Technically, I am only talking about part of Southwest Florida. The Bradenton/Sarasota/Tampa Bay region was not part of my recent visit, but is part of the southwest gulf coast of the State of Florida. For purposes of this story I will refer to the Cape Coral- Fort Myers area as well as the Naples- Marco Island region with a stop in the northern Everglades. The area I visited lacks much of the development found in the central and southern part of the state. There has been a recent surge in high-rise residences as well as high tech development. There are still lots of agricultural products grown in the area including oranges and tomatoes. We also have the Everglades with its eco-system under attack by the advance of development.
There are the beaches: Sanibel, Captiva, Fort Myers and Bonita along the Gulf of Mexico and within the Fort Myers area. Pine Island is the largest island off Florida’s west coast and is a step back in time to Florida of the 1950s and 1960s. The warm gulf waters surrounding Sanibel and Captiva Island are perfect for fishermen (and those who are shell collectors) looking for speckled trout, snook, tarpon and redfish. I found the winter weather mild with temperatures during my 6-day stay in the high 70’s and low 80’s with only brief showers. www.fortmyers-sanibel.com
I flew into and out of Southwest Florida International Airport, located in South Fort Myers. Two years ago I visited and wrote about the main tourist attractions including: Bailey Matthews Shell Museum, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife and the Southwest Florida Museum of History.
In March 2011 Prince Albert II of Monaco, a former Olympian (Bobsled in 5 Olympics), officiated at the opening of the Art of the Olympians Museum, located in the River District in downtown Fort Myers. It is also called the Al Oerter Center for Excellence, named for the late four times Olympian (Discus- 1956, 1960, 1964 & 1968). Oerter was the first track and field athlete to win a gold medal in the same individual event in four consecutive Olympics. Bob Beamon, 1968 Long Jump Gold Medal Winner, is CEO of the Museum. I met with Cathy Oerter, Al’s widow and Chairman of the museum, Kadir Klouchi, a painter and an Olympian in the long jump from Algeria (1992- Barcelona) and Emanuela Pierantozzi from Italy, a sculptor, who won a medal in Judo at the 1992 Olympics. The museum exhibits 70 artists from 18 countries. One has to have competed (not necessary to have won a medal) in an Olympics to exhibit here. Besides painters and sculptors there are artists in all forms of art exhibited here. They include poets, dancers, filmmakers, furniture designers, authors, etc. There are 125 pieces of artwork by such famed Olympians as ice skater Peggy Fleming and sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner. Al Oerter lived on Fort Myers Beach; Bob Beamon lives in Fort Myers. There are educational programs with local school children that unite the art and sports world elevating the virtues of excellence above winning. I walked through the Olympian Sports Gallery with Olympic themes featuring equipment, films, autographs and official Olympic memorabilia. www.artoftheolympians.org
The Paradise Coast includes Naples, Marco Island & the Everglades. The majority of my 6-day trip to Southwest Florida was spent on Marco Island with side trips to Naples and Everglades City. I came to the area to conduct a fund raising Italian wine dinner for the Temple on Marco Island where my ex-college roommate Marvin Geller and his wife Peg were members. We toured the island stopping at several restaurants for meals and walking along Residents Beach, one section of the island’s four miles of white sand beach bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Part of one day was spent on a Marvin's boat. We ate lunch at a waterside restaurant on the Isles of Capri, just north of Marco Island on one day and in the nearby village of Goodland another day. I managed to find time with all this sun and surf to visit the new Marco Island Historical Museum that explores Southwest Florida’s Calusa Indians and brings this vanished civilization to life with informative displays and a recreated village scene. I also visited the Marco Island Center for the Arts.
Our 1/2-day tour of the Everglades was arranged through Everglades Excursions and included transportation to the Everglades City (Stone Crab Capitol of the World) area and an hour Air Boat tour through the Everglades. The tour leaves from both Naples and Marco Island. The full day tour includes lunch. We spotted lots of exotic birds, manatees and several alligators. Everglades City is the western gateway to the 2,400-square-mile Everglades National Park, with the park’s Gulf Coast entrance located in town along the banks of Chokoloskee Bay.
An afternoon and evening was spent in Naples, the main metropolitan area on the Paradise Coast. I got to walk on Naples Beach and on its iconic pier, watching the sunset over the Gulf. I did not get to see the Naples Zoo, Naples Botanical Garden or the Naples Museum of Art. There is always next winter. Fifth Avenue South is downtown Naples main drag with lots of sidewalk tables and casual dining. We ate on Third Street South where the restaurants lean toward fine dining. Ingrid and Fabrizzio Aielli own Sea Salt, which was named one of the Top 20 New Restaurants in 2009 by Esquire Magazine. They just opened another restaurant, Barbatella, a few doors down from Sea Salt, and that is where we had dinner. There are two rooms with almost 50 wines served in 1oz, 3oz, 6oz portions as well as full bottles. The Enomatic preservation system keeps the opened bottles fresh by adding nitrogen. We were able to sample 6 different wines in 1oz servings. There is informal dining area with a wood fired pizza oven and gelato shop and a communal side where many of the tables can seat large parties as well as a patio with courtyard seating around a decorative fountain. Barbatella had only been open for two weeks and was already packed by both locals and visitors.
I have spent much more time on the Eastern Coast of Florida in the Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Miami Beach area. The Southwest Coast seems more laid back with much less traffic and better weather. I am already planning my return trip.