Southwest Florida: an ecological oasis, part two
Continued from Monday…
Irene Middleman Thomas discovers an unspoiled corner of Florida
Best place for swamp walks
The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, bordering Big Cypress and Collier-Seminole State Park, features a mile-long boardwalk leading to a pond with a resident female gator who is spotted often with her babies. Guided swamp walks are offered by park rangers from November-March. Fakahatchee’s strand, or river is the deepest of the Everglades, giving it a unique environment with over forty species of rare orchids. Open daily; 941-695-4593.
Best place for romance
Lovers Key State Park is one of the area’s most charming and distinctive parks, on Black Island, just south of Fort Myers Beach. A tram transports visitors along a rustic boardwalk, crossing picturesque Oyster Bay and a scenario of mangrove isles, to one of the most private public beaches anywhere. Lovers Key has a section of unspoiled beach where one can cast at surf line, picnic with raccoons, bird watch and search the shoreline for rare seashells. There is also a wedding pavilion available for rental. Open daily from 8am- sunset; 8700 Estero Blvd, Fort Myers Beach; 239-463-4588.
Best place for history, archeology and ecology
Matanzas Pass Wilderness Preserve, on Estero Island (Fort Myers Beach) overlooks Estero Bay, with 56 acres of unspoiled live oak hammock and 4,000 feet of mangrove shoreline, all of which can be explored from an elevated boardwalk. One of Fort Myers Beach’s best known eco-attractions, Matanzas Pass Wilderness Preserve also features a canoe landing and viewing deck on the back bay. Equally beautiful is Mound Key, which is largely constructed from shells deposited there by Calusa Indians several centuries ago. A favorite with professional archaeologists, history buffs and picnickers, Mound Key is accessible only by boat from the southern tip of Estero Island. Open daily from sunrise-sunset; free admission; Bay Strett off Estero Blvd, Fort Myers Beach; 239-463-0435.
Best place for wilderness strolling
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is a natural drainage-way that collects rainfall runoff from a 57-square-mile watershed area, cleans the water as it flows southwest, and delivers fresh water to the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve. Stroll at your leisure along the mile-long boardwalk as you interact with a variety of fauna and flora, mammals and reptiles in their natural habitat as you visit a lush 2,200-acre wetland ecosystem. Open daily (hours vary); free admission; 7751 Penzance Crossing, Fort Myers; 239-432-2004.
Need to know
All of these destinations are open year round. Summertime is the ‘rainy’ season, but typically the showers last about 20 minutes in the late afternoon. Winter daytime temps average about mid-to high 70s, while summer temperatures hover around the low to mid-90s. The hottest part of the day is usually 10am-2pm.
Mosquitoes are more prevalent in the summertime. It is strongly advised to avoid early mornings and evenings when visiting nature areas, even beaches, and to wear and bring along DEET mosquito repellant. Light-coloured, lightweight long-sleeved shirts and pants with long sleeves are recommended.
Rent a car
You will definitely need a car to explore this area at your leisure – but be sure to spend some time walking, biking or boating to fully enjoy the wilderness experience. Distance from Miami to Fort Myers is 148 miles (two and a half hour drive time); Orlando to Fort Myers is 167 miles (three and a half hours drive time.)
You’ll have no problem finding accommodations ranging from the most elegant resorts to cosy inns and rental cottages. While Naples and Captiva tend to have more upscale offerings, all of the other locations offer everything from economical to super sumptuous. Typically, the further from the beach, the lower the price.
Food and shopping
Naples offers some of the best upscale shopping in anywhere, on a par with Palm Beach or Beverly Hills. Its Fifth Avenue is very European – lined with trees and flowers and sidewalk cafes.
Dining runs the gamut in southwest Florida – from rustic to haute cuisine. For some of the more adventurous park treks, such as the Florida Scenic Trail in Big Cypress, you need to bring your own food and water. Other parks, such as the Everglades, sells food at its Visitors Center.
Everglades City is the stone crab capital of the world – the best place to enjoy their claws when they are in season (October 15-May 15).
Outstanding dining – a couple of truly unique dining experiences: The Cabbage Key Inn, north of Captiva and Useppa islands. Reportedly, Jimmy Buffett was inspired to write the hit, Cheeseburger in Paradise after eating one of the inn’s huge and juicy burgers. The restaurant is almost as famous for its screen-enclosed dining room, whose walls are plastered with thousands of signed dollar bills from patrons, a tradition started by fishermen in the 1940s. The restaurant’s famous patrons include former President George Bush, Ted Kopel, J.F.K. Jnr, Rod Stewart, and various movie and TV stars.
Another highly original spot is The Bubble Room on Captiva Island. The unusual layout of this rambling three-story restaurant provides the ideal backdrop for its gold mine of nostalgic décor (antiques and toys) from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-688-3600; 225-1013; www.ParadiseCoast.com)
Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (800-237-6444; www.fortmyers-sanibel.com)