Hi flan-man, welcome to Cruise-Chat. You will need to be on board well before sailing time. In fact, you'll probably want to get there around 1 or before. That way you can board and get some lunch and a cocktail or two. The cabins are usuaully ready by 1:30. The hotels near the port will not be inexpensive. January is the heighth of the season for south Florida, so rooms near the port will be around $250. There are less expensive alternatives. If you'll check out the Port Hotels and Transfer section, you'll find lots of suggestions. Use your "Find" feature in the upper left hand corner and type in Fort Lauderdale, it will pull up all the posts made. A lot of people have suggested the Sleep Inn in Dania. We've stayed in the Renassaince and Hyatt Pier 66, for $189. We drive down, so have our own transportation, and can stay in hotels further away for less. We'll be staying at the Sea Club on A1A for $96, December 21 and 22. Hope this helps a little. Best wishes for a fantastic cruise, and once again, welcome aboard!
Ooops, for part II, take the water taxi up and down the intracoastal, make sure you go all the way to the end and have a couple of drinks or some food at Shooters and Charlie's Crab. You can get off at any of the Las Olas stops and do a little shopping. And, of course, the Fort Lauderdale beach! I think the taxi was $10/pp for all day. You can get on and off as often as you like.