HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Fine French wine and beer flowed freely among the revelers at the Montreal Inn along Hollywood's beach. So much fun was had in fact that by noon the next day — prime-time suntan hour — most guests were still in their rooms recuperating.
"There was a big party here last night," explained Hector Gonzalez, the hotel's manager.
Gonzalez didn't mind. The partying visitors were just a fraction of the estimated 750,000 Canadians who flock to Broward County's beaches during winter and keep the mom-and-pop hotels afloat year-round.
Reaping the benefits: many of the small southern Broward beach-side hotels and local stores that cater to the majority French-Canadian snowbirds who flee the harsh Northern winters.
"Without the Canadians, we would be bankrupt," said Butch Boilard, owner of the Delmar Hotel on Arthur Street — an establishment that prides itself in offering "TV en Francais."
Outside the Delmar, a No Vacancy sign is up, a familiar sight at many of the hotels along Hollywood's northern beach. Even with Canada facing its own economic downturn, local business owners say they've seen only a slight dip in spending from the Canadians.
Gonzalez, manager of the Montreal Inn, had to forgo free breakfast and free phone calls to make up for a 5 percent reduction in business compared with last year.
Those changes have gone unnoticed by the sun-soaking Canadians who have a long-standing tradition of returning to Hollywood from December to April.
"We get on the plane the day after New Year's Day," Gizsele Barbeau of Montreal said as she read a paperback novel under a beach umbrella. "We love this area. We can ride on our bikes, we walk back and forth on the beach, and we make new friends each year. The group of friends just keeps growing and growing."
It's not uncommon to walk along the beach Broadwalk and hear the sounds of French banter filling the air. Need directions to the beach? Just follow the trail of blue-and-white Quebec license plates that read "Je me souviens," "I remember" in English.
"It's like being home, but sunnier" Raymond Trembley of Montreal said as he and his wife, Louisette, worked on French crossword puzzles inside Room 318 of the Merritt Beach Resort.
The Trembleys' daily ritual includes driving to the local Publix, where Canadian products are sold and they can always pick up a copy of Le Journal de Montreal, a daily newspaper in Montreal.
While days are spent on the beach, nights are often spent doing the cha-cha and waltz at Hallandale Beach's Club Tropical — where Canadian Ballroom Dancing nights usually draw a crowd of more than 100.
"They're like a more mature spring break crowd, just looking for fun," said Rad Maejka, manager of Club Tropical, formerly known as Le Club Canadien.
The state's falling real estate prices are helping lure snowbirds who were once hesitant to make a long-term investment in a winter home, said Mike McKenzie, director of communications for the Canadian Snowbirds Association, an advocacy group.
"We're certainly not noticing any major slowdown of people coming down," McKenzie said. "These are all hard-core seasonal travelers. In most cases, the real estate market in Florida is making them look more seriously into the prospect of purchasing their own property."
Of the organization's 80,000 members, nearly 60,000 flock to Florida, McKenzie said. The group organizes the Snowbird Extravaganza, a two-day annual festival in Lakeland that features famous Canadian performers.