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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 at 5:05 AM


How do I love you, Southwest Florida? Let me count the ways. Truth is, there are way too many ways to count, so we’re starting for you. When your head goes dizzy with all the possibilities, take a breath and consider this handful of experiences to celebrate the day Southwest Florida-style.
The River of Grass

Author: Courtesy Photo

Military Heritage Museum & Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida

Punta Gorda

From a cramped storefront at Fishermen’s Village to a stunning, 17,000-square-foot complex about a block away, the Military Heritage Museum has grown, along with the region’s support and fascination for the stories it tells. For stories are at the heart of this two-floor museum that went state-of-the-art when it reopened in April 2019.
In addition to flight and ship simulators and virtual reality experiences, it boasts its 247-seat Gulf Theater, which hosts everything from military honor events to live musical concerts. Galleries cover military history from the American Indian Wars and War of 1812 to the present with signage, artifacts and tributes. Despite all the high-tech exhibits, perhaps the most moving is a wall of framed letters from soldiers through the ages — telling stories. While you’re in town, complete your military salute pilgrimage with a visit to downtown’s Vietnam Wall on the harbor front, built to half the scale of the one in Washington, D.C., and out of the same granite.


The Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida
The Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida / Courtesy Photo

GAEA kayak tours

Throughout Lee County 

What could be more iconic of a day of play in Southwest Florida than a good paddle? With water, water everywhere, the area begs for the mindful experience of gliding through the bay, river or estuary in charge of your own destination — and destiny. If you are unfamiliar with local waters, however, or just want someone to narrate your wild kingdom experience, GAEA Guides offers a variety of specialty tours. Looking for manatees? 

Interested in our ancient paddlers, the mighty Calusa? Hoping for a mangrove forest canopy? Or just wishing for a relaxing sunset excursion? Certified Florida naturalists guide GAEA eco-tours, and they know their stuff. They have been leading paddling tours in Lee County for 20 years. Group tours are kept small, to maintain that inherent intimacy you are looking for in a kayak outing.


Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum 

Sanibel Island

The shell museum was closed in the weeks following Hurricane Ian. Visit the website for a progress report on repairs and plans for reopening. There’s nothing else like it in the world, and it’s right here in Southwest Florida. Built upon the island’s reputation as the pre-eminent shelling destination in the U.S. — thanks to its eastwest hook at its south end to scoop up shells in transit from southern seas — it explores all things shellacious. Since 1984, the shell museum has taught visitors about the complex world of seashells: their historical and cultural importance, their role in art and science, their beauty. In 2020, it took education a step further when it opened its Beyond Shells: The Mysterious World of Mollusks galleries. Designed to inform visitors about the creatures that inhabit shells — or don’t actually have a shell, but are related to those that do — the new aquariums and touch pools explore the lifestyles and importance of the mollusk. The star of the show, and an example of one species of mollusk sans shell, the giant Pacific octopus stars in its own online OctoCam.


Food trucks

Bonita Springs & Naples

Following a nationwide trend, Southwest Florida has been truckin’ when it comes to the food and beverage industry. Once just a staple of farmers markets and craft breweries, food trucks have become so popular that Naples has devoted its Celebration Park as a permanent home to food trucks, and Bonita Springs plans to follow suit in months to come.
Celebration Park opened in 2018 to immediate popularity in East Naples’ Bayshore District. You’ll typically find about eight trucks selling everything from Greek cuisine to seafood and barbecue. Plus, a central tiki bar serves up craft brews and cocktails canal-side.
Bonita Springs moved toward food- truck friendly in 2020 when it changed a city ordinance limiting the number of trucks allowed around town. With its two new breweries downtown — Hopsized and Ceremony — plus a food truck park of its own on the horizon, the mobile food scene in Bonita Springs also just keeps on, well, truckin’.

Food trucks at Celebration Park 
Food trucks at Celebration Park 


Airboat and swamp buggy tours

Everglades City

If you are looking for something purely Florida in the great outdoors, take your travels aboard two modes invented right here in the Everglades by resourceful residents looking for the best ways to get around the wetlands and skinny waters. Early fishermen first started using boats powered by huge fans to blow them across the shallow River of Grass while hunting for the frogs they sold to local restaurants. Tourists started asking for rides on the odd-looking and loud (!) contraptions, and the airboat tour industry was born.
Head to Everglades City to shop from a number of airboat concessions to zip you into wildlife habitat on thrill rides. It’s also the place to find swamp buggy tours. These big-tired monster mobiles are perfect for plowing through the marshes. The ride can get bumpy, but at least it’s considerably quieter than an airboat ride — meaning it doesn’t scare away the gators, birds and other critters you’re bound to see. Wooten’s Everglades Airboat Tours in Ochopee offers both airboat and swamp buggy tours, with combination packages that include admission and shows in its Animal Sanctuary and jaw-some Alligator Park.


Airboat tour
Courtesy Photo