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Messi Mania and a New High-speed Train Ignite a Tourism Boom for Fort Lauderdale

messi-shirt-inter-miami-fort-lauderdale-fireworks cropped

Fans at DRV PNK Stadium celebrate a goal by Inter Miami CF, which has seen brisk sales of Lionel Messi jerseys since the star’s arrival. Despite the team’s names, its home games are played in Fort Lauderdale, a city 30 miles north of Miami. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Vacay.ca occasionally publishes content on destinations outside of Canada that our editors believe will be of keen interest to our audience. This article focuses on new tourism infrastructure and cultural happenings in Florida — the leading foreign destination for Canadians.

Fort Lauderdale has been on a winning streak for decades and its run of success has recently been refreshed. Soccer superstar Lionel Messi has opted to make the city his home base while scoring for Inter Miami CF, the MLS team that plays at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. He made news earlier in September with the $10.75-million house purchase and the enrolment of his kids in a private school, where he routinely picks them up after class.

Messi’s arrival draws crowds from everywhere, especially Miami, which is 30 miles away and can be frustratingly time consuming to travel between by car because of highway traffic. The launch of the Brightline high-speed train in 2018 addressed that issue and its newest expansion to Orlando opens up more accessibility. An instant hit, the train company’s monthly commuter passes sold so rapidly their sales were capped in order to accommodate less frequent travellers, including tourists to Florida.

fort-lauderdale instracoastal canal view

The Intracoastal Waterway is the heartbeat of Fort Lauderdale with powerhouse residential and economic projects. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

On game days, many Miami residents — including a number of the city’s Argentinian contingent — take the train to Fort Lauderdale, which has a population of approximately 185,000 and a reputation for gaudy amounts of wealth. Even more soccer fans from around the world are expected to make a point of visiting the city in order to catch the 2022 World Cup hero in action. The train takes about 40 minutes from Miami and less than three hours from Orlando — faster than driving to Fort Lauderdale.

“Having Messi in our own backyard is a massive win for the team and Greater Fort Lauderdale,” says Stacy Ritter, the president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale. “With DRV PNK Stadium serving as team headquarters, main practice field, and an academy for mentoring future soccer stars, area businesses and hotels are excited to welcome a new wave of international and domestic guests.”

lauderdale view from W Hotel

The Fort Lauderdale western skyline and the Intracoastal Waterway is seen from the heights of the city’s W Hotel. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Those guests will no doubt include Canadians. Snowbirds, mostly from Quebec and Ontario, have been arriving to South Florida for generations, basing their stays in cities like Fort Lauderdale and nearby Hollywood. They root for the sunshine every day and take advantage of the range of activities in the area. Public transit options include Brightline and the water taxis that move passengers through up to 10 stops, which include Hollywood and notable landmark attractions.

The city’s Pier Sixty-Six Hotel is slated to open in 2024 and a new convention centre is under construction on the Intracoastal Waterway, which zigzags through the city. Formed by a flood centuries ago, the canal is now home to some of the priciest homes in the United States and their concomitant yachts. They make Fort Lauderdale a modern-day Ephesus, a billionaires’ row of ostentatiousness that is difficult to admire given the problems of the world and the fact all that money could inarguably go to much more useful purposes than status symbols for a single family. Still, we gawk. Water taxi tours of the waterway cost $35 per adult (or $20 for a shorter evening trip that begins after 5 p.m.) and provide you a history of the city along with that Beverly Hills-esque pointing out of certain mansions and the headline names who own them.

fort lauderdale yacht on intracoastal canal

The Intracoastal Waterway has numerous curves and angles, a feature that makes it difficult for yachts to navigate. So they are towed by tugboats when they depart Fort Lauderdale. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Messi offers a dichotomy to the plutocrats. The public can marvel at what he does while sneering at the hedge-fund elite and fossil-fuel moguls who occupy some of the lots along the Fort Lauderdale waters. Soccer’s G.O.A.T. is a one-man tourism bonanza, accounting for sold-out games and hundreds of thousands of jersey sales, including pink ones adorned with his No. 10 (DRV PNK Stadium is owned by AutoNation, and named for that company’s philanthropic organization dedicated to beating breast cancer, though the revenues from the pink jerseys do not go directly to that charity).

In Messi’s home of Argentina fans will gather at stadiums like La Bombonera in Buenos Aires to sing and chant in boisterous displays of community and passion. At DRV PNK that atmosphere has been replicated on a smaller — and more regulated — way in the north-end stands, where fans stream large pink ribbons from the top row to the bottom and sing favourite anthems from kickoff to final whistle. It’s euphoric, even if Messi is sidelined because of a lingering late-season muscle injury. Though he’s 36 years old, the icon can still dominate MLS opponents when he does play and that makes seeing him live more vital for fans in the western hemisphere who had to witness his mercurial European career on televisions and from afar.

The benefits of watching him play in Fort Lauderdale is you have the beach, the evolving culinary scene, and the winning attitude of a city built by entrepreneurs turned magnates.


lauderdale beach view from W wow suite

The 2,607-square-foot Extreme WOW (or EWOW) Suite at the W Hotel Fort Lauderdale made news when Lady Gaga booked it for a stay. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Where to Stay: W Fort Lauderdale is a luxury hotel on the city’s famed Ocean Drive. Part of the Marriott collection, the property has its own section of Lauderdale Beach reserved for its guests, whose resort fees cover the cost of lounge chairs, umbrellas, and towels while soaking up the sun or slipping into the Atlantic’s decadently warm waters. Inside, the W’s guest-only fifth-floor pool deck is pleasant and was not at all crowded or noisy during my stay. You can take advantage of complimentary activities like yoga on the beach or beach cycling with the hotel’s cruiser bikes. Room Rates: A weekend night in November starts at $413 USD, according to a recent search on the hotel’s booking engine.

Where to Dine: The House on the River opened in May 2023 and is deserving of just about any of the culinary accolades, stars, likes, and laurels that are bestowed on restaurants. The ingredients are sourced locally and menu items are all prepared in-house. I tasted Florida branzino for the first time and it was like the Mediterranean variety except with fleshier meat and a slightly more salty flavour. Another reason to visit: The charming 19th-century property the restaurant resides in is a star on its own. Separated into multiple stately rooms, it makes you feel as if you’ve entered the American Deep South. Oh, and it’s also reputedly haunted!


The House on the River, a recently opened restaurant in a 19th-century property, features multiple dining rooms, each with distinct decor. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Foodies will enjoy Sistrunk Marketplace, a large food hall with 10 different locally owned restaurants, including Mexican, Korean, and Italian choices, and a nationally recognized brewery, Dream State. It’s the kind of communal space that’s popping up in cities around the world. For travellers, you can sample the fare from a number of high-quality eateries in one location, giving you a taste for what’s current in the destination.

Getting There: Fort Lauderdale has its own international airport with Canadians departing from Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Calgary able to arrive on direct flights starting in October.

As of September 22, 2023, the Brightline train travels round-trip from Miami to Orlando up to 16 times each day. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Travellers from Miami can take the Brightline train north for a one-way price of as little as $29. Those venturing south from Orlando pay $79 for a one-way fare in the “Smart” category. “Premium” prices are $149. That fare includes: Premium lounge access; snacks and up to two alcoholic beverages in the lounge and two more on board the train; and free WiFi. For those travelling to or from Miami, a complimentary Uber ride is available to any address within five miles of that city’s Brightline station.

Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi’s travel costs were supported by Visit Florida and Visit Lauderdale. Neither organization provided tickets or transportation to the Inter Miami soccer experience. No company or organization reviewed the article before it was published.

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.