SOUTHWEST FLORIDA:
NURTURED BY NATURE

BY CHELLE KOSTER WALTON

South West Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Back in the days of railroads and steamships, Southwest Florida developed a reputation as an adventurer’s mecca. Had there been social media back then, tweets would have been posted from such famous visitors and residents as @JohnRingling, @ThomasAEdison, @Henry Ford, @Charles Lindbergh, @HedyLamarr and @Rose Cleveland. They would have described #MonsterFish, #GorgeousGulf, #SugarSand, #SunnyDays and #BlissfulWinters.

Thanks to the patronage and devotion of the well-heeled and well-known, the region remains pristine to this day. Adventurers still arrive to explore the backwoods of the Everglades, the treasured Gulf of Mexico beaches, and the bounty of wildlife found on land and in water. Thriving cities and endearing small towns balance the wilderness and its rich recreational opportunities with just the right measure of culture, nightlife and dining that ranges from funky fish houses to top-rated global excellence.

WHAT’S NEW

While Southwest Florida’s natural and adventurous persona remains virtually unchanged since its days of early discovery, its towns, cities and attractions keep up with the times in a dynamic and robust fashion.

Interpretation of the wilds is the forte of Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples, which in 2014 debuted its Little Explorer Play Zone designed for children ages 18 months to five years old. In fall 2015, it also expanded its wildlife rehab hospital to include an educational complex featuring programs such as the Little Explorer Pre-K sessions, which offer opportunities twice a month for little ones to explore nature and discover wildlife through multi-sensory interactive activities, stories and animal-themed crafts. No registration is required. Admission is free for members and included in the price of admission for non-members.

On Sanibel Island, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has introduced technology into the outdoor experience with the first-of-its-kind free Discover Ding game and social media app. Outside of Fort Myers, Buckingham Trails Preserve opened in 2015 with more than seven miles of hiking and horseback-riding trails.

Changes and upgrades continue to preserve the region’s exclusive wilderness while enhancing visitor access and enjoyment. Two new attractions take adventurers into the woods to challenge themselves on trails, zip lines and treetop obstacle courses. At Bradenton’s TreeUmph!, an aerial obstacle course with zip lines elevates adventure to new heights. A Tracks & Trails course in Punta Gorda adds off-road vehicle tracks, paintball and live entertainment to the mix. Near downtown Punta Gorda, a new Outdoor Fitness Zone lets exercisers take their workout alfresco. Plus, more than 100 miles of newly marked scenic bike routes around the area further encourage outdoor fitness routines.

New and noteworthy restaurants in Naples—named by Condé Nast Traveler among the top 20 food cities in America—are also nightlife hot spots: new-wave steakhouse The Continental, eclectic 7th Avenue Social and Italian gastropub Bar Tulia.

The 500,000-square-foot HeadPinz bowling center opened in Fort Myers in 2015 with laser tag, an aerial rope course, a sports bar and 24 bowling lanes. In Bonita Springs, Off the Hook Comedy Club, a longtime Marco Island institution of mirth, relocated and expanded at the new Row by Capt. Brien & Crew restaurant.

In the realm of culture and entertainment, Sarasota saw the opening of its Center for Architecture in 2015, and in 2016, will welcome an Asian Wing of art at The Ringling complex and the new Sarasota Museum of Modern Art.

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, such as the Miami City Ballet, and is home to the world-class Baker Museum of Art. The city’s Naples Botanical Garden showcases subtropical vegetation in settings that reflect the culture of Brazil, the Caribbean, Asia, Florida and beyond.

Year-round, Naples hosts art shows including downtown’s prestigious Naples National Art Festival in February, Marco Island Festival of the Arts in March and the ArtsNaples World Festival in April/May.

Also in Naples, the Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida houses more than a thousand donated artifacts, documents and original photographs from the Holocaust and World War II. Visitors can opt for a docent-led tour and handheld self-guided audio tour.

The art scene in Fort Myers centers around its historic downtown 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, occupy separate 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, offering guided and self-guided tours. 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. The Ringlings 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 formal 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. The new Center for Architecture, which opened in 2015, further educates visitors about Sarasota’s unique architecture.

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; 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 2015, 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 9 respectively in his annual best US beaches ranking. In 2015’s TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards for Best Beaches, Sarasota’s Siesta Key Public Beach rated No. 1 and Fort Myers Beach came in at No. 18.

What do travelers, and particularly families, find so endearing about local beaches? Their soft, white sand, gently sloping sea bottom and tot-friendly waves win rave reviews. 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 around 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. Head to the fishing pier at Brohard Beach in Venice to sift through the sand for sharks’ teeth.

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.

For boatloads of fun, shops, dining and nightlife establishments, nothing beats Fort Myers Beach on Estero Island, a seven-mile stretch of coastline known for its shallow water. It’s also home to the 10-day American Sandsculpting Championship and Beach Festival held every November.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The downtown Naples scene is a gourmet banquet that deserves serious noshing. Go casual and waterfront at Riverwalk in Tin City, 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, held the second Thursday of each month, October through May. Most nights you will find live music at Vergina on Fifth and The Continental on Third Street South.

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

Ford’s Garage, a local chain that takes its cues from Henry Ford’s local historic home, fuels 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 the historic Southern-style Veranda, Yabo for Italian-based contemporary cuisine, CRaVE for updated comfort food, and Cru for hip, inspired dining. Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille locations on Sanibel and Captiva islands and at Fort Myers Beach serve tropical cuisine based on the popular eponymous murder-mystery novels by best-selling local author Randy Wayne White.

Fort Myers Beach boasts its reputation as Florida’s principal pink shrimp port, so look for the sweet, wild product in local restaurants. Cabbage Key Inn, on its own island accessible only by boat (Captiva Cruises takes you there), is a throwback to Old Florida, while Matlacha, off the coast of Cape Coral, is a charming cluster of art galleries, unique shops and fresh seafood houses around its working docks. If time permits, continue on to explore the lovely little community of Bokeelia situated at the northern end of Pine Island.

Downtown Punta Gorda’s reputation for modern cuisine grows stronger with such stellar options as Trabue, The Perfect Caper and Dean’s South of the Border Tex-Mex Cantina. For dinner with a view, head out to the islands to experience South Beach Bar & Grille on Gasparilla Island and Gulf View Grill on Englewood Beach.

The Bradenton–Sarasota area feeds you in the best ways. It claims a preponderance of owner-operated eateries ranging from the affordable Amish-Mennonite restaurant Yoder’s in the community of Pinecraft to rustic fish houses such as New Pass Grill & Bait Shop and Casey Key Fish House. Upscale originals include Derek’s Rustic Coastal Cuisine, Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen, Selva Sarasota, Euphemia Haye and Libby’s Café, to name a few. For an unusual riverside setting and house-smoked barbecue, hit Snook Haven outside of Venice.

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 in Naples 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).

Paddlers flock to Collier County’s paddling trail, known as the Paradise Coast Blueway, where a network of routes take kayakers and canoeists on an exciting journey through cypress, mangroves and out toward the Gulf of Mexico. Phase 1, the Ten Thousand Islands section, begins in Everglades City and ends at Goodland on Marco Island. Once completed, Phase 2 will include routes into Bonita Springs.

Naples is known, too, for its superlative golfing opportunities. 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 CenturyLink Sports Complex-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 (BMX/Strausser Park 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 places to commune with wildlife include J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, which offers complimentary guided tours and programs, and Six Mile Cypress Preserve in Fort Myers, which guides tours along its boardwalk. Learn all about Southwest Florida shells at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel. To observe animals in captivity, visit the historic Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs or the Shell Factory & Nature Park in North Fort Myers, where kids can also play in its fun park. C.R.O.W. (Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife) on Sanibel Island provides families with state-of-the-art, immersive experiences that teach about wildlife and how the clinic helps injured and orphaned animals.

The Sarasota Children’s Garden takes families on an old-fashioned magical fantasy of dress-up, a 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 its fabulous and affordable production. In Venice, kids and adults can learn and practice circus arts themselves at Flying Trapeze Academy.

At the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, kids can hike among the treetops and experience what it feels like to live in a tree canopy. Other highlights include a lush tropical conservatory, a towering bamboo garden, banyan groves, the mangrove bay walk, a fern garden and a koi pond.

Nearby, a tropical adventure at Sarasota Jungle Gardens gets you up close to more than 150 native and exotic animals, including giant tortoises, snakes and plenty of birds, many of which were rescued or donated. Daily schedules include educational and entertaining bird and reptile shows, followed by a question and answer period. Visitors can even hand-feed friendly pink flamingos, which sometimes greet guests face to face. In fact, you can watch them online anytime from anywhere in the world thanks to the venue’s new “Flamingo Cam.” During the summer months, ages 6–13 are welcome to sign up for a week of daily interaction with the animals and participate in educational activities at the Summer Zoo Camp.

Don’t miss the Mote Marine Laboratory on Lido Key, where you can meet Hugh and Buffett, the resident manatees, and see tanks full of sharks, rays, loggerhead sea turtles and a host of other marine creatures. Visit another locally famous manatee, 67-year-old Snooty, at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton. He is the oldest manatee in captivity, according to Guinness.

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 glimpses of sea 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 Big Cypress National Preserve.

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 the east, Sarasota and Punta Gorda lay claim to a number of small organic and other farms you can visit.

SHOP

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.

To the north in Bonita Springs, Promenade at Bonita Bay made a remarkable comeback recently with a fabulous anchor foodie market known as DeRomo’s. The Bell Tower Shops, an open-air lifestyle center in Fort Myers, features more than 35 retailers, including Saks Fifth Avenue, plus 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 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 features 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. Separated from the mainland by Sarasota Bay, St. Armands Circle is renowned for its enchanting assortment of fine shops, galleries and restaurants.

For genuine local souvenirs, head to the artist villages—Matlacha near Cape Coral, Bokeelia on Pine Island, Towles Court in Sarasota and Village of the Arts in Bradenton. Watch for news of art walk events in downtown Sarasota, Punta Gorda 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 (with its own amusement park) in Port Charlotte, the Dome Flea & Farmers’ Market in Venice and Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton.

SPAS

Fine resorts in Southwest Florida devote special attention to their spas, rather than merely 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 Naples Grande Beach Resort; and Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. The Ritz spa contains its own healthy café, =H2O+, which schedules 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 Westin Cape Coral’s spa lists a complete menu of services.

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 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 Hotel has three Gulf-front pools and newly renovated suites.

Cottages provide some of the accommodation at one of the Fort Myers area’s more unusual resorts, Cabbage Key Inn. Occupying their 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 Sand Castles.

Just north of Fort Myers, the quiet, laid-back communities of Cape Coral, Matlache and Pine Island should not be overlooked. Bed and breakfasts such as Bayview B&B near Matlache, cottages on Pine Island, apartment and funky fish house rentals at Cape Harbour, assorted delightful inns and high-end resorts are just a few of the accommodation choices available here.

The 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, the 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 the historic Gulf Beach Resort Motel on Lido Key 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 destination property. For an extraordinary island stay, try the Turtle Beach R and its individualized theme accommodation on Siesta Key or Harrington House Beachfront Bed & Breakfast on Holmes Beach.

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