Off Florida's west coast, adjacent to the inland city of Fort Myers, is a sprinkling of coastal islands resting in the tranquil Gulf waters. The islands have been developed as pristine resorts which, together with Fort Myers Beach and the town of Naples further down the coast on the mainland, have made this area an extremely desirable holiday destination.
Southwest Florida is the ideal place to enjoy leisure and pleasure in the great outdoors, as it is one of the warmest areas of the United States. In the height of summer ocean breezes keep things cool while visitors enjoy swimming, sunning, shelling, or playing a round of golf. Nature lovers are drawn here because of the close proximity to the Everglades National Park, the Big Cypress Swamp, and numerous other wetland reserves and wildlife refuges. Then, of course, there are the miles of beautiful beaches, washed by the warm Gulf waters and covered in an array of seashells. Winter is 'in season' in this part of the world, which stays warm while the more northerly states freeze. Little wonder that the Gulf Coast has become a magnet for visitors whom locals term 'snowbirds' migrating from the north to winter here.
A sighting of an endangered West Indian manatee, a shy and lumbering walrus-like creature whose numbers are dwindling, is a must for visitors to Florida. At the Lee County Manatee Park, on the Orange River in eastern Fort Myers, these animals can be viewed in their natural habitat from observation decks. The Park also offers information, walking tours, and workshops, as well as picnic facilities, and a fishing cove with a deck and a pier. Kayak and canoe rentals are also available. Some of the facilities are only open between May and November when the weather is hot and pleasant - check the official website to see what is available when.
Famous inventor, Thomas Edison, and his friend, automobile magnate Henry Ford, both spent dozens of winters in the city of Fort Myers in the early years of the 20th century. Edison's home is the region's top historic attraction, and has been preserved as it was during his lifetime. The Victorian house called Seminole Lodge still boasts working light bulbs, which he invented. They burn in the laboratory where he worked on more than 1,000 inventions during his winter visits. The house next door, Mangoes, was built by Ford in 1916. Visitors are given guided tours of both houses by costumed guides giving 'living history' accounts. Scenic river rides on board a replica of Edison's electric boat are also offered.
In the dying years of the 19th century a former Civil War surgeon, Dr Cyrus Teed founded a pioneer settlement on the banks of the Estero River, south of Fort Myers, where he led the community to practice a religion he termed Koreshanity. Chief among his beliefs was the equality of men and women and that the universe was a hollow sphere containing everything within it. Planning to build a utopian city, the community generated their own electricity, built boats, established a general store, and constructed numerous buildings of which 11 remain today to be explored by visitors. The last four members of the sect donated the land to the State of Florida in 1961 and it is now preserved as a park with a nature trail, picnic tables and campsite. Guided tours of the Koreshan buildings are offered.
The Southwest Florida Museum of History chronicles the history of Southwest Florida, from the Paleo Indians through the Calusa, the Seminoles and the Spanish explorers to the early settlers. A pioneer cracker house, a 1926 fire pump and a 1929 Pullman private railroad car are among the exhibits. Pride of place is held by the 'Land of Giants' section depicting the huge animals like mammoths, mastodons and the Bison Antiqus that roamed the area about 12,000 years ago. The museum also hosts regular travelling exhibitions. Guided tours are available and there is an audio guide in both English and Spanish for those who prefer to explore independently.
The beaches along this stretch of the Florida coastline are renown for their seashells. It contains one of the largest collection of seashells, fossils, corals, and sponges in the world. The Shell Factory not only exhibits a fascinating and extensive collection, but the 18-acre complex includes shops selling a range of jewellery, ornaments, lamps, objets d'art, and glassware. The complex also includes a petting zoo, wildlife refuge, eco laboratory, a restaurant, game arcade, a miniature golf course, and boating lake; more than enough to keep the whole family entertained.
The sophisticated city of Naples lies on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The central area preserves its old world charm, while the modern section to the north bristles with high-rise luxury hotels and resorts. Visitors flock here during the winter months to enjoy the magnificent Gulf beaches, world-class shopping and dining, and the challenging golf courses. Naples is also near Florida's top natural attractions, including the tropical wilderness of The Everglades National Park. An upmarket destination it may be, but Naples exudes easy-going friendliness along with its wealthy opulence.
Billed as 'Florida's tropical island getaway', Fort Myers Beach is a haven for visitors seeking a relaxing family holiday. While it offers endless sport and recreational activities like the destinations of the east coast, this beautiful resort town on the Gulf of Mexico remains affordable, relaxed, friendly, and casual. The prime attraction and centre of activity at Fort Myers Beach is the seven-mile (11km) shoreline which has gained a reputation as the world's safest beach, with no undertow and shallow water ideal for swimming. Popular are the numerous water sports offered all along the beachfront, from jet-skiing to sailing a skiff.
The village area is clustered along a tree-lined walkway at the north end of the beach, offering shops and restaurants. The south is where numerous beachfront resorts with condominiums and hotels have sprung up around Lovers Key State Park. Between these, the beach is lined with parks, recreation areas, and marinas offering fishing and boating charters, sightseeing trips, dining and dancing cruises, and even offshore gambling jaunts. On the opposite side of the narrow Estero Island, is the Matanzas Pass Wilderness Preserve with acres of mangrove swamps, live oak hammocks, and local wildlife to explore from elevated boardwalks.
Those who are searching for the tranquillity of the beach will delight in the Florida Gulf coast resort island of Sanibel, and its smaller sister, Captiva. The slow pace of island life rarely heats up where the main event is the magnificent sunset. The families and romantics who holiday here come to enjoy the beaches strewn with seashells, the warm Gulf waters, the huge variety of wildlife, and the fabulous fresh seafood. These islands have no high-rises or honking horns, instead they offer all the amenities to make for a comfortable and relaxing holiday. There are art galleries, award-winning restaurants, live theatre, and the occasional musical performances. The more exclusive of the twin islands is Captiva, connected to Sanibel by a bridge. Captiva is the smaller, characterised by wealth and quiet charm, topped off at its northern end by the luxurious all-inclusive South Seas Resort.
Measuring just over six-by-four miles (10km by 6km), Marco Island is a bustling, full-service holiday community on the northern edge of west Florida's coastal wilderness area, which is known as Ten Thousand Islands. Just a stone's throw from the vibrant city of Naples, Marco Island is on the doorstep of nearly 100 miles of protected undeveloped islands, bays, and estuaries. It is hemmed in by the Rookery Bay Nature Reserve to the north, and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Collier-Seminole State Park, and the Everglades National Park to the south. Not surprisingly, the resort island and its relatively pollution free waters, stocked with diverse and healthy fish populations, are a magnet for fishermen and anglers. The community also offers top class shopping, recreational, and dining oppertunities.
Unlike the glitzy Gold Coast, Florida's Gulf Coast attracts nature lovers and those looking for a peaceful resort retreat or perhaps a golfing or shelling holiday. The beaches are renowned for the vast amount of shells to be collected. There are numerous protected scenic areas and wildlife refuges in this part of Florida, including the Lee County Manatee Park, where tourists can view the endagered manatee in their natural habitat.
Naples and Fort Myers are popular cities to use as travel hubs and offer a sprinkling of good sightseeing, including the former homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and the impressive Southwest Florida Museum of History, all in Fort Myers. Just north of Fort Myers the Shell Factory and Nature Park showcases the area's celebrated shells and fossils, and just south of the city the Koreshan State Historic Site attracts visitors with its odd history and pretty scenery. Beautiful Floridian landscapes can be enjoyed at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, and the Clam Pass Recreation Area, all near Naples, among many other places!
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