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Fort Lauderdale

The "middle city" of Florida's Gold Coast, Fort Lauderdale sits between Miami to the south and Palm Beach to the north. The city blends in nicely with its metropolitan neighbors, and elements of Miami's chic vibe and the affluent nature of Palm Beach are recognizable here. But Fort Lauderdale is a destination in and of itself. Operating one of the busiest cruise ports in North America -- more than 3 million people pass through each year -- has helped to define Fort Lauderdale as a robust tourism spot in the United States.

Fort Lauderdale started out as a swampy outpost with a fort, built to protect against the Seminole Native Americans. The swamps were transformed in the late 1800s into a series of canals by scooping them out parallel to each other and creating long peninsulas in between them. This undertaking resulted in the city's more than 300 miles of navigable waterways (twice that of Venice) -- hence the nickname "Venice of America." The abundance of waterways that wind up and down the coast have made Fort Lauderdale a boating hot spot, with more than 40,000 registered yachts holding forth.

The community gained fame and some measure of disrepute when it was featured in the 1960s movie "Where the Boys Are," causing legions of college-aged boys (and, not coincidentally, girls) to descend for raucous spring break holidays. For decades, Fort Lauderdale was synonymous with spring break -- and the giddy wildness that accompanies this rite of passage -- until an effort by city leaders in the 1980s went into effect, in earnest, to tone it all down. Indeed, these days the fastest-growing market for Fort Lauderdale is actually the trendy high spenders that may once have gone south -- or north.

Since shedding its "rowdy, college spring break" reputation, the city has grown into a more genteel community that's family- and boater-oriented. Beyond the canals, and the Intracoastal Waterway that runs through the city, a major development has been the redefining of Fort Lauderdale itself. Downtown -- especially around the hub of Las Olas Boulevard, with its cafes, galleries and boutiques -- feels almost as Miami Beach as, well, Miami Beach.

Greater Fort Lauderdale's 23-mile beachfront has also received a major overhaul, with lush landscaping and vivacious lighting complementing the expansive stretches of sand. In fact, since 1999, the beaches of greater Fort Lauderdale have earned "Blue Wave Beach" certification from the Clean Beaches Council, a designation awarded to the nation's cleanest and safest beaches.

--written by Jana Jones and Kimberly Karis

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