SOUTHWEST FLORIDA:
Delightfully Different

BY CHELLE KOSTER WALTON

South West Florida Travel Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Defined by smaller communities, a quiet sophistication and a sprawl of preserved wilderness, Florida's Southwest Region is the very antithesis of the state's bustling cities and theme park venues. Anchored by the main urban centers of Bradenton, Sarasota, Fort Myers and Naples, this coastal area attracts vacationers looking for its warm temperatures, renowned beaches and diverse culture and landscape.

A long chain of offshore islands, running from Anna Maria Island off Bradenton to Marco Island south of Naples, is home to some of the region's top beaches. Siesta Key in Sarasota, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel and Captiva islands are among the major beach destinations while lesser-known spots such as Nokomis Beach, Venice, Port Charlotte, Gasparilla Island, Punta Gorda, Bonita Springs and Vanderbilt Beach also boast unspoiled white sand shorelines.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

The pride of Sarasota is the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, a legacy left by John Ringling, circus magnate famous for his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (ringling.org). Cà d'Zan, Ringling's dream winter home on Sarasota Bay, is the centerpiece of a cultural complex that includes the art museum, two circus museums and lovely gardens. The home is modeled after magnificent mansions in Venice and contains priceless collections of art and furniture revealing the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the rich and famous during the Gilded Age.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art houses Old Masters paintings by world-renowned artists such as Rubens and van Dyck as well as a vast collection of European, American and Asian artworks. Adjacent to the art museum are the two circus museums that celebrate the history of the American circus with memorabilia and artifacts such as glamorous costumes, barn-size posters, performer highlights, vintage equipment and a circus in miniature.

WHAT'S NEW

Opening in spring 2011, the Golisano Children's Museum of Naples will be a facility that feeds the natural curiosity of children with hands-on, interactive exhibits (cmon.org).

Dolphin Transportation Specialists Inc. have created the Historic Naples Trolley Tour that takes place aboard a classic old-style trolley (dolphinnaples.com). Narrated tours paint a vivid picture of Naples then and now.

The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife on Sanibel Island has opened a state-of-the-art, interactive education center (crowclinic.org). The facility provides medical care for more than 4,000 sick and injured animals every year. It also features hands-on exhibits designed to immerse visitors in the world of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation.

FUN FOR FAMILIES

The Southwest Region offers a wealth of options for family fun. The Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs has lush botanical gardens, rare Florida panthers, exotic birds and a 1,000-lb alligator said to be the largest in the world (gulfcoastattractions.com/nature/wonder.cfm).

The whole family can enjoy the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens where there are two attractions in one: a zoo featuring exotic animals and reptiles and a tropical garden founded in 1919 (napleszoo.com).

G.WIZ—The Science Museum in Sarasota (gwiz.org) and the Fort Myers Imaginarium Hands-On Museum and Aquarium (imaginariumfortmyers.com) both offer an exciting blend of mind-stimulating activities and exhibits. A highlight of the Imaginarium aquarium is a touch-tank that lets kids touch a variety of sea creatures.

Sanibel Island is the place to go for shell gathering. Pick them up directly off Sanibel beaches or visit the island's Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, one of the world's largest storehouses of shells and mollusks (shellmuseum.org).

FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORTS

From two Ritz-Carlton properties in Naples and one in Sarasota (ritz-carlton.com) to scores of other hotels, destination resorts and cottages on the beach, families are welcomed by all. Occupying one-third of Captiva Island, South Seas Island Resort is one of the largest with more than two miles of beach, 465 guest rooms, 19 swimming pools, a mini water park, nine holes of golf, a nature center, a sailing school, and boating and fishing excursions (southseas.com).

THE NATURE OF THINGS

The Florida Everglades National Park is the most visited ecotourism destination in the state and a day trip there is a vacation highlight for adults and children alike. The park's Gulf Coast Visitor Center is located at the lower end of the region in Everglades City. This is a launch point for hiking, birding, kayaking, narrated boat tours and canoe trips into this wondrous wetlands system that is home to wildlife such as the American alligator and the endangered Florida panther (nps.gov/ever).

Other nature and wildlife venues include the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve at Naples (rookerybay.org), Sanibel Island's J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/dingdarling) and Sarasota's Myakka River State Park (floridastateparks.org/myakkariver).

Manatees can be viewed at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium (mote.org) and Bradenton's South Florida Museum & Parker Manatee Aquarium (southfloridamuseum.org).

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Tours of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates at Fort Myers pay homage to two of America's most influential inventors, Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford, who lived side-by-side for many winters (efwefla.org). In addition to his home, Edison's estate also includes his laboratory containing various inventions, plus a guest house where the inventor often hosted US presidents, wealthy industrialists and visionaries.

Another legacy left by John Ringling is the Sarasota Opera House (sarasotaopera.org). This 1926 Mediterranean Revival-style building is on the National Register of Historic Places (nps.gov/nr) and its year-round productions feature some of the greatest operas ever written.

Dedicated to displaying world-class art, sculpture and other art forms, the Naples Museum of Art has 15 galleries including glass masterpieces by world-renowned American glass artist, Dale Chihuly (thephil.org).

SPORTS SCENE

Major league baseball's Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays fill stadiums in Fort Myers and Port Charlotte during spring-training season (floridaspringtraining.com).

Sport fishing has attracted visitors to Florida's Southwest Region for decades and today's recreational anglers continue to find it a fisherman's paradise. Deep-sea and inland fishing trips are widely available with companies such as Six Chuter Charters whose guides are experts at making sure vacationers go home with legitimate fish stories (sixchutercharters.com). There are even family-friendly charters offered by outfitters such as Everglades Family Fishing (evergladesfamilyfishing.com).

Golf aficionados can choose from well over 100 courses, ranging from trophy layouts designed by some of the big names in course architecture to pleasant municipal tracks. There are plenty of stay/play packages as well as packages that combine golf and spa.

ECO ADVENTURE

The region has numerous ecotourism options, some self-directed and others led by companies, such as Sarasota Bay Explorers (sarasotabayexplorers.com) who work in conjunction with Mote Marine Laboratory to provide interactive marine science trips. These forays involve observing a variety of sea creatures including dolphins, sea horses, pufferfish and stone crabs while learning about the ecology of the marine environment. Adventures in Paradise near Sanibel Island offers similar marine science tours together with canoe and kayak ecotours (adventureinparadiseinc.com). Everglades National Park also conducts ecotours by boat, kayak and on foot (nps.gov/ever).

SPA ESCAPES

Throw a dart at a map of the Southwest Region and it's guaranteed to land on or near a spa. The variety of treatments is endless and includes everything from hot stone massages to Balinese- and Thai-themed treatments. There are sports massages for golfers, revitalizing and wellness therapies and, of course, all the body-beautiful treatments such as manicures, pedicures and facials.

CALLING ALL SHOPAHOLICS

The region's engaging mix of shopping options ranges from high-end stores to flea markets and everything in between. Famous for its posh shops, Sarasota's ultimate shopping venue is St. Armands Circle (starmandscircleassoc.com). Downtown Naples has two historic shopping streets, Fifth Avenue South (fifthavenuesouth.com) and Third Street South (thirdstreetsouth.com). Here mostly one-of-a-kind shops sell a repertoire of goods from European antiques to fine art, designer fashions and custom jewelry. Naples Outlet Center has more than 40 discount shops selling name-brand goods (premiumoutlets.com) and, at the Naples waterfront, Tin City is a funky shopping venue housed in an old oyster-processing plant (tin-city.com).

Shopping in an artist-colony environment is found at Bradenton's Village of the Arts (villageofthearts.com) and Sarasota's Towles Court Arts District (towlescourt.com). Fleamasters, a popular Fort Myers flea market billed as "Southwest Florida's No. 1 Tourist Stop," has more than 900 vendors (fleamall.com).

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