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Originally published Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 7:08 PM

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More elegant Fort Lauderdale sheds rowdy spring-break past

Feel free to blame Connie Francis. In 1960, the singer starred in (and crooned the memorable theme song for) MGM's "Where the Boys Are,"...

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Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.sunny.org or phone 800-22-SUNNY.

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Feel free to blame Connie Francis.

In 1960, the singer starred in (and crooned the memorable theme song for) MGM's "Where the Boys Are," the sole topic of which was spring break in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

What followed each year was a building hurricane of swirling college-student inebriation that blew in from the north, paralyzed city traffic and services, forced mass evacuations (among smarter locals) and left streets and beaches awash in broken glass, stale booze, wet T-shirts and makeshift restrooms.

I would blame Connie, except that from my place along the elegant waterfront promenade — an orchard of blue beach umbrellas in the golden sand behind me and the towering Ritz-Carlton in front of me — the scenery seemed more Miami Beach than Mardi Gras.

Somewhere in the past 25 years, Fort Lauderdale has quietly evolved from the capital) of drunken spring pilgrimages into a chic beach destination after many spring-breakers moved on to Mexico. I was in town to explore Fort Lauderdale's newer attractions and tony food scene, as well as the overlooked charms that were there all along.

The movie (which also starred a number of other actors who should be held accountable) was a 1960s version of "Girls Gone Wild," focusing on discussion (and demonstration) of premarital sex, underage drinking, good-natured rioting, skinny-dipping and illicit beach limbo dancing.

The story had a moral, which, of course, was buried under the idyllic surf, sand and potential for "back seat bingo."

"It started with the college swimmers who would come down for the winter break," said Francine Mason, spokeswoman for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They would come back all tan and say how great the beaches were."

Fueled by word-of-mouth, the movie and, eventually, MTV, the already rowdy crowds grew annually. "By the time the '80s came, it really was out of control," said Mason.

During spring break in 1985, the city trembled as more than 350,000 partyers filled the beaches, bars and streets, as well as the hospitals and jails.

After the debacle, then-Mayor Robert Dressler urged the nation's students: "Go somewhere else next spring and give us a break."

There were local efforts (alcohol bans, traffic diversion, hotel-occupancy enforcement), but in the end the state's raising of the drinking age to 21 probably had the biggest impact, forcing U.S. students to seek booze-fueled high-jinks in Mexico, now in Cancún and Cozumel.

Ironically, the city will hold a "Where the Boys Are" Beach Party in May to mark the 50th anniversary, including an appearance by Connie Francis (now 71).

Upscale hotels

My base was the über-stylish W Hotel, one of the newest luxe property on the Fort Lauderdale Beach strip that once was lined with faded weekender motels (presumably all named some variation of "Sea Breeze"or "Vista del Mar"). Other hotels nearby include the Ritz-Carlton, Westin Beach Resort, a Hilton resort and the Atlantic Hotel.

The W is walking distance from most of the strip's attractions and, most important, the beach.

Strolling south along Fort Lauderdale Beach, it was easy to see two of the biggest changes since the dark days of 1985: the swerving and sloping wall of the 2-mile beachfront promenade, complete with grand entries and handy showers; and the host of signs (seemingly every 20 yards) clarifying the city's position that sand and booze do not mix.

Dry zone or not, the palm-fringed stretch is a wide ribbon of golden sands to rival Cancún or Miami Beach, but with fewer topless sun worshippers and hung-over clubbers. The advantage here is that it's all public beach, not cordoned off into first-class and steerage zones by swanky resorts.

After watching the evening sky turn purple from the Las Olas gateway to the beach, I crossed the street to survey Seabreeze Boulevard. The strip has plenty of dining and drinking options, although most beach-view nightspots are geared to tourists. Better dining in this part of town, in general, is in the high-end hotels, including Cero inside the Ritz-Carlton, and Steak 954 at the W.

A floating view

The next day, I took a ride in the Water Taxi. It's not a typical ferry service, although Capt. John definitely was a colorful cabbie.

While the service covers only a fraction of the city's 165 miles of navigable waterways (by comparison, the city of Venice has 26 miles), the $15 hop-on hop-off all-day ticket offers the best (and cheapest) view of Fort Lauderdale beyond the beach.

The boats ply the Intercoastal Waterway, the canals and the New River up to downtown, although the voyeuristic highlight is the stretch through the harbor and the "isles,"past rows of millionaire — and billionaire — homes and super-tanker-size yachts. (Fort Lauderdale has 42,000 resident yachts, about one for every 4.25 residents.)

We chuffed past the former homes of Sonny and Cher, Lucy and Ricky and Gloria Vanderbilt. The scene felt like a flooded Beverly Hills, without the fences.

One stop is the harbor-view Bahia Cabana bar, a fabled watering hole where, supposedly, actor and Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller would get drunk enough to leap up on the bar and fire off Tarzan's trademark jungle yodel.

Neighbors, supposedly, would yell back — but not the yodel.

Back on land

Along with Connie Francis, Las Olas Boulevard is at least partly to blame for the popularity of Fort Lauderdale as a beach destination.

Before 1917, you could only get to the beach by boat. City leaders, oblivious to the impending wet T-shirt contests and 2-for-1 margarita specials, built a bridge that extended the street to what is now State Highway A1A.

While it's seen good times and bad, the tree-lined Las Olas district these days is stocked with elegant bistros, boutiques and upscale chain stores that are geared as much to locals as to tourists. Many of the restaurants are French Riviera-flavored, including St. Tropez Bistro, where I scored a sidewalk table beneath Perrier umbrellas.

After lunch, I wandered Las Olas Boulevard into downtown, cutting south through Huizenga park to the Riverfront area, a center for local nightlife, and the red-bricked Riverwalk.

Among the hot spots are the Pirate Republic Bar on the south shore of New River, and on the north side, Briny Riverfront Irish Bar and Restaurant.

After exploring a bit — past the Old Fort Lauderdale pioneer buildings (History in Florida? Who knew?), the Broward Center for Performing Arts and the Museum of Discovery and Science — it's easy to find another Water Taxi stop and catch a leisurely ride back to the beach.

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