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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 at 6:02 AM

Exploring SWFL’s Secret Delights Beyond the Typical Tourist Circuit

Exploring SWFL’s Secret Delights Beyond the Typical Tourist Circuit
Historic Pine Cottage Naples’ oldest house.

We have our share (and then some) of headlining attractions — from superlative beaches and golf courses to top-notch cultural attractions, shopping, restaurants and festivals. Instead, SWFL Insider takes you to our best local secrets, those hidden gems shy of the limelight.

Local history lessons 

How were Punta Gorda’s early Black population important to the settling of Charlotte County? What ancient discoveries on Marco Island deepened knowledge of Native American history? Who were the Baileys of

Williams Academy Black History Museum, Fort Myers
Courtesy photos


Small museums and historic sites reveal the untold stories of Southwest Florida. Blanchard House Museum in Punta Gorda, for instance, tells how African Americans settled the area and even signed the Punta Gorda charter. 

In Fort Myers, the Williams Academy Black History Museum further explores African American contributions in a historic clapboard building, part of the first government-funded Black school serving the local three-county area. 

The Marco Island Historical Museum delves into a different culture: Its life-size dioramas illustrate the lives and times of the ancient Calusa tribe, who built towering mounds and one of their major settlements on the island. 

Other sites throughout the region concentrate on different periods and facets of local history. Naples Depot Museum (currently closed during hurricane recovery) focuses on how trains, planes, automobiles and other forms of transportation impacted the city’s development. The nearby Historic Palm Cottage, Naples’ oldest house, interprets the early days of settlement by the town’s first snowbirds. 

Stroll through the past al fresco at a number of novel historic experiences. Punta Gorda’s Mural Trail, for instance, takes in more than 30 outdoor, larger-than-life paintings that revisit local scenes from marine creatures to early military aircraft. 

A stop along Punta Gorda’s Mural Trail
Punta gorda historical mural society / Courtesy photo

The Punta Gorda History Park features a collection of historic structures including a cigar home, a jail and the town’s oldest building. The Sanibel Historical Museum & Village gradually reopens after Hurricane Ian in 2022. It takes visitors on a trip into island bygones, including, when fully reopened, 11 historic structures and a pioneer garden. 

Film as art 

Film is very much alive in Southwest Florida, despite rumors that streaming has stabbed it in the back like a ruthless murder-mystery villain.

The annual Naples International Film Festival has established a reputation in these parts for deep appreciation of indie, mainstream, documentary, domestic and foreign film. It takes place in October at various Naples venues and is the gala culmination of Artis—Naples’ popular seasonal film and lecture series called “Four O’clock at the Movies.” 

In its wake, other festivals and series have bolstered the region’s film obsession. One of the most notable festivals takes place in Fort Myers during one week in May at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. In its 14th year, FMFF spins off from a popular T.G.I.M. (Thank God It’s Monday) monthly series that takes place in the months before the festival. 

The long-running Fort Myers Beach International Film Festival airs independent short, full-length, student-produced and documentary films in September.

Thank God It’s Monday film series

Punta Gorda hosts its one-day Short Film Festival each March at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center. 

Bonita Springs, also hosts a Short Film Festival, but in May, and its Center for the Arts runs a seasonal Monday night film series in its Moe Auditorium & Film Center. 

Other film goings-on in the area fill different niches. 

Three festivals, for instance, concentrate on Jewish films: the Sydney R. Hoffman Memorial Jewish Film Festival in Marco Island, the Jewish Film Festival of Southwest Florida presented by the Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties in Fort Myers, and the Beth Tikvah Naples Jewish Film Festival.

Souvenir savvy

Skip the beach snow globes (does that even make any sense?) and alligator jaws. Look instead for creations made by local crafts-folk and artists. Watch for seasonal art fairs and markets for a well-rounded selection. Many year-round, specialized shops, galleries and boutiques also carry gifts that convey a sense of place. 

You will find some of the best buys at attraction gift shops. Our favorites include Naples Botanical Garden and the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, where, besides live plants, you can find garden accessories and locally made gifts. The Refuge 

Nature Store at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge devotes much of its space to local artisan wares. 

Art facilities throughout Southwest Florida showcase the work of local creators. The Visual Arts Center in Punta Gorda houses an art supply shop and an expansive gift gallery featuring mediums from jewelry to pottery. Downtown Punta Gorda’s Artisan Atelier affords opportunities to meet and watch artists as they create. Besides exhibition art, Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers sells one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces in its gift shop. Likewise, the visual arts component at Centers for the Arts Bonita Springs has fine arts and crafts for purchase in its galleries and gift shop. Handcrafted keepsakes, wearable art and other gifts made locally fill the airy, glass-walled space at BIG ARTS on Sanibel Island.

In the literary arts genre, Southwest Florida boasts several local authors whose books make great reminders of time spent here. Most well-known, Randy Wayne White pens bestselling murder-mysteries, many with a local setting. Find his books at Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grill, named for his leading protagonist, or at indie bookstores such as MacIntosh Books + Paper at Bell Tower Shops in Fort Myers) and Copperfish Books in Punta Gorda. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates gift shop also carries Mr. White’s books. 

Tervis Tumblers

Food and other products made right here in Southwest Florida also make nice souvenirs. Think Tervis Tumblers, the durable insulated drinkware available at various brand stores and other outlets throughout the area, and Sun Harvest Citrus in Fort Myers for locally 

produced juices, honey, hot sauces and other culinary goodies. 

Must-pause places for breakfast or lunch 

Don’t even think about going to these restaurants for dinner. They do breakfast, brunch and lunch so well, they simply shut down after that and call it a day. Many serve breakfast until they close, affirming its importance in the meal-of-the-day hierarchy.

Sweet’s Diner, Port Charlotte

The eateries range from well-loved, all-American, hash-slinging institutions to specialized houses serving global fare and vegan/vegetarian offerings. 

In the first category, Sweet’s Diner in Port Charlotte lives in a strip mall, as many of this ilk do, and touts its Breakfast Pile Up, an apt description of its monumental layering of home fries, biscuits, meat, veggies and gravy. 

Long-standing Marti’s Family Dining has a faithful following in south Fort Myers on the way to Fort Myers Beach (go for its pork tenderloin sandwich), as does 35-year-old Oasis Restaurant in downtown Fort Myers. 

Old 41 Restaurant, Bonita Springs

Philly food fans should check out Old 41 Restaurant in Bonita Springs. Southern eats? The Rooster Food + Drink in Naples defines soul comfort food in a modern setting. 

Harvest & Wisdom at Shangri-La Springs in Bonita Springs

For something a bit different, Cape Coral’s Café YOU dabbles in Australian and healthy fare plus yummy baked goods. Skinny Dogz Brunchery’s scratch kitchen is all over the globe, but you can’t beat its burgers. Harvest & Wisdom at Shangri-La Springs in Bonita Springs draws from the property’s organic gardens at brunch. For a taste of Europe in Naples, try Jane’s Café on 3rd and The Café Kitchen & Juicery downtown or Café Crème de la Crème midtown for ooh-la-la crepes, pastries and sandwiches.