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It’s Florida’s hidden gem

IT’S baffling really. Fort Lauderdale is a tourist destination that everyone seems to be in a rush to leave. The world’s number one cruise port, it’s the home of dazzling ships such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and ocean-going palaces from Celebrity or the Carnival lines.

Millions of passengers head from here around the Caribbean, which is fair enough, but they're also missing out on a marvellous resort in its own right.

Big brother Miami down the road is more familiar to Irish visitors. But it's not a place for families. Sure it's got throbbing nightlife on South Beach, a skyline straight out of CSI and amazing mansions, but it's expensive, a bit too fast-paced and (whisper it quietly) the beaches are much, much better in Fort Lauderdale.

The quieter neighbour has all the attractions of Florida's metropolis -- a buzzing downtown filled with skyscrapers, an international airport, crystal clear seas, great food and energetic nightlife, but at a fraction of the cost of trendy, but expensive, Miami.

A straight three-hour drive from Orlando, it's worth staying a week, or longer, if you're combining it with another Florida destination or cruise trip.

We stayed at the glorious beach -- no, make that ON the beach -- in a local favourite, the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel. Our glass-lined room looked over the golden sands, and I couldn't tear myself away from the view; particularly as a women's volleyball team was playing just feet away from me.

After a multi-milion dollar makeover, the Sheraton is a great spot for a family holiday. And it does what it says on the tin. Its address is Seabreeze Boulevard, and it's a place where you could roll into the ocean if you wished.

Its crowning glory is the infinity pool, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, and you can swim up from the pool and take in the stunning views at the all-new Baja Beach Bar and Grill.

With R'n'B playing in the background and private cabanas available around the pool, you'll feel like you've stepped into a fashion shoot or glossy pop video.

The beach was a hit with my son, who could have spent the entire holiday building castles in the pure white sand or dodging waves in the Atlantic, which, unlike at home, was hot tub warm.

You might do a double take in the hotel's main bar, the Wreck, with one glass wall allowing you to look in on the swimmers in the hotel's upstairs pool.

Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro drank here, shooting a scene for the gangster comedy Analyse This.

Thumbs-up for the hotel WiFi, and they didn't skimp on the computer area either -- it's got a host of massive touchscreen TVs and a handy coffee and snack bar right beside it.

The hotel is right beside the promenade, where you'll find plenty of nightlife options aimed at all ages. Think of the Costas, without the tack, and you're on the money. You could start the night with an al fresco drink just across from the hotel in the Bahia Cabana bar's swing chairs on the prom; up a few doors is Bubba Gumpa Shrimp Company. Inspired by the movie Forrest Gump, it's a nationwide chain with excellent seafood and great ribs and kids' menus.

And if you just want a selection of beers and to hang out over a game of pool, there's the likes of Bierbrunnen, half open air and totally divey cool.

The strip also has an inlet that's the start-off point for a local favourite, the Jungle Queen river boat, which has sightseeing trips around the neighbourhood waterways by day. By night there's a barbecue to its own tropical isle playground, and dinner and cruise cost $39.95 for adults and $21.75 for children. See www.junglequeen.com

Dubbed the Venice of America, for once the tourist people aren't joking. Miami's got celebs in waterside mansions; Fort Lauderdale's prime spots are home to people you've probably never heard of (the main man behind Blockbuster videos, for instance) but have pots of money.

Don't have your own power boat? Check out the local water taxi service (www.watertaxi.com), linking the Sheraton and beachfront areas with the cruise port, downtown Fort Lauderdale and beyond. And there's no sucking up to the tycoons here. As you glide past mansions, each bigger than the last, you'll get the lowdown on the gossip behind those expensive curtains. Irreverent but great fun.

Make time to take a taxi ride to the water stop at Las Olas Boulevard, home of downtown's nightlife. It's safe by day and night and full of hopping bars and eateries, where the beautiful people pull up in speedboats and sports cars. Or water taxis.

We ate at the Cheesecake Factory (www.thecheesecakefactory.com), which was set in a beautiful building. Recommended for a night out. In less than a half-hour's drive you can get out of civilisation and eye to eye with the creatures lurking in the Everglades.

Just outside suburbia is Sawgrass Recreation Park, home of Everglades Tours (www.evergladestours.com). Within minutes you'll be on an airboat -- the one must-do Florida experience -- and checking out the alligators. On our visit one put up a nice show for us, flashing his not-too-friendly set of teeth as he skimmed the surface just feet away from our stationary boat. And the eerie vultures peering down looked like they fancied a bite out of us, too. "They're waiting for roadkill," the boat's captain informed us.

Kids will love to get up close with some less fearsome animals back on terra firma at the park -- including rabbits, a pot-bellied pig, an iguana and peacocks. Mum will probably need a bit of R&R afterwards, and luckily Sawgrass Mills is nearby. It's Florida's biggest mall and boasts all the major names at discount prices.

And the kids won't get bored either as it's home to Wannado City, America's first indoor role-playing theme park.

And that's the beauty of Fort Lauderdale. Think big city Miami meets the small-town resort of Key West meets the fun of Orlando and you've got this family-friendly destination in a nutshell.