A new website shows a high-definition continuous view of the Fort Lauderdale beach from a camera high up along Route A1A, pointing toward Las Alos Boulevard and the Elbow Room bar made famous by the 1964 movie, “Where the Boys Are,” with Connie Francis and Paula Prentiss. It was the first popular movie about spring break and changed Fort Lauderdale forever, as any resident from those days will testify.
My parents began taking our family vacations at Fort Lauderdale in the 1950s, before the movie. Friends of theirs from Aldan, Al Herr and his wife, Ruth, were managing a motel in Fort Lauderdale, Casa Glamaretta, 435 Bayshore Drive, much humbler—and nicer—than its pretentious name suggests. It was on the Inland Waterway, had a pool, and the beach was only a few blocks away in the opposite direction. The location was ideal and the Herrs knew the best restaurants (e.g. Mai-Kai) and places to see. Fort Lauderdale was still a sleepy little town, one of many strung along the scenic Route A1A that hugged the Florida coast. (Casa Glamaretta was torn down in 1997.)
My father loved to drive, and we went over Easter vacation. We traveled by Routes 301 and 17, weaving our way through the centers of small towns with their traffic lights and speed traps. The first improvement was new bypasses around the towns. We looked for signs like “Rt. 301 Bypass →.” They did not want us clogging their downtown traffic any more than we wanted to be there. Each year we saw more of the bypasses. Then, construction of I-95 began, but it went slowly, one section at a time, mostly following the old Route 301. We would breeze along on the new Interstate for something like 20 miles, then hit a traffic jam as Route 301 began again. This is the way it was, over and over, all the way down. The drive got easier each year as more of the Interstate was completed. The construction was controlled by the state governments, and they had to deal with local tourist businesses that would now be cut off from the vacationers.
Finally, the three-day drive was comfortably done in two days, but the experience of being passed by cars full of waving, hell-bent spring-breakers with girl’s bare feet sticking out of the windows was ending. No more cardboard “Florida or Bust” signs in the back windows. They were now flying to more distant Edens. We only saw elderly retired couples, grim-faced “Snow Birds,” driving their huge Chryslers and Buicks north, windows closed and bags of oranges piled on the back window shelf, their condo at “Boca del Vista” closed for another season.
We stayed overnight in mom-and-pop motels with names like the “Dew Drop Inn” and ate in the local restaurants. The common knowledge was to eat where the truckers ate, but we soon learned they were not the most discriminating of diners. And don’t ask the motel owners for recommendations—they would send you to their cousin’s restaurant. We peered in windows a lot, trying to evaluate the food from the decor and the appearance of the waitresses. Mostly we guessed wrong.
At the motels, we always inspected the room before registering. Reservations were unknown, and we often looked until we were too tired to look any farther. “Vacancy” and No Vacancy” signs were important. As darkness settled in, more of the “No”s lit up.
Today, my wife makes motel reservations far in advance, I admit is good to have a definite daily goal: “No, we can’t stop yet. Our motel reservation is in another ten miles. We can do it.” Or, “Sure we could go farther, but our motel is right here. We’ll have time to explore the area.”
People today talk of the joy of discovering a local gem, but we ended up with far more disasters than gems. The new franchise chains like Quality Courts, as it was then called, were a big improvement. We were happy with a standard room with no family discussions in the parking lot, no peeping through windows, no hoping for something better a little farther down the road.
The trip was a three long days of driving. The first day had the excitement of starting out. The last day had the excitement of arriving. But that middle day was only the shear boredom of getting through the Carolinas and Georgia. The only event was stopping at South of the Border (south of the border between the Carolinas) where Ben Bernanke worked as a teenager. It was mainly an outlandish kitsch-and-scatological-humor curio shop and restaurant then, not yet the large complex it became. (At Bernanke’s press conferences on the state of the national economy, I wondered if he had a pipe with a bowl shaped like a toilet tucked in his pocket, maybe even with a smiling, winking, cartoon alligator on it.)
On the morning of the third day, we celebrated as we crossed the border into Florida and saw our first palm tree, but Florida is a long state, and we still had a full day’s drive ahead. Even so, we could change into our shorts, and marvel at the orange groves, and laugh at the tourist traps’ huge billboards advertising man-eating alligators. From here on, it was all good.
(I also later drove to Florida with my own young family, but now to visit my retired parents. At some point, my children became adults with their own families, and my wife and I drove alone. We would go off onto the remains of Rt. 301 as a break from Interstate driving, and would still see the ghostly remains of motels where I had once stayed, now converted to tacky strip malls. Many of the places, motels, restaurants, and towns, were also familiar to my wife. I had not been there with my parents; we had been there together. The memories from my two families had merged into an inseparable blend, like a rich, sweet, glass of eggnog.)