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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 at 5:17 AM


The Atlanta Braves train at CoolToday Park in Venice

Play ball!

When it comes to baseball, Southwest Florida is fortunate enough to have almost an embarrassment of riches, to the delight of fans and to the benefit of the economy.

Spring training brings three Major League Baseball teams to the area from the Florida Grapefruit League as veterans hone their skills and rookies show whether they have the stuff to make it in the big leagues. In Lee County, The Boston Red Sox return to Jet Blue Park (aka Fenway South) and the Minnesota Twins take up residence at Hammond Stadium at the Century Link Sports Complex. In Charlotte County, the Tampa Bay Rays tune up at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.

Just up the road a piece, the Atlanta Braves train at CoolToday Park in Venice and the Baltimore Orioles train in Sarasota.

Fans flock to these venues to watch the players work out and hopefully get chance to grab an autograph or even a selfie with one of their favorites. Competition on the field can be fierce, but so can competition among the fans for game tickets to watch them play. For a full schedule of games, visit https:// floridagrapefruitleague.com/schedule/

The Gasparilla Inn & Club
The Gasparilla Inn & Club

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

For a taste of pristine Florida, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is the place to go. This 6,400-acre refuge is the top birding spot in America, home to more than 245 species of birds in an untouched natural habitat.

The refuge is named for political cartoonist and conservationist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, who helped save this parcel of environmentally sensitive land from development. President Harry Truman first designated it the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945 and it was renamed for Darling in 1967.

The best birding is January through March. Look for some of the refuge favorites, like the roseate spoonbill with its bright pink plumage, or marvel at the giant American white pelican, with a wingspan of 8 to 10 feet. The best time to visit is low tide, when the mud flats are exposed and the birds can feed more easily.

The Naples Zoo

Stop first at the visitor and education center. Then travel Wildlife Drive, which winds for four miles around the refuge. You can drive it, stopping at points along the way when you spy something interesting, or take a 90-minute tram ride with a naturalist guide. There are trails for hiking. Biking, canoeing and kayaking are also great ways to experience the refuge.

Don’t forget your camera. Binoculars are a must.

1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel
www.fws.gov/refuge/JN_ Ding_ Darling/

The Gasparilla Inn & Club

The Gasparilla Inn & Club was once a place for only the rich and famous to play. Over its 100-plus years, it’s evolved into a place where families stay.

Built in 1911, the inn is in the tiny town of Boca Grande (current population about 1,500) on Gasparilla Island, off the Southwest Florida coast. Here the charm of Old Florida meets the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

REVS Institute

Both President Bushes and their families frequently vacationed here. They were preceded by captains of industry like J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford. The list of famous visitors spotted out and about over the years by Boca Grande residents include Hollywood celebrities and musicians: John Travolta, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Jimmy Buffet, Billy Joel.

Now it’s a place for families to get away as well as the famous, says Corey Anglin, the inn’s special events and public relations manager.

All are drawn by the same elements: the gorgeous, secluded island location, the quaint, historic town and the ultimate place to enjoy it all in luxury and peace.

Guests might choose to picnic on the private beach, play a round of golf or a friendly game of croquet, have a spa day, take a fitness class or just relax in one of the well-appointed rooms, villas, cottages or houses available on the resort’s property. The newest feature is nine new beachfront cottages that opened in 2021.

500 Palm Ave., Boca Grande

Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens

Jumanji the giraffe and several of his pals are waiting for you at the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, where a newly opened elevated feeding platform lets you get face-to-face with the world’s tallest animal and feed him a lettuce leaf or two.

This is just one of the unique experiences available for visitors to the 43-acre zoo that houses about 70 different animal species set in a historic tropical garden that was first planted by botanist Henry Nehrling in 1919.

The nonprofit zoo wants visitors to make connections with the animals they are seeing, and the new giraffe feeding station is a good example, says Courtney Jolly Goff, director of marketing and public relations. Other exhibits feature glass-paneled enclosures where you can look an African lion, Malayan tiger or giant anteater in the eye.

Another way to experience an exhibit of animals unfettered by cages is aboard the Primate Expedition Cruise. This catamaran cruises a lake inside the zoo where monkeys, apes and lemurs frolic freely on islands in their natural habitat.

The BRICKLIVE Animal Paradise art exhibit also opened at the zoo in November and continues through April 4. The traveling exhibit, in Florida for the first time, features more than 35 life-size animal sculptures created from more than 1.4 million toy building bricks.

1590 Goodlette-Frank Road, Naples

REVS Institute

The cars are the stars at REVS Institute for Automotive Research & Historical Study in Naples.

Tucked into an unlikely spot in a commerce park, this 80,000-squarefoot, three-story museum features a collection of more than 100 rare and one-of-a-kind automobiles that span the years 1896 to 1995.

The cars are from the collections of Miles Collier, grandson of Barron Collier, Southwest Florida pioneer developer and Collier County namesake.

From the humble 1896 Panhard et Levassor Wagonette, looking the very definition of a horseless carriage, to an entire gallery showing the evolution of Porsches over the years (only here in Naples can visitors start at the very first purpose-built Porsche racecar and in one room see every type of important Porsche racecar through the 1971 917K), the development of the automobile can be traced through technology and design.

Come and explore, but call first. Walk-in visitors are not allowed.

2500 S. Horseshoe Drive, Naples