SOUTHWEST FLORIDA:
Naturally SOPHISTICATED

BY KATHERINE SGROI

South West Florida Visitors Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Shell-strewn beaches and beautiful blue Gulf waters coexist with the arts, style and small city sophistication. Bordered by the cities of Bradenton and Sarasota to the north, and Fort Myers and Naples to the south, Southwest Florida has a distinctive tropical landscape and a dedication to its preservation, along with abundant diverse cultural amenities. In addition to beach and water sports vacation options, there are museums, art galleries, spectator sports, golf, tennis, superb shopping, nature preserves and historical sites to entice singles, couples and families to this scenic stretch of coastline. Sprinkled with small towns and barrier islands, and blessed with gorgeous white sand beaches, Southwest Florida has all the essentials required for an exciting and rewarding vacation.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Just a short ride from the picturesque streets of downtown Old Naples is the western edge of the largest subtropical wilderness—the Everglades. Showcasing the area is The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which contains nature trails, a butterfly garden as well as learning and visitor centers. The natural beauty of Southwest Florida is revealed through first-hand experiences and education about coastal environments, wildlife and nature conservation. This undisturbed natural mangrove estuary environment offers an enjoyable experience for all ages.

The Visitors Center will delight children and adults with hands-on experiences and live exhibits such as the tortoise exhibit, a 2,300-gallon aquarium filled with native fish, a nature store, picnic area and art gallery. Check the website for which day of the week the Touch Tank program is held when children can see and touch crabs, starfish or conch.

A boardwalk with a viewing platform and three nature trails along Henderson Creek enable visitors to view the indigenous plants and natural beauty of the coastal habitat. Daily programs can be viewed on the website calendar and may include kayak tours, nature photography workshops, birding expeditions and guided nature walks.

CULTURE AND HISTORY ESCAPES

The cultural landscape of Southwest Florida is well developed and sophisticated. The Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples presents an exciting variety of visual and performing arts in a state-of-the-art theater. Broadway shows, musical entertainers and the Miami City Ballet are a sampling of the exceptional options. The Phil, as known by locals, also houses the nationally recognized Naples Philharmonic Orchestra whose inspirational performances of classical, pops, chamber and opera are truly memorable.

The Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers provide a glimpse into the past of inventors Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. The estates are a tropical paradise with 20 acres of botanical gardens containing more than a thousand varieties of plants, flowers and trees set on the Caloosahatchee River. Visit their homes, museum and the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory.

A trip to Sarasota would not be complete without visiting the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art located at the Ringling winter estate—the Ca' d'Zan Mansion. The complex includes art galleries, a sculpture garden and a circus museum featuring the world's largest miniature circus that kids won't want to miss.

FAMILY ATTRACTIONS

Caressed by warm Gulf of Mexico waters, a string of barrier islands with beautiful beaches stretches along the coastline. These islands offer exciting experiences for the entire family—swimming, water sports, fishing, boating trips and relaxation. The No. 1 beach in the United States, according to Dr. Beach, is Siesta Beach on Siesta Key. This small island off the coast of Sarasota has bright white sand that is always cool due to the nearly pure quartz content.

Known for world-class shelling, the tropical islands of Sanibel and Captiva, located near Fort Myers, also offer bicycle riding, shopping, water sports, boating and fishing. On Sanibel, the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge provides enjoyment for the entire family. The refuge features reptiles, birds, mammals, bike and walking paths, and winding canoe trails.

More than 100 species of marine life, including dolphins, manatees, sharks and sea turtles, can be observed at the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. Learn about where they live and watch sharks feed in the shark tank.

OUTDOOR ADVENTURES

Panoramic views of tropical nature, skillfully-crafted fairways and expertly-designed resort and public golf courses bring golfers back time and time again to Southwest Florida. To find a course that energizes your game, check out Sarasota Golf Net and Florida Golf.

Spring in Southwest Florida attracts baseball fans to various venues along the coast to watch their favorite teams warm up for the season. The Florida Spring Training website contains all the information sports fans need to see the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays play.

A defining characteristic of Southwest Florida is its natural habitats, which are decidedly different from other areas of Florida. To preserve and celebrate these distinctive regions, several botanical gardens and conservation areas have evolved. The Naples Botanical Garden has grown into seven cultivated world-class gardens and natural habitats. Grasses, wildflowers and exotic plants from Florida and the Caribbean are only a sampling of the bounty exhibited.

SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP

Chic designer shops, charming small town centers, discount outlets and flea markets in Venice and Fort Myers are some of the shopping opportunities in Southwest Florida. Visit the delightful town of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island where casual shops, art galleries and nautical artifacts can be found.

Miromar Outlets in Estero has 140 top designer and brand-name stores set in a tropical outdoor mall. Covered walkways, discount prices and a good selection of restaurants complete the picture.

Shady palm-lined streets welcome you to the shopping district known as Fifth Avenue South in Naples. Sophisticated and unique boutique shops intermingle with world-class restaurants, art galleries and businesses to create an exciting shopping experience. Jewelry, home accessories, art and fashion take center stage at this premier shopping destination.

Just north of downtown Naples, the Waterside Shops glisten in the tropical sunshine. With bubbling fountains and the sounds of flowing water, this upscale shopping venue comprises top-end stores such as Saks, Louis Vuitton, Coach and Ralph Lauren as well as several restaurants.

St. Armands Circle is Sarasota's shopping and dining crown jewel. Strolling along the walkways, shoppers find one-of-a-kind boutique shops and inviting sidewalk cafés.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORTS

Sprinkled along the coast are resorts, hotels and inns to satisfy any criteria. Large luxury resorts, such as the Ritz-Carlton in Naples and Sarasota, offer full-service restaurants and spas while smaller boutique inns, such as the Inn at Pelican Bay, are set on a lake in north Naples.

Just off the Sarasota mainland is the Longboat Key Club and Resort. Near restaurants and shopping in St. Armands Circle, this beachfront resort contains a Kids Klub, pool, restaurant, on-site marina and golf. A stay here will relax and recharge anyone.

Nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and a natural mangrove estuary, the Naples Grande Beach Resort is a relaxed luxury property, which offers swimming, water sports, golf and a Golden Door Spa. The beach, three pools, a waterslide and the Naples Grande Kids Club provide sheer enjoyment for children while the Golden Door Spa rejuvenates and renews mind, body and spirit in a tranquil setting.

Old-world Florida has been preserved at The Gasparilla Inn & Club in the town of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island. Reminiscent of times gone by, charm and history surround you in this quaint town and inn. The resort offers a beach club, pool, restaurants, golf, tennis and croquet. Don't miss afternoon tea.

FESTIVALS AND EVENTS

Events throughout this region reflect the natural environment and a love of the arts. From seafood festivals (February in Everglades City) and swamp buggy races (January, March and October in Naples) to a profusion of festivals that celebrate art from juried artists, glass and metal sculpture, photography, jewelry, as well as local arts and crafts, diverse annual events are held in towns and cities up and down the coast. Sarasota's St. Armands Circle hosts the Annual Art Festival in January. In February and March, Sarasota welcomes visitors to its downtown Festival of the Arts and Art and Craft Festival.

In Naples, artists from all over the United States participate in the festivals. The Naples National Art Festival, held in February, showcases the talents of more than 250 artists in a competitive, juried event. Additionally, during most months of the year, Naples presents art and crafts at fairs on Fifth Avenue South and at Cambier Park.

A celebration of films and filmmaking takes place at film festivals in April in Sarasota and November in Naples. Film lovers can view independent films from around the world and meet filmmakers in an educational and creative setting.

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