SOUTHWEST FLORIDA:
A NATURAL CHOICE

BY CHELLE KOSTER WALTON

South West Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

As the last of the state’s frontier to be settled and developed, Southwest Florida remains in solid touch with its natural side. In fact, much of it, particularly in the vast Everglades region, is still undeveloped and pristine, protected by federal and state parks and preserves.

Those who first discovered Southwest Florida appreciated the natural beauty of its white-sand beaches, gem-hued seas, forested land, lazy waterways and enviable climate. They treaded lightly and even fought actively to keep it that way.

The roll call of early visitors started with Juan Ponce de León and Hernando de Soto then continued with other familiar names, such as John Ringling, Thomas A. Edison, Charles Lindbergh and Rose Cleveland. To this day the famous and the nature-inured come to revel in what’s authentic, historic and intrinsically charming about the region—from its sophisticated cities to its colorful hometowns and persistent wild personality.

WHAT’S NEW

While the scenic tapestry of Southwest Florida remains as Old Florida as the day Ponce de León stepped foot in the Punta Gorda area, change keeps the region ever fresh and attractive to visitors, whether it’s their first time or 100th visit. In the Everglades, no two visits are the same; each changes with the season and extemporaneous wildlife encounters.

Nearby Naples mirrors the Everglades’ state of nature with eco attractions such as the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which celebrated 50 years in 2014, and the Naples Botanical Garden. A new Visitor Center with interactive exhibits and a café opened at the garden in October 2014, along with three new gardens—LaGrippe Orchid Garden, Charismatic Garden, and the lush, tropical and canopied Kathryn’s Garden.

In downtown Naples, the restaurant scene continues to gain gourmet traction with the opening of Mereday’s Fine Dining at the Naples Bay Resort; Alto, Live Jazz Kitchen at the Bayfront Naples complex; and Avenue5 at the Inn on Fifth. The star-quality additions boost Naples’ fine culinary reputation, which in 2014 placed it at No. 17 in the Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s prestigious readers’ choice awards for Top US Cities for Foodies.

In the Fort Myers area, new trails made news in 2014. Cape Coral completed interconnected bike routes to create a nearly 50-mile-long circular route around the perimeter of the city. On Sanibel Island, a new 2.4-mile nature trail/bike path connects two city parks and the still-developing Bailey Homestead historic site.

The island’s nature attractions also continue to make advancements with the introduction of a free interactive shelling map and shelling cruises at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, and a boardwalk with replicated scat panels and a sea turtle interpretive exhibit at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Across the bridge on Captiva Island, the Captiva History Gallery opened at the Captiva Memorial Library, showcased in an exhibit modeled after the islands’ pre-causeway ferryboats.

Fort Myers’ Hammond Stadium, home to the Minnesota Twins spring training and the Class A Florida State League Miracle, underwent a US$48.5-million renovation that included a 360-degree boardwalk around the stadium, expanded seating and a new academy. The Shell Factory & Nature Park in North Fort Myers has added a Fossil and Gem Museum and a 600-foot, 30-mph zip line.

Near Punta Gorda, you will find more zip lining opportunities at the new Florida Tracks & Trails, a 1,000-acre park with off-highway vehicle trails, Motocross tracks, paintball, RV campgrounds and an amphitheater.

Two attractions in Sarasota became more family-friendly in 2014. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art has created a kids’ play space with a three-story slide, basket swings and a splash area. The Children’s Rainforest Garden at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens introduced an elevated canopy walk, rope bridge, treehouse and waterfall.

Sarasota-Bradenton won the bid for three Modern Pentathlon world cups that started in June 2014 and again take place in March 2015 and June 2016. In March 2016, the area will welcome the US Olympic Team Trials.

ARTS AND CULTURE

Although most people immediately imagine the splendid beaches of Southwest Florida, the region has a strong tradition of arts and history told in its architecture, galleries, museums and theaters.

In Naples, art galleries line the downtown streets, where you will also find free exhibits at the von Liebig Art Center and lively performances at the Sugden Community Theatre. Artis–Naples (formerly Naples Philharmonic) brings still more performance arts and is home to the Miami City Ballet and the world-class Baker Museum. The city’s Naples Botanical Garden showcases subtropical vegetation in settings that reflect the culture of Brazil, the Caribbean, Asia, Florida and beyond.

On a more somber note, the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida presents collections and stories related to the Holocaust and other genocides.

Year-round, Naples hosts art shows including downtown’s prestigious Naples National Art Festival in February, the Mercato Fine Arts Festival in March and the ArtsNaples World Festival in May.

The art scene in Fort Myers centers around its downtown historic River District, where Art Walk takes place the first Friday of the month and Music Walk the third Friday. The Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center and Arcade Theatre, home to the nationally acclaimed Florida Rep, both occupy historic buildings with distinctive period architecture. The Southwest Florida Museum of History dwells in a former-life train depot. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates is one of Southwest Florida’s finest historic gems. A handful of art galleries completes downtown’s artistic landscape.

Downtown Punta Gorda’s riverfront architecture recalls the boom years of the late 19th century with Victorian mansions, handsome government buildings and colorful vernacular homes. Browse the galleries of the Visual Arts Center (VAC) and stroll the gardens and historic structures of Punta Gorda History Park. VAC hosts a popular Peace River National Art Festival in March and other art shows and special exhibits throughout the year.

Sarasota arguably holds the loftiest reputation for the arts in these parts, stemming from the influence of the Ringling family, whose circus wintered here. It exerted an Italianate influence on local architecture and the arts, culminating in the Ca’ d’Zan mansion on the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art grounds. Seeded with John Ringling’s own collection of Rubens and baroque art, the museum’s collection covers 500 years of European art and specializes in late-medieval and Renaissance Italian works. The grounds also hold its famed circus museums and beautiful bayfront gardens.

The complex’s Asolo Performing Arts Center contributes to Sarasota’s rich theatrical tradition, which ranges from new plays at the Florida Studio Theatre to Broadway shows at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to resemble a scallop shell. For a driving tour of other architectural gems, including examples of the vaunted Sarasota School of Architecture, pick up a copy of the Tour Sarasota Architecture guide at visitors’ centers.

Galleries fill the Sarasota–Bradenton area, which boasts two artists’ colonies—Towles Court near downtown Sarasota and Village of the Arts in Bradenton. The colonies and downtown Sarasota schedule monthly gallery walks where you can meet the artists.

Bradenton’s history dates back to Hernando de Soto, and a national historic site and annual De Soto Heritage Festival in April recall his first landfall in these parts. Another historic sight, the Gamble Mansion, pays tribute to the city’s sugar plantation era.

BEACHES

Known for its trophy beaches, Southwest Florida has been winning awards for years. In 2014, Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, rated two of Naples’ beaches—Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park and Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park—at No. 2 and 10 respectively in his annual best US beaches ranking. In 2014’s TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards for Best Beaches, two Sarasota favorites placed in the top 25—Siesta Key Public Beach at No. 3 and Lido Beach, No. 22.

What do travelers, and particularly families, find so endearing about local beaches? Their soft, white sand, gently sloping sea bottom and tot-friendly waves are some of the reasons. Certain beach destinations, furthermore, have reputations for distinctive characteristics, such as the seashell overload on Sanibel Island and sharks’ teeth findings in Venice. The best shelling beaches on Sanibel include Bowman’s Beach and offshore Cayo Costa, which is accessible only by boat. A number of charters will take you there to pick up shells. In Venice, head to the fishing pier at Brohard Beach to sift for sharks’ teeth in the sand.

Other superlative beach qualities: Captiva Island and Lovers Key State Park are often listed in the most romantic category; Siesta Key’s sand is famously soft and blindingly white so don’t forget to pack the shades.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The downtown Naples scene is a gourmet banquet that deserves serious noshing. Go casual and waterfront at Riverwalk, or dress up for fine dining at Mediterranean-vibe Sea Salt. Come dark, things heat up along Fifth Avenue South, particularly on weekends and during Evening on Fifth, the second Thursday of each month October through May.

The Mercato center in North Naples is also known for its vast variety of restaurants, lively clubs and shops. Try MASA for fine Mexican or the new Rusty Bucket to watch the game and eat all-American favorites. Or do dinner and movie all-in-one with deluxe seating at Silverspot Cinema.

Ford’s Garage, a local chain that takes its cues from Henry Ford’s local historic home, fixes appetites throughout the Fort Myers area. Now with three locations including downtown, it touts its gourmet burgers and craft beers. Other don’t-miss restaurants in and around Fort Myers include Yabo for Italian-based contemporary cuisine, CRaVE for updated comfort food, and Fancy’s for inspired southern cuisine. Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille serves tropical cuisine based on the popular eponymous murder-mystery novels by bestselling local author Randy Wayne White on Sanibel and Captiva islands and Fort Myers Beach.

Downtown Punta Gorda’s reputation for modern cuisine grows stronger with such recent additions as Trabue and Opus Restaurant and longtime favorites The Perfect Caper and Dean’s South of the Border Cantina. For dinner with a view, head out to the islands to experience South Beach Bar & Grille on Gasparilla Island and Gulf View Grille on Englewood Beach.

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 such as Yoder’s in the community of Pinecraft to rustic fish houses, New Pass Grill & Bait Shop and Casey Key Fish House. Upscale originals include Derek’s Rustic, Coastal Cuisine, Café L’Europe, Euphemia Haye and Libby’s Café, to name a few.

Nightlife runs the gamut from funky clubs with live music on Siesta Key and Bradenton Beach to a well-developed calendar of symphony, jazz and other highbrow entertainment in Sarasota and Venice.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Some of the best of what Southwest Florida has to offer families lies in the great outdoors. In Everglades City, you can find any number of tours and charters to motor you into the wilderness to spot alligators, raccoons, bald eagles and big pink birds with long, round-tipped bills called roseate spoonbills. Everglades National Park conducts ranger- and naturalist-narrated boat and paddling tours throughout the year. Private charters take you back-bay fishing or zip you along the so-called “River of Grass” on noisy, thrilling airboats. At Wooten’s Everglades Airboat Tours, you can tour by airboat or big-tired swamp buggy and visit hundreds of ’gators and other animals in captivity.

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. The Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center introduces kids to local ecology with hands-on exhibits and outdoor trails. Other nature interactive experiences await you at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center, Naples Zoo and the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples (also known as C’mon).

Naples is also known for its superlative golfing opportunities; USA TODAY readers voted it No. 5 among the top 10 US golfing destinations. Besides playing lush, natural golf courses, families can get their game on at various golf schools in the area.

In Fort Myers, the name of the game is baseball. Two major league teams—the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox—play their spring league games in March and early April at Hammond Stadium and JetBlue Park, respectively. In summer, the Fort Myers Miracle plays and hosts youth baseball camps.

At local parks, kids can do everything from free-falling down a waterslide (Sun Splash Family Waterpark in Cape Coral), extreme biking (Strausser BMX Sports Complex in Cape Coral), riding a mini-railroad train (Lakes Regional Park in Fort Myers), fishing from a pier (Lynn Hall Memorial Park in Fort Myers Beach), and looking for manatees in the wild (Manatee Park in Fort Myers).

Must-see wild places to commune with wildlife include J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, which offers free guided tours and programs, and Six Mile Cypress Preserve in Fort Myers, which also conducts guided tours of its boardwalk. To see animals in captivity, visit the Shell Factory & Nature Park in North Fort Myers, where kids can also play in its fun park. C.R.O.W. (Care and Rehabilitation of Wildlife) on Sanibel Island provides families state-of-the-art, interactive experiences that teach about wildlife and the work the clinic does to help injured and orphaned animals.

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. The Circus Arts Conservatory offers the entire family a chance to watch circus artists perform amazing feats in this fabulous and affordable production. Don’t miss Mote Marine Laboratory on Lido Key, where you can meet Hugh and Buffett, the resident manatees, and see tanks full of sharks, striped burr fish, loggerhead sea turtles and a host of other marine creatures. Visit another locally famous manatee, 66-year-old Snooty, at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton.

Don’t miss the new Children’s Rainforest Garden at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, where kids can hike among the treetops. Sarasota Jungle Gardens gets them up close to giant tortoises, snakes and lots of birds. They can even hand-feed pink flamingoes.

Bradenton’s Cortez community retains its feel of an Old Florida fishing village with a working waterfront and maritime museum. A number of charter boats depart from the docks to take you deep sea or back-bay fishing. Plan on dining at the Star Fish Company before or after your excursion.

ROAD TRIPS

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 through Fort Myers Beach, Lovers Key and Bonita Beach and another from Anna Maria Island through Lido Key are particularly representative 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.

To delve into Southwest Florida’s rural, small-town character, plan day trips to Goodland on Marco Island, Pine Island near Fort Myers, Babcock Ranch outside Punta Gorda, Boca Grande near Port Charlotte, and Palmetto across the river from Bradenton. To its east, Sarasota and Punta Gorda lay claim to a number of small organic and other farms you can visit.

SHOPPING

If you’re looking for unique buys, there’s plenty of that in Southwest Florida.

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.

The Bell Tower Shops, an open-air lifestyle center in Fort Myers, features more than 35 retailers, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bed Bath & Beyond, Chico’s, Banana Republic, The Fresh Market and more, as well as 11 restaurants and a 20-screen cinema. It’s also home to Crowne Plaza Hotel & Suites and Homewood Suites, and there’s a free shuttle service on-site for your added convenience.

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.

In Sarasota, the Mall at University Town Center opened in fall 2014 featuring Saks Fifth Avenue, Dillard’s and Macy’s as anchors for its name-brand shops and such recognizable restaurants as Seasons 52, the Cheesecake Factory and The Capital Grille.

For genuine local souvenirs, head to the artist villages—Matlacha on Pine Island near Fort Myers, Towles Court in Sarasota, and Village of the Arts in Bradenton. Watch for news of art walk events in downtown Sarasota and Fort Myers.

Bargain-seekers head to the factory outlet malls: Naples Outlet Center, Miromar Outlets in Estero, Tanger Outlets in Fort Myers and Ellenton Premium Outlets near Bradenton. Or check out these flea markets: Flamingo Island Flea Market in Bonita Springs, Fleamasters Fleamarket in Fort Myers, Sun Flea Market in Port Charlotte, the Dome Flea & Farmers’ Market in Venice and Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton.

SPAS

Contrary to many resorts these days, fine resorts in Southwest Florida devote special attention to their spas, rather than adding them on as an afterthought.

In the Naples area, you will find stand-alone spas at the Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa; the Ritz-Carlton Naples; the Waldorf-Astoria Naples; and Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. The Ritz spa contains its own healthy café, =H2O+, which offers cooking classes January through April.

The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs boasts an indoor water shiatsu pool. The Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa in Fort Myers offers massage with a unique BETAR (Bio Energetic Transduction Aided Resonance) bed musical and sound relaxation system.

The Sarasota area’s most impressive resort spas include those at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota and The Resort at Longboat Key Club.

UNIQUE PLACES TO STAY

The most desired rooms in Southwest Florida look out onto the beach and Gulf of Mexico, however there are plenty of other one-of-a-kind hotels, resorts and bed-and-breakfast inns that create an experience all their own.

Naples Bay Resort, for instance, cusps a marina for a different brand of water view and a lifestyle focused on boating and fishing, but also has its own water park features. Inn on Fifth, on the other hand, sits squarely in the middle of downtown Naples action on Fifth Avenue South. Many of its hotel rooms and club level suites overlook the legendary street. Marco Island Lakeside Inn presents an affordable alternative to the island’s luxe Gulf resorts with a sand beach on a lake instead. Historic Everglades Rod & Gun Club in Everglades City fronts a river waterway where accommodation consists of modest cottages.

For those who insist on beach accommodation, circa 1946 Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club welcomes families with a free kids’ program. Edgewater Beach Resort has three Gulf-front pools and is also family-friendly.

Cottages provide some of the accommodation at one of the Fort Myers area’s more unusual resorts, Cabbage Key Inn. Occupying its own small island, the cottages and lodge truly take you away from it all.

At the other end of the size scale, South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island is a gated property that features accommodation ranging from rooms to homes, a nine-hole golf course and miles of beach. Fishing types will love Jensen’s Twin Palm Cottages & Marina on Captiva. Sanibel Island offers a nice selection of barefoot-style beach cottage resorts, such as Gulf Breeze Cottages, Castaways Beach & Bay Cottages and Mitchell’s SandCastles. Also on Sanibel Island is the ’Tween Waters Inn Island Resort.

Gasparilla Inn & Club in Boca Grande is one of the oldest surviving properties in Southwest Florida. Built in 1913 for wealthy industrialists who came to winter and fish for tarpon, this grande dame is a full-service property with golf facilities, a beach club and fine restaurants.

In the Sarasota area, lodging ranges from the no-frills beachfront rooms at Lido Beach Resort and A Beach Retreat in Nokomis to the grandeur of the Ritz-Carlton, which shuttles you to the beach. The Resort at Longboat Key Club is an expansive golf and beach property. For something out of the ordinary, venture downtown for congenial hospitality and a gourmet breakfast at the Cypress B&B.

For vacation home or condo rentals, contact Royal Shell Vacations, which manages more rental properties in Southwest Florida than any other company and has been voted the “Best Vacation Rental” company for the past 10 years.

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. Birding is best fall through spring and at low tides. Ride your bike to the beaches of Sanibel Island to avoid fees.

Sarasota beaches offer free parking.

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.

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