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Sunday, April 14, 2024 at 2:12 PM

SWFL COMMUNITIES

SWFL COMMUNITIES
The Sanibel Lighthouse at Lighthouse Beach Park

Sanibel-Captiva

 

They seem almost as one, these idyllic, sun-splashed barrier islands just off the Lee County coast. They’re both dotted with palm trees and beaches, lovely homes, fine restaurants and resorts.

They could be reached only by boat until 1963, when the 3-mile-long causeway opened as their link to the mainland — and changed the islands forever.

Resident and visitor beachcombers alike are often spotted doing the “Sanibel Stoop,” head down, stopping every few steps to pick up a seashell. Sanibel is one of the world’s top shelling destinations and home of the Bailey-Mathews National Shell Museum. It’s also home to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where more than 220 species of birds come to roost.

Fort Myers

Fort Myers was incorporated in 1885 with a population of 349 and two years later became the county seat when Lee County was carved out of what was then Monroe County. Today the downtown area along the Caloosahatchee River is known as the River District, speckled with architectural gems such as the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, the Burroughs Home (built in 1901) and the Lee County Courthouse, which was constructed in 1915.

Water tower, Bonita Springs
Water tower, Bonita Springs

The city’s diverse arts scene includes Florida Repertory Theatre, the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, Theatre Conspiracy and Laboratory Theater of Florida.

Two Major League Baseball teams, the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins, call Fort Myers their Spring Training home.

Estero

Estero used to be little more than a wide spot on U.S. 41 between Fort Myers and Naples, an unincorporated place where folks grew oranges and fished the Estero River.

But since Dec. 31, 2014, it is the Village of Estero, Lee County’s newest incorporated community, bustling beyond what anybody might have imagined even very late in the 20th century.

A view of Fort Myers Beach from the Fishing Pier.
A view of Fort Myers Beach from the Fishing Pier.

Bits of the past remain at the Koreshan State Historic Site, which preserves 11 buildings that provide a glimpse into the Koreshan Unity, a religious cult that moved here in 1894. The Koreshans are gone now, but a vibrant community where business mixes with pleasure remains.

Bonita Springs

This golf mecca in southern Lee County is much more than tee boxes and greens. Indeed, there are numerous golf courses throughout the city’s 39 or so square miles, but there’s a whole lot more here, too.

The Centers for the Arts Bonita Springs is home for film festivals, art shows, performances and classes of all kinds for all ages. There’s also Riverside Park, complete with a band shell.

Everglades Wonder Gardens, a charming throwback to the days of Florida roadside attractions, has been right there along Old 41 Road since 1936. There’s also Shangri-La Springs, a stately property that opened in 1921 and has been revitalized in recent years to offer an organic garden and restaurant, fitness studio and spa, a gift shop and an event/ wedding venue.

The Boca Grande Lighthouse
The Boca Grande Lighthouse.

Longtime residents know their city has come a long way in a short period of time. In 1970, the population was just a bit shy of 2,000; today, it’s more than 57,000.

Cape Coral

Back in the late 1950s, two visionary Baltimore businessmen, brothers Leonard and Jack Rosen, essentially created Cape Coral by buying a huge swath of land, bulldozing trees and digging one of the world’s most extensive canal systems.

Then, the people started coming. And they haven’t stopped. Today, Cape Coral is the largest city in Southwest Florida in size and population, a community of almost 200,000 people spread over 120 square miles. Where early locals once hunted and fished in a vast expanse of pine trees and palmettos is now a place where people of all ages shop, dine, work, raise families and enjoy retirement.

Innovation Tower, Babcock Ranch
Innovation Tower, Babcock Ranch

Alva

This rural, unincorporated swath of Lee County east of Fort Myers is a place of citrus groves, cattle, oak trees and woodland trails ideal for horseback riding.

An assumption many newcomers make is that the town must be named for Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor who owned a winter home in Fort Myers. Not so. Sea captain Peter Nelson chose the name for the small white flowers, called alvas, that he found here in the late 19th century.

Residents have been successful at preserving Alva’s charms. No big condos, overpasses or shopping malls here. Alva was beautiful when Capt. Nelson first ventured up the river, and it remains much the same today.

n Lehigh Acres

In some ways, Lehigh Acres resembles Cape Coral. Both were created by visionary northern businessmen in the 1950s and have grown beyond what anybody could have predicted 60 years ago.

Factory Bay, Marco Island
Factory Bay, Marco Island.

But while Cape Coral long ago became an incorporated city, Lehigh Acres remains an unincorporated, 86-squaremile tract of eastern Lee County that about 120,000 people call home.

Known as a community where housing is affordable, its location just east of I-75 puts it within easy driving distance of downtown Fort Myers, Southwest Florida International Airport, Florida Gulf Coast University and the region’s beaches and golf courses.

Pine Island

This 18-mile-long stretch, Florida’s largest island, provides a glimpse into Florida’s past, to a time before high-rise condos and five-star resorts. It has five communities, each with its own charms, from Bokeelia to the north to St. James City to the south.

Before driving onto the island, motorists go through Matlacha, a fishing village turned-art colony on a separate small island that, for the record, is pronounced,

“mat-la-SHAY.”

Check out Matlacha’s galleries, bars and restaurants before or after visiting the other communities. Walk the bridge connecting Matlacha and the island, a span nicknamed “The Fishingest Bridge in the World.” Yes, the fishing is great on Pine Island … as are many things.

Fort Myers Beach

Fort Myers Beach on Estero Island is a 7-mile-long playground of beaches, hotels, restaurants and shops. Long before the first Europeans reached the area in the 1500s, the native Calusa resided here. Visitors can see remnants of their time and culture at the Mound House, an early 20th century house built atop one of the mounds the Calusa tucked away from the main road.

The primary road along the island is Estero Boulevard. Near the island’s north end is a pedestrian friendly shopping, dining and entertainment district known as Times Square.

Boca Grande

Called “the preppiest place on Earth” by The Wall Street Journal, this tony resort community on Gasparilla Island is an outpost of charm, grace and wealth. The town centerpiece is the grand and gracious Gasparilla Inn, circa 1911 and with three croquet lawns. It’s not all about lawn bowling and the beach here, though. The village has a picturesque bicycle path and is home to the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament.

Punta Gorda

In Punta Gorda, time is divided between now and B.C., or Before Charley, the powerful hurricane that barreled through the city in 2004.

In the wake of the storm, Punta Gorda essentially reinvented itself.

Nestled along the water where the Peace River meets Charlotte Harbor, the city retains that old-time Florida feel with an historic district near a charming downtown. Although small, Punta Gorda offers much in the way of beauty, art and culture. One of the biggest post-Charley changes was the addition of the Charlotte Harbor & Event Center, a waterfront venue for all sorts of activities a short walk from downtown restaurants, shops and galleries.

Port Charlotte

When Forbes magazine in 2015 named the best 25 places to retire in America, Port Charlotte was on the list.

Forbes noted that the cost of living was 8% lower in Port Charlotte than the rest of the country and also cited the unincorporated community for its above-average air quality and low rate of serious crime. It also has great recreation, shopping and culture.

And just a short drive to airports in Punta Gorda, Sarasota and Fort Myers, Port Charlotte isn’t just a great place to retire, as Forbes noted. It’s a great place to live, period.

Englewood

Englewood straddles two counties, Charlotte and Sarasota, but it’s a singu- lar place.

So much can be found around its bustling, art-district heart on West Dearborn Street. Just east of town, visitors can hike, camp and ride bikes in the Myakka State Forest. On the other side of Englewood is Manasota Key, a beautiful barrier island with restaurants and cottages overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Ave Maria

One of Southwest Florida’s fastest growing areas is the town of Ave Maria. About a half-hour drive east of Naples, it was founded in 2007 by Barron Collier Companies, the founding family of Collier County, and Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza.

Today’s Ave Maria is home to thousands of residents and growing commercial businesses as well as private schools, including Ave Maria University. The focal point of the town center is the Ave Maria Oratory.

Immokalee

Immokalee —“my home” in the Seminole language — has a connection to millions of Americans who likely have never even heard of it: About 90% of the nation’s winter tomatoes come from farmland here. Cucumbers, bell peppers and citrus also are major crops.

But Immokalee is about more than farming. Seminole Casino Immokalee and its hotel stay abuzz with gaming, food and drink, special shows and concerts.

Babcock Ranch

Babcock Ranch is a solar-powered city destinted to have some 50,000 residents at buildout. It’s also a regional outdoor adventure destination, with walking/ cycling trails and lakes stocked with bass, all among a mosaic of oak hammocks and dry prairie, palmetto flatwoods and cypress domes.

Start discovering Babcock at Woodlea Hall in the town’s Founder’s Square. The civic and information hub of Babcock, it is perhaps the most important initial destination for first-time visitors, whether here for a day on the lake or seeking informa- tion about Babcock Neighborhood School.

Marco Island

The largest of the Ten Thousand Islands and about a four-hour boat ride from Key West, Marco is the perfect place for all sorts of water sports, from kayaking and standup paddleboarding to fishing and sailing.

Once you cross the SS Jolley Bridge from the mainland, you’ll find everything they need for a good time: hotels, restaurants, shops, beaches, golf courses and plenty of ways to get out and enjoy the water, including six miles of beaches. Off the sand, there’s the Marco Island Historic Museum and the Marco Island Art Center.


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