Continued from Region 1 Southwest Florida:
A popular vacation destination today is Marco Island that still holds remnants from its days as a turn-of-the-century Indian trading post. Visitors can dine at Olde Marco Inn, a quaint gathering place for islanders since 1883.
A few miles to the north – but a world apart culturally – is Southwest Florida’s most sophisticated city. The wealthy residents of Naples in Collier County demand the best, and the city’s upscale boutiques, galleries and cultural arts calendar oblige. Naples has guarded its natural resources and preserved older districts so visitors can now bicycle through quiet neighborhoods to explore its varied architectural past.
Birdwatchers and naturalists can’t miss Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, inland from Bonita Springs in northern Collier County, an 11,000-acre wilderness. Its two-mile boardwalk through the world’s largest ancient bald cypress stand offers unique wildlife viewing and nature photography opportunities.
Off the west coast, Sanibel and Captiva islands are among the best known in the region, popular for excellent shelling and captivating beaches. Hundreds of varieties of shells can be found on their pristine shorelines.
Visitors will find picturesque paths and historical gems tucked along Sanibel’s main thoroughfare, Periwinkle Way, with shops, galleries and restaurants framed by tall palms. Visit the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village, which accounts the island’s history, from the Calusa and Spanish eras to the early pioneer families who settled in the 1800s. Seven restored buildings on site include a vintage island residence, 1920s-style general store, post office and tea room.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum in Sanibel is a can’t-miss stop for shell seekers. Exhibits include not only displays of local shells that wash up on the island, but fossil shells, cameos, dazzling scallop shells, buttons and Sailors Valentines made by early 19th century Barbados women for sailors to take home to their wives.
On the east end of Periwinkle Way is one of the region’s most photographed landmarks, the Sanibel Island Light, also known as Point Ybel Light, first illuminated in 1884 when the entire island was a wildlife refuge. Although the lighthouse itself is not open to the public, the grounds surrounding the lighthouse are, and there is a scenic little beach and pier nearby for pictures.
Further toward the mainland, the Fort Myers area combines a rich history with the casual, beach-town atmosphere of nearby Fort Myers Beach. RVers can hop on the downtown tram for a narrated tour of Fort Myers’ historical sites.
Among the favorite stops are the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, two famous friends who spent years as neighbors on the Caloosahatchee River. Visitors to the Edison and Ford Winter Estates can explore the homes, pool, gardens, museum and Edison Botanical Laboratory where the two famous inventors worked with Harvey Firestone to discover a local source of rubber that could be grown in the United States. Edison bought his property in 1906 and Ford bought the house next door in 1916. Only a fence – called the “Friendship Gate” by both families – separated the two estates.
The living history lesson continues at the charming Burroughs Home and Gardens, where tour guides in 1920s-era costumes share insight about the Georgian revival-style home built in 1901,considered to be Fort Myers’ first luxury residence.
On the barrier island of La Costa, Cayo Costa State Park, accessible only by boat or ferry, is as close to a deserted tropical island as most vacationers will ever get. The park’s nine miles of beautiful beaches offer great shelling and fishing, and acres of pine forest. Oak palm hammocks and mangrove swamps provide for a spectacular display of bird life. Rental bikes allow for a leisurely tour along 6.5 miles of hiking and biking trails that crisscross the island.
The historic village of Boca Grande, on the island of Gasparilla, has successfully maintained its quaint MainStreet with no stop lights or high rises. Seven miles of powdery white beaches stretch along the Gulf side, holding back Caribbean-blue water. Visitors can leisurely wander through historic shops and inns that have been in business for nearly a century, such as the Gasparilla Inn & Club.
Another secluded stop along the extensive chain of Gulf barrier islands is Don Pedro Island State Park, near Cape Haze, ideal for recreation and nature study. Also accessible only by private boat or ferry, it is well worth the trip, as visitors can see West Indian manatees, gopher tortoises, bald eagles and American oyster catchers.
Those who prefer quiet getaways will find that the rustic charm of “Old Florida” lives on in many of Southwest Florida’s communities. Charlotte Harbor and the surrounding area are fine examples. Fishermen and boaters flock to the harbor – part of the nation’s largest federally protected marine estuary – as well as to the nearby Peace and Myakka rivers.
Further north, Sarasota has long been known for its worldclass cultural offerings. It’s here that John Ringling, one of the richest men in America, built Ca’ d’Zan, modeled after the magnificent palazzos of Venice, as a love letter to his wife. This 56-room, Venetian Gothic villa housed his priceless Baroque, Italian and Flemish Renaissance art collection and exquisite 17th-century tapestries. Every piece in the collection at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, established in 1927, is now owned by the state. Also located on the grounds is the Circus Museum, a collection of original circus art and artifacts, along with the historic Asolo Repertory Theatre, created in Asolo, Italy in 1798 and installed on the Ringling property in 1957. A full restoration of the elaborate gilding, technology upgrades and a new location resulted in a grand reopening in 2006.
For a more relaxing experience, head a little inland to Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks, to boat, canoe or fish in freshwater; and to observe authentic Florida wildlife, including alligators! The park protects one of the state’s most diverse natural areas.
To see a different type of treasure, families can visit the nonprofit Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, south of Longboat Key in Sarasota, home to more than 100 species of marine life. The aquarium’s centerpiece is a 135,000-gallon outdoor shark habitat. Take the kids to the 30-foot “Touch Tank,” where horseshoe crabs, rays and sea urchins can be gently handled. Admission includes access to The Aquarium, the research and rehabilitation center, and Immersion Cinema.
Next, travel to De Soto National Memorial, a national park on the site where Conquistador Hernando De Soto landed in 1539 and began the first European excursion into what is now the southern United States. His four-year, 4,000-mile “odyssey of intrigue, warfare, disease and discovery” played a key role in the history of the United States.
For today’s explorers looking for dazzling beaches, Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key offer miles of sand and numerous parks open to the public from dawn to dusk. Boating, fishing, swimming and shelling are popular pastimes for visitors. In addition, airboat rides offer an up-close look at Gulf marine life.
A trip to the Gamble Mansion in Ellenton at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park offers an authentic glimpse into the workings of an antebellum sugar plantation. Built between 1845 and 1850, the mansion was the hub of a molasses and sugar shipping enterprise up the nearby Manatee River to markets in New Orleans. Natural disasters and a fickle sugar market threatened the mansion’s survival until 1925 when the United Daughters of the Confederacy bought it and donated it to the state. It is the only surviving plantation house in South Florida.
Manatee County has a rich history, from the 16thcentury landing of the Spaniards to the 19th-century planting of sugar cane. For a historical tour of the area, start at the South Florida Museum in downtown Bradenton. The two-story museum, the largest natural and cultural history museum on Florida’s Gulf Coast, exhibits the state’s history from prehistoric times to the Space Age. Included on site are the Bishop Planetarium and the Parker Manatee Aquarium, home to the county’s official mascot “Snooty.” Born in 1948, Snooty is known as the world’s oldest manatee in captivity.
East of Bradenton is vast open land where generations of ranchers operate a thriving cattle industry. If you venture off the beaten path into this part of the state, don’t miss Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring, one of Florida’s oldest parks. Established in 1931, it is known for its beautiful old-growth hammock and thousand-year-old oaks. Its 9,000 acres includes 15 distinct natural communities, several designated as imperiled.
If you love unique and one-of-a-kind items, make the trip to Solomon’s Castle located in the small Florida town of Ona, east of Bradenton. The castle was designed and built by Howard Solomon and houses his home and galleries, full of works of art and sculptings made from materials Howard finds around the home.
Guided tours, sometimes hosted by Howard himself, include stories told with humor and puns. Lunch is served on the ‘Boat in the Moat’ restaurant, also built by Howard, run by Howard’s daughter, Alane, and her husband, Dean. Book a group for a castle tour and lunch or a night’s stay in the Blue Moon Room. Dining is offered in the beautiful Spanish Galleon, inside the
Lily Lighthouse, or, weather permitting, on the outside patio, under the magnificent live oak trees. Local musicians like to drop by and play. After dining, enjoy the nature walk along the banks of picturesque Horse Creek.