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Cruise Critic Members Share South Florida Vacation Tips

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Tropical sunshine, glorious sandy beaches and colorful local neighborhoods. What’s not to love about Miami and Fort Lauderdale? Indeed, some 9 million cruise passengers choose to start their vacations from PortMiami and Port Everglades every year. But, here’s the thing: If you’re busy flying in or out, and getting on or off your cruise ship, how much of Miami or Fort Lauderdale do you actually see? Both have so much to offer that it makes complete sense to arrive early, or stay on a few days, or both.

Updated October 31, 2018

Planning your pre- or post-cruise break can be overwhelming as there’s so much choice. Whether you’re traveling from the U.S., Europe or further afield, this is where Cruise Critic’s members come in: They’re a wealth of information on what’s hot and where to find a bargain. And, they’ve got some unconventional tips to save money. Here’s everything you need to know to start planning your South Florida pre- or post-cruise getaway.

The Where-to-Stay Debate

If you’re sailing from PortMiami, it makes sense to stay nearby. Some people like a view of the ships coming and going -- and there are plenty of hotels overlooking Dodge Island, where the port is located. Others prefer to stay in hipster South Beach and others still like to be near the shops. Cruise Critic member JohninDC suggests “…staying in Downtown Miami or in Coconut Grove -- both offer lots of dining and shopping options. Hollywood [between the two cities] is good if you want the Boardwalk and beach experience. .”

Choosing Miami?

Miami itself has great hotel locations for every taste, including those that want to do some ship-spotting while in town.

South Florida local Flymia makes this recommendation: “Your pre-cruise hotel should be in Downtown or the Brickell area. Getting to the hotel in that area from Miami airport is easy via a taxi or Uber. The port is right there in Downtown Miami. If you stay in Downtown or Brickell, you will have endless options for dining and things to do for the evening. For watching ships, go to South Pointe Park in South Beach. Great views; it’s fantastic.”

As Flymia says, it can make sense to do something convenient pre-cruise and then switch to a different location for your post-cruise Miami adventure. “For your return, you should rent a car. It will make it easier to get around and see some things. Things to do would be check out Miami Beach, go to Little Havana and have lunch, take a boat tour of the Biscayne Bay, check out the art museum or science museum, Vizcaya [museum and gardens] and other things.”

Great advice, but what about an active couple who enjoys good food and outdoor activities but doesn’t want to drive? Keith1010 suggests: “For pre-cruise, I would probably go with Miami Downtown just to mix it up. This way, you can do things Downtown on the pre-cruise and then enjoy Miami Beach on the post-cruise. We don't rent a car when we stay in Miami. We are also avid walkers. We usually stay Downtown and then go out and about on foot. A favorite location for us is somewhere near Brickell.”

Or Opting for Laid-back Fort Lauderdale?

If your ship departs from Port Everglades, you’d be better off picking somewhere in Fort Lauderdale, with its gorgeous beaches, Venice-like lattice of canals and spiffy yachting scene. JohninDC says the “Fort Lauderdale area is generally cheaper than comparable Miami Beach properties. We find the area more attractive and friendly.” Janette34 agrees: “Fort Lauderdale would be my choice. Loved taking the water taxi around and getting off in different areas and walking around.”

Where to stay, though? Member Esmerelda answers that question: “We like to stay on the A1A strip [the 32-mile beachfront state road]. There are many hotels, shopping and restaurants all within walking distance. We love being right across from the ocean and having dinner with that view also.”

Royalcruz says, “Las Olas is a lovely old street downtown, where you feel like you are in Europe. It has boutiques, galleries, bars and cafes.” Indeed, Las Olas, with its boho vibe and pretty architecture is certainly the place for shoppers and foodies; hard to believe that 100 years ago, it was just a dirt road to the beach.

On the other hand, dedicated cruise fans like to wake up in the morning and gaze out on their ship, in which case, the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina is ideally located. It's on the water, 10 minutes from the airport, minutes from Port Everglades and with its own water taxi stop. Want some beach time? There’s no shortage of choice: Fort Lauderdale Beach itself is 7 miles of white sand; or there’s pretty Dania Beach, with a long fishing pier and great seafood; or Pompano Beach, with its warm, clear water.

The Perfect Pre-/Post-Cruise Itinerary

Once you iron out where you’re staying, you’re ready to plan your pre-/post-cruise itinerary. What’s an ideal day in Fort Lauderdale like if you’re a first-time visitor? The “…water taxi is always fun; maybe a boozy lunch and some shopping on Las Olas,” suggests JohninDC, while SandyMIA recommends the “Museum of Discovery and Science and Butterfly World are very nice if traveling with kids. Adults might prefer to head to the beaches or enjoy the local museums.” BNBR, meanwhile, adds, “I think the water taxi, and maybe hopping off at a couple of spots like Hollywood's Broadwalk and Las Olas is going to be a great option for you. If you are looking for that ‘thing’ to do in Fort Lauderdale when you have one day, then that's pretty much it.”

Out-of-towners and overseas visitors, too, are often fascinated by the Everglades, where a tour involves zipping around in a high-speed airboat thrill ride over the sawgrass prairies, admiring gators and iguanas, and cruising the mangroves in search of manatees and sea turtles. If you don’t want to drive, there are plenty of local tour operators offering day trips and pickup from your hotel.

And, if you’ve opted for Miami? Keith1010 says, “I would spend part or an entire day in South Beach. We have a vehicle drop us off at the beginning of Ocean Drive right near the art deco hotels. We walk that area and eventually make our way to the Boardwalk and continue for a while. We also walk over to Lincoln Drive, where there are lots of stores and also restaurants. There are also many restaurants near the art deco hotels. We do visit the Holocaust Memorial [Miami Beach]. It is very well done. South Beach is a great area to people-watch, to dine and to enjoy the scenery and the beautiful beach area.”

DIVER2014, who lived in Miami for 23 years, suggests, “Take the Metromover [free people mover] to Brickell and wander around the shops. Take the Metrorail to Dadeland Mall and spend a day. Take the trolley to Coconut Grove or Coral Gables for shopping and lunch. Catch the bus at the front of Bayside [shopping center] for a tour through Coral Gables. Rent a car and drive to the Keys (one-hour drive each way).

BNBR agrees about the Keys. “You should make a day trip to the Middle and Upper Keys. It's very easy to do in a short day and be back in time for dinner (or stay in the Keys for dinner). The drive is beautiful and it's unique.

“Wynwood is a must to see the art walls. Vizcaya is cool. Coral Castle Museum. Knaus Berry Farm. Venetian Pool. Rent Kayaks at Oleta River State Park. Grab lunch in Little Havana -- Versailles restaurant is kind of ‘the’ place. Go out to Shark Valley, ride the tram or rent bikes and see the alligators and Everglades. Fort Lauderdale is a 35-minute drive and might be worth a visit. Check out Las Olas and take a round on the water taxi or even do the Jungle Queen [a vintage paddlewheeler].

Dining Out: Don’t Skip the Stone Crab

As for dining, South Florida fans are big on seafood with Blueherons and CJSKIDS both waxing lyrical about Monty’s Raw Bar, right on the waterfront in Miami’s Coconut Grove: “If you are lucky enough to come during stone crab season, Monty’s has a great deal at happy hour on these. And their peel-and-eat shrimp at happy hour is great,” says CJSKIDS. “Make sure to have a Pain Remover cocktail!” [Rum, coconut, pineapple and orange juice, to the uninitiated.]

Meanwhile, Royalcruz has several suggestions for member agp_mzk, a young, single woman enjoying a couple of days’ R&R in Fort Lauderdale before cruising and also in search of seafood. “Most of the restaurants are casual and chains in the area, but there are lots of choices. Some of the nicer ones very close are Coco Asian and Bistro Mezzaluna. Some that are very casual and popular are Southport Raw Bar, Kelly's Landing and Bravo.”

Money-Saving Tips

Experienced Cruise Critic members are pretty canny in planning their pre- and post-cruise stays in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. The perfect hotel, it seems, would have free breakfast, a free or reasonably priced airport shuttle, a free or cheap shuttle service to the port, a view of the port (being cruise nuts by nature, members enjoy ship-spotting) and proximity to decent restaurants and shops. And parking, of course, for those members who drive to the port.

Vacruizer says it’s important to prioritize: “Free shuttle is tough with Miami. It's sometimes just as cheap to pay taxi/shuttle and get a very nice hotel Downtown with a view of the port. Taxis are fairly inexpensive and with Miami, I'd rather be in a nice hotel over saving $10 or $20 to get a free shuttle, which is about the price difference I find. I just love having a view of my ship the next morning when I get up.”

Members have some intriguing ideas for saving money on your cruise vacation. Plenty specifically seek out a hotel near a drugstore or grocery store to buy toiletries, drinks and snacks for the cabin. Member Bequia goes a step further, suggesting a clothes shopping spree at Sawgrass Mills, the luxury brand discount mall 15 miles from Fort Lauderdale. “It's not too difficult to find substantial savings, enough to warrant leaving your clothes home and buying all new clothes for the cruise.”

Z’loth, meanwhile, cuts down luggage fees on the flight to Miami mailing vacation goodies straight to the Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton Miami Brickell Downtown, commenting: “You can receive five packages at the hotel for free. I had ordered several items from Amazon and had them shipped to the hotel rather than try and pack them in my suitcase for my flight.” Smart indeed.

The bottom line here is that there are plenty of pursuits and pastimes in both Miami and Fort Lauderdale to keep you busy for days. The next time embarkation calls, earmark a few days before or after your cruise to fully explore the natural wonders and cosmopolitan beauty this area embodies.

Sue Bryant has taken more than 15 cruises from Miami and Fort Lauderdale and always arrives a day or two early to enjoy some shopping and beach time. As a keen photographer and people watcher, her favorite spot, possibly predictably, is South Beach and the Art Deco district - and breakfast at the News Cafe always blows away the jet lag. She’s also a big fan of the Pérez Art Museum — and loves browsing the galleries for Cuban art, especially Cernuda Arte in Coral Gables.

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