SOUTHWEST FLORIDA:
WRAPPED IN NATURE

BY CHELLE KOSTER WALTON

South West Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Forest green landscapes tied with ribbons of blue waterways and white beaches, crowned with a near-constant bow of sunburst: Southwest Florida wraps its sophisticated historic cities, fishing towns and rural hamlets in pristine scenery that it has fought hard to preserve.

One of Florida’s final frontiers, the region owes its past to agriculture and commercial fishing, and both still figure prominently into its character profile—from tomato and fruit farms to shrimping fleets and recreational fishing.

Early settlements grew up along the waterways—Southwest Florida’s first source of transportation. Fort Myers, as a Seminole War outpost, was the first to take shape, followed by sugar-coated Bradenton, where cane plantations cropped up. Scotsmen settled Sarasota, bringing with them their love of golf. And out of the raw wilderness of the Florida Everglades, developers carved beachfront Naples as a resort for the rich and intrepid.

Names such as Ponce de León, Hernando De Soto, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John Ringling, Charles Lindbergh, Teddy Roosevelt, Greta Garbo and Zane Grey populated Southwest Florida bygones.

Celebrities continue to join sun-seekers who revel in the warm climate on award-winning beaches amidst a gumbo of people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

WHAT’S NEW

Nature attractions put a bit of Old Florida under lock and key, it’s true, yet they evolve and augment to remain ever fresh for first-time and returning visitors. Case in point: J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island improved its four-mile Wildlife Drive in 2013 and, in its free visitors education center, has added interactive manatee and crocodile exhibits, with plans for a sea turtle display to debut in 2014.

In Naples, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center reopened in spring 2013 to show off its re-mastered environmental vignettes and live creatures. Down the road, the Naples Botanical Garden has announced plans for its first-ever visitor center and orchid garden, slated for a fall 2014 opening.

For those who love outdoor adventure, there’s a new artificial reef in waters off Sanibel Island. The intact USS Mohawk, retired from a career battling German subs, has come to rest 90 feet under where it houses grouper, sea turtles and a docile whale shark.

Searching for high adrenalin? TreeUmph!—a zip line and aerial daring park in the treetops—opened in 2013 in Bradenton. Florida Tracks and Trails, another zip line with the added attraction of a water park and motocross trails, is expected to debut in Punta Gorda in 2014.

On the metro side of Bradenton, the new Riverwalk reinvigorates the downtown waterfront district with a splash park, a fishing dock, a skate park, picnic areas, a butterfly garden and an amphitheater.

On the accommodation front, Naples’ Inn on Fifth just added an all-suite luxury component to its popular locale in the midst of downtown’s hip shopping, dining and clubbing scene. In downtown Bradenton, the historic 1920-era Pink Palace Hotel underwent extensive renovations and reopened as a Hampton Inn and Suites property.

Downtown Fort Myers is perking up with the 2013 inauguration of an extended waterfront basin. The new Firestone restaurant completes, along with Ford’s Garage and The Edison, the trifecta of restaurants named for the town’s most famous residents.

Across the river in Cape Coral, Southwest Florida garnered its first Westin property. The Westin at Marina Village, which opened in December 2012, has already earned its four diamonds from AAA. On the other side of town, the distillery of Wicked Dolphin Artisanal Rum joins Sarasota’s Drum Circle Distilling in taking advantage of new state incentives to boost distillery tourism.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

The story of Southwest Florida begins with its native populations and the entrance of Spanish conquistadores. In Bradenton, De Soto National Memorial marks the spot where its namesake is believed to have landed. Calusa Heritage Trail on Pine Island, on the other hand, explores the lives of and traverses a shell mound built by one native tribe gone extinct because of European invasion.

Other sites mark unusual, one-of-a-kind local culture. Estero’s Koreshan State Historic Site preserves the culture of a scholarly religious sect that settled there. In Punta Gorda, the Blanchard House Museum informs about the importance of the town’s African-American early settlers, while Sanibel Island’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum explains the importance of shells locally, globally and historically.

Naples features many free art shows, including the Art in the Park arts and crafts show on the first Saturday of each month between November and April. Other art festivals in the downtown area include the prestigious Naples National Art Festival in February. Explore free art galleries at the von Liebig Art Center in downtown Naples and at the Marco Island Center for the Arts. Entrance is free at all Collier County museum locations, including the main Collier County Museum campus in Naples, the Naples Depot Museum, the Museum of the Everglades in Everglades City, the Marco Island Historical Museum and the Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch in Immokalee.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

To understand the social history of Southwest Florida, visit the homes of famous past residents, however the sites themselves tell so much more than the stories of the people who lived there.

Where else in the world do you find the homes of two history-making inventors next to each other? Thomas Edison first had his home built on the Caloosahatchee River as a health measure and to experiment with plants for making light-bulb filament and rubber tires. Eventually automaker Henry Ford and tire guy Harvey Firestone began wintering in Fort Myers as well, and Ford built a home next to the Edisons. Besides the two homes, visitors can tour Edison’s lab, extensive exotic gardens and a museum holding many of his 1,093 patented inventions.

John Ringling made his fortune off the Greatest Show on Earth. He spent it freely on building his Ca’ d’Zan Italianate palace on Sarasota Bay and collecting fine Baroque art in Europe. Today visitors can explore his opulent home, a museum that holds his art collection, two museums that pay homage to Sarasota’s circus tradition and acres of gardens.

To best understand the region’s natural history, explore it at its source—the Everglades. Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, along with smaller national wildlife refuges and state parks, interpret the massive mangrove, wetland and hardwood hammock habitat—home to hundreds of bird species, manatees, Florida panthers, bobcats, white-tailed deer, river otters and a wild menagerie of other creatures.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

Southwest Florida’s heart may race in its principle cities of Sarasota, Fort Myers and Naples, but you’ll find its quiet soul in small historic towns and fishing villages.

Go to the big three for entertainment: Sarasota is especially known for its theater and arts, Fort Myers for its historical attractions, and Naples for its dining and golf.

Day trips from Sarasota take you to Palmetto and Cortez, slices of Florida past. Tomato warehouses still line Manatee River banks in Palmetto, and an agricultural museum in Palmetto Historical Park underlines farming’s importance. Tomato fields, vineyards and pick-your-own fruit farms uphold the tradition.

Cortez claims one of Florida’s few remaining working waterfronts, which is a great place for a just-caught seafood lunch. A maritime museum and memorial to local fishermen who died in “the perfect storm,” of book and movie fame, make a visit to the clapboard neighborhood worthwhile.

Roughly equidistant between Sarasota and Fort Myers, Punta Gorda and Boca Grande bask in old-time charm. On Gasparilla Island, Boca Grande has a reputation for tarpon fishing, which drew wealthy industrialists to the circa-1913 Gasparilla Inn back in the day. The tarpon are still there, so is the gracious old inn and the railroad depot that once transported the Duponts, Vanderbilts and their ilk. Only today the depot holds boutiques and the Loose Caboose, a restaurant and ice cream shop, said to have been a favorite of Katharine Hepburn.

South of Naples, Goodland and Everglades also boast working commercial fishing waterfronts, known particularly for mullet and stone crab claws. Make the drive for fresh seafood in honky-tonk restaurants filled with colorful characters. A little museum in Everglades City spills the town’s sportsman history and the Rod & Gun Club remembers the era. Catch a boat and kayaking tour of Everglades National Park while in town.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The Bradenton-Sarasota area feeds you in the best ways. It claims more Zagat-rated restaurants than anywhere else in Florida and a preponderance of owner-operated eateries. They range from affordable Amish-Mennonite restaurants in the community of Pinecraft and rustic fish houses such as New Pass Grill & Bait Shop or Casey Key Fish House to upscale originals, Derek’s Culinary Casual and Libby’s Café.

In Fort Myers, new Southern is in style at historic Veranda and the new Fancy’s Southern Café. Across the river, Cape Coral is known for its Latino cuisine.

Of course, seafood stars on most local menus; try Fresh Catch Bistro on Fort Myers Beach, where fishermen off-load shrimp to yet another working waterfront. On Sanibel Island, locals favor Sweet Melissa’s Café for special occasions and Traders Café and Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille for more casual eats.

The downtown Naples scene is a foodie banquet that deserves serious noshing. Go casual and waterfront at Riverwalk, or dress up for fine dining at Mediterranean-vibe Sea Salt or the new rustic-Italian Tulia Osteria. Enjoy free live musical entertainment the second Thursday of each month along Fifth Avenue South during Evenings on Fifth, and every Thursday from January through May along Third Street South. The Mercato center in north Naples sponsors Saturday Nights Alive the second Saturday each month.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Baseball fever hits Southwest Florida big time in spring, when the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox travel to Fort Myers for spring training, while the Baltimore Orioles play in Sarasota, the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, and the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte. Local teams use the stadium facilities during the summer season.

As far as other spectator sports, Sarasota has its polo tournaments and Estero hosts the Florida Everblades hockey team. Professional rowing competitions take place in Sarasota’s new Nathan Benderson Aquatic Park.

The best sporting scene takes place in the great outdoors, where fishing, kayaking, sailing, windsurfing, scuba diving, biking and hiking opportunities abound. Marked paddling trails explore hundreds of miles of inland and back-bay waters in the Everglades and around the Fort Myers area and Boca Grande. Avid hikers hit the trails of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

In Naples, visit the historic Naples Pier, open 24 hours a day year-round with no admission fee for fishing, people-watching and spectacular sunsets. Take part in free ranger-led swamp walks, canoe and bicycle trips during the winter season at Big Cypress National Preserve near Everglades City. Be sure to call ahead for reservations.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

If you’re looking for unique buys, there’s plenty of that in Southwest Florida. For genuine local souvenirs, head to the artist villages—Towles Court in Sarasota, Village of the Arts in Bradenton, and Matlacha on Pine Island. Watch for news of art walk events in downtown Sarasota and Fort Myers.

In Naples, galleries fill the downtown Fifth Street South and Third Avenue South districts. At the latter, buy your designer labels at Marissa Collections. On a budget? Look for like-new castoffs in the area’s consignment shops.

Budget-shoppers will also want to head to the factory outlet malls: Ellenton Premium Outlets near Bradenton, Tanger Outlets in Fort Myers and Miromar Outlets in Estero. For something entirely different, hit the Shell Factory & Nature Park in North Fort Myers, where a nature park and family amusements enhance shopping for shells, jewelry and other Florida trinkets.

RECOMMENDED DRIVES

The views along the Sanibel Causeway and Captiva Drive star in many a commercial, but all of the coast’s islands promise sea glimpses and local color. The drive from Longboat Key through Lido Key and another through Fort Myers Beach, Lovers Key and Bonita Beach are especially typical of island life.

For glimpses of wildlife, try W.J. Janes Memorial Scenic Drive in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park or Loop Road in the Everglades.

FAMILY ACTIVITIES

Aboard the Dolphin Explorer out of Marco Island, families can assist with dolphin survey research projects and keep in touch with progress as part of the Dolphin Explorer’s Club.

To get close to manatees in the wild, visit Manatee Park in Fort Myers during the cool winter months.

The Sarasota Children’s Garden takes families on an old-fashioned magical fantasy of dress-up, maze discovery, and play gardens where pirate ships, dragons and an octopus lurk. Much more than a circus, the ever-popular Circus Sarasota offers youth-training through its Sailor Circus program over the summer months.

The perfect antidote to hot Florida days, two water parks help cool down: Sun Splash Family Waterpark in Cape Coral and Sun-N-Fun Lagoon in Naples, which just happens to share the same park as the C’mon! Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples.

INSIDER’S TIPS

Birders flock to Southwest Florida. Hot spots include the Everglades, Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Tigertail Beach and J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Best birding is fall through spring and at low tides.

The Jump On Express, or JOE, is a free shuttle that transports passengers between the popular dining and entertainment districts of Mercato in north Naples and the Fifth Avenue and Third Street districts in downtown Naples. The service runs from 5 PM to 1 AM Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Or, hop on board the Naples Bay Water Shuttle—a real deal at US$5 for the entire day.

If a couple of days in Key West are on your itinerary, park the car and climb aboard the Key West Express in Fort Myers Beach (year-round) or on Marco Island (seasonal) for a relaxing 3.5-hour ride (versus a four- to five-hour drive) to Florida’s southernmost point.

One of the best surprises in Naples is the affordable Lemon Tree Inn, just two blocks from Fifth Avenue shops, galleries and restaurants.

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