’s Bar about a mile north of the hotel. We chose it because they had a replica of the Time Square crystal ball on the roof made from PVC pipe wrapped with Christmas tree lights. As we walked into the old brick building shouts of “Huskies!” from everyone at the bar greeted us. Unbeknownst to us an NIU alum group had chosen this very bar to have their New Year’s Eve celebration and Christian in his NIU polo was immediately recognized as a good guy. The bar held a mix of recent grads and older alums (meaning “our age”). I sat next to one of the recent grads. He was there with a group of buddies who drove down in a tailgate van and proudly showed us pics on his cell phone. The van was the size of a small apartment and had a big, flat screen TV, detachable grill and its own bathroom.  Like most of the rest of his group, they graduated from NIU last spring, but then never left. Some actually had jobs with the University. One of two girls in the group was giving another alum a Sharpie tattoo of the letters N-I-U on his arm. We could see her calligraphy on several other arms around the bar.
On the other end of the spectrum were the alums who were our age. One was a corporate pilot, another was a financial advisor, and another was in insurance. There was a woman with them who was the alumni coordinator. She’s the one who picked McSorley’s for the alumni bar because it was close to the hotel they were staying at. All of us were here to celebrate the Huskies playing in their first bowl championship series.
McSorley’s Beach Bar took up space in the entire building. The first floor was the bar. The bar was oval and covered the entire first floor. It also had the prerequisite tattooed bartenders, both men and women. We asked our bartender if she had any local brews on tap and were disappointed with the answer. McSorley’s Ft. Lauderdale is actually an offshoot of an Irish bar in New York City and she offered us the beers that were brewed there, which she said they send down to Florida. They were good, but it was becoming clear that Ft. Lauderdale didn’t seem to have any craft beer of its own. McSorley’s also didn’t have a kitchen, but patrons were welcome to order a pie from the pizza parlor across the street and eat it at the bar. Christian went over and ordered one for our dinner. After pizza and beer, the group including us went upstairs to the rooftop bar. The evening was still early and we were the only ones up there at first. The rooftop bar had a DJ and that tiny Christmas light ball in the corner. As we chatted and drank with our new NIU friends, the rooftop slowly filled up with New Year’s Eve revelers. Oddly enough the younger members of the group left early because the guys in the van had to be at the stadium at 10 a.m. to set up the tailgate. It was left to us old people to keep the party going.
With less than a minute before midnight, the DJ got on the mic to let everyone know he needed a countdown. Time to see that Christmas light ball in action. As we counted down from 10, the DJ used a pulley to drop the ball about five feet from the top of the pole.  Shortly after midnight, our new friends left to get some sleep before the big game. They were all going to the stadium about noon to tailgate at a game that wouldn’t start until 8 p.m. Because it wasn’t yet midnight in Colorado we considered staying and ringing in the Mountain Time New Year. We didn’t make it.
New Year’s Day was sunny and bright, but still windy. When I opened our window, the ocean blast entered the room. A small plane flew over the water along the beach pulling an Orange Bowl banner behind it. Our good friend Trace, another NIU alum, was flying in for the game tonight and scheduled to arrive at the airport about noon. He was also getting a rental car and picking us up for the game. He would stay with us at the Westin and take us to the airport the next morning. We decided to get some lunch so we could leave for the stadium as soon as he dropped off his stuff at the hotel. We wanted to get in on some of that tailgate action too.
We went back to the 3-story shopping/eating complex near the hotel. We passed on the Big Kahuna and Hooters and instead chose Lulu’s Bait Shack, a very woodsy place as in old wood bar and walls, and wooden stools. It looked a lot older than it probably was. We were walking to some seats at the bar when we passed a table with a family of Huskies around it. “Go Huskies” we all shouted to each other. Sitting down at the bar we ordered the only thing they had on tap, Coors Light, along with some sandwiches.
An older gentleman sat down next to Christian and ordered a beer. He wore an NIU t-shirt, a brother in arms. Seeing our NIU attire he offered up his backstory while lighting up a cigarette. He lived in Baltimore and worked in DC. He was supposed to be the game with several of his college buddies, but they all backed out. He flew in to Ft. Lauderdale that morning, took a cab to the beach and planned to sit in a pub until it got closer to game time where he would hail another cab to take him to the stadium for the game. Then after the game he would take a cab back to the airport where he would spend the night until his flight left at 6 a.m. the next morning. He offered to buy us a shot, but we politely declined. He then offered to buy the pretty young blonde bartender a shot. She said that even though she drank too much on New Year’s Eve and only got two hours of sleep before she had to be at Lulu’s, she’d be happy to share a shot with him. He bought us each one more beer and we bought him one. Christian’s phone rang. Trace had landed and was getting the car. He would be there in an hour.
We arrived at the stadium around 4 pm. After parking the car we began walking around the large parking lot. We were looking for Lot 10 because that was where ‘The Van’ would be. We walked around the entire stadium and couldn’t find Lot 10, but saw plenty of tailgates, both NIU and FSU. Flags were flying and tents were set, stereos and TVs were blaring, drinks were hoisted, grills were smoking, bags were thrown, taunts were shouted - a classic football setting. Despite being held in FSU’s backyard, we could see NIU was well represented. However, we still couldn’t find Lot 10 or “The Van.” The lot numbers started at 11 and went up from there. What the heck was going on? We stopped to figure out what to do next, continue looking or go inside, when some familiar faces walked by. It was two of the guys we met last night. After hellos and introductions to Trace they showed us to Lot 10, which turned out to be in some annex parking lot as far from the stadium as you could possible get and still be on stadium property. Despite the distance, the tailgate was rocking. It was the largest NIU tailgate we had seen with an entire row of cars, trucks and vans, tents, lawn chairs and flags. We found the group of alums from McSorley’s and they offered us grilled hamburgers and chicken legs along with beer and chips. Trace, Christian and several other people were wearing NIU jerseys so a group picture was necessary for the alumni blog. ‘The Van’ was everything they said it would be, gigantic and painted a deep red with a giant TV hanging from the back. The doors were open and sure enough I saw the in-vehicle toilet with a line of people waiting to use it.  It was like a camper toilet and placed behind the driver’s seat. A steady stream of people stood at the side door. The area was mass chaos with people shouting and singing and I didn’t know any of them, but we were all comrades in football.
It was an hour before kickoff and with so much optimism in the air we were all so… happy. We were hugging and cheek kissing and saying Go Huskies! Someone broke out singing the school song and everyone joined in. We toasted football and Huskies and friendships and held our Coors Lights high. In that moment we were on top of the world, the MAC school that could. We were going to prove Kirk Herbstreet wrong! That euphoria would last until a fumble and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter put the game out of reach by FSU. But at that moment…we were the best college football team on earth.