AT­TRAC­TIONS

Travel Guide to Florida - - SOUTHEAST FLORIDA -

Most of the at­trac­tions in South­west Florida are out­door venues or learn­ing cen­ters, which ed­u­cate and in­form vis­i­tors about the re­gion’s bountiful na­ture and wildlife.

Take Naples, for in­stance, where the most vis­ited at­trac­tions in­clude the Naples Botan­i­cal Gar­den and Naples Zoo. The gar­den show­cases sub­trop­i­cal veg­e­ta­tion in set­tings that re­flect the cul­ture of Brazil, the Caribbean, Asia and Florida. The zoo be­gan as botan­i­cal gar­dens in 1919 and to­day is home to wild an­i­mals from around the world. In 2016 it de­buted a spe­cial Florida pan­ther ex­hibit to house a lo­cal cat blinded by a shot­gun blast.

The Col­lier County sys­tem of mu­se­ums oc­cu­pies five unique venues in Marco Is­land, Naples, Ever­glades City and Immokalee—all of them fam­ily-friendly. The Naples De­pot Mu­seum un­veiled a restora­tion of its 1947 tav­ern car in late 2017. The town’s most fam­ily-friendly mu­seum, Golisano Chil­dren’s Mu­seum of Naples, sits next to ev­ery kid’s fa­vorite, the Sun-n-Fun La­goon wa­ter park in North Naples.

Naples is known, too, for its su­perla­tive golf­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. Be­sides play­ing lush, nat­u­ral golf cour­ses, adults and kids alike can get their game on at var­i­ous golf schools and pro­grams in the area.

In Fort My­ers, the Edi­son & Ford Win­ter Es­tates, one of South­west Florida’s finest his­toric trea­sures, of­fers guided and self­guided tours. Nearby, the IMAG His­tory & Science Cen­ter in­cor­po­rates ex­hibits from the for­mer South­west Florida Mu­seum of His­tory and Imag­i­nar­ium Science Cen­ter with new vir­tual-re­al­ity ex­hibits for a one-stop mu­seum that ap­peals to adults and chil­dren alike.

New on Fort My­ers Beach, the Mound House, un­der de­vel­op­ment for sev­eral years and the town’s old­est stand­ing struc­ture, opened a cul­tural mu­seum in late 2015 ex­am­in­ing the Calusa, who built a shell mound on the prop­erty. Go in­side and take a peek.

At Lee County Mana­tee Park in North Fort My­ers, watch man­a­tees from the ob­ser­va­tion deck and board­walk or rent kayaks and pad­dle out to see them com­ing and go­ing into the “bay.” The area is es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing dur­ing the win­ter months; the colder it gets the more man­a­tees there are.

New in 2017 for Punta Gorda, the world­class Peace River Botan­i­cal & Sculp­ture Gar­dens opened on a lovely river­side es­tate.

For fam­i­lies in Sara­sota, the canopy board­walk in the new Chil­dren’s Rain­for­est Gar­den at Marie Selby Gar­dens is a don’t-- miss. Other fam­ily musts in­clude the cir­cus mu­se­ums at The Rin­gling, Mote Marine Lab­o­ra­tory & Aquar­ium and Sara­sota Jungle Gar­dens.

Braden­ton’s his­tory dates back to Her­nando de Soto, and a na­tional his­toric site re­calls his first land­fall. The South Florida Mu­seum and Parker Mana­tee Aquar­ium nicely dis­plays de Soto re­lated ex­hibits, plus pre­his­toric an­i­mal recre­ations. The aquar­ium is a sec­ond-stage re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter for res­cue man­a­tees be­fore they are re­leased into the wild.

Stroll along Braden­ton River­walk for views, play ar­eas, and easy-to-ab­sorb learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

Braden­ton’s Cortez com­mu­nity re­tains its feel of an Old Florida fish­ing village with a work­ing water­front and mar­itime mu­seum. A num­ber of char­ter boats de­part from the docks to take you deep-sea or back­bay fish­ing.

Head east of town for a lit­tle ex­treme ad­ven­ture at TreeUmph!, an aerial ob­sta­cle course with zip lines.

BEACHES & OUT­DOOR GEMS

You will find no na­ture-deficit dis­or­der in South­west Florida, where the great out­doors ranges from gor­geous, award-win­ning beaches to the raw wilder­ness of the Ever­glades ecosys­tem. Around Naples and Ever­glades City, a num­ber of state and fed­eral parks and pre­serves safe­guard frag­ile Ever­glade habi­tats—home to myr­iad birds and fish, deer, Florida pan­thers, bob­cats, man­a­tees, al­li­ga­tors, croc­o­diles, tur­tles and river ot­ters. Big Cy­press Na­tional Pre­serve, the most mas­sive of the pub­lic lands, pro­vides inim­itable op­por­tu­ni­ties for recre­ation among wildlife. Ever­glades Na­tional Park and Ten Thou­sand Is­lands Na­tional Wildlife Refuge pro­tect the seas and wet­lands of the so-called River of Grass.

Beach glam­our be­gins in Marco Is­land and Naples with award-win­ning strands that cover the gamut from the mu­nic­i­pal beach and his­toric fish­ing pier in Naples to the wild Del­nor-Wig­gins Pass State Park.

What do trav­el­ers, and par­tic­u­larly fam­i­lies, find so en­dear­ing about lo­cal beaches? The soft, white sand, gen­tly slop­ing sea bot­tom and tot-friendly waves win raves. Cer­tain beach des­ti­na­tions, fur­ther­more, have rep­u­ta­tions for dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as the seashell over­load on Sani­bel and Cap­tiva is­lands and sharks’ teeth find­ings in Venice. The best shelling beaches around Sani­bel in­clude Bow­man’s Beach and off­shore Cayo Costa, which is ac­ces­si­ble only by boat. A num­ber of char­ters will take you there to col­lect shells. In Venice, head to the fish­ing pier at Bro­hard Beach or to Caspersen Beach to sift for sharks’ teeth in the sand.

Other su­perla­tive beach qual­i­ties: Cap­tiva Is­land and Lovers Key State Park are of­ten listed in the most ro­man­tic cat­e­gory; in Sara­sota, Si­esta Key’s sand is fa­mously soft and blind­ingly white, so don’t for­get to pack the shades. In 2017, Dr. Beach once again named it Amer­ica’s top beach.

EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

The nightlife scene in Naples—par­tic­u­larly down­town and in North Naples—gets con­tin­u­ally live­lier these days as young cou­ples and fam­i­lies move in. Hit the live the­aters around Fifth Av­enue South, then stay to party at late-night clubs down­town. Or take in a show at Ar­tis–Naples in North Naples and later head to the clubs and pubs in the Mer­cato shop­ping and en­ter­tain­ment district. You can do both din­ner and a movie at its Sil­verspot Cinema or at the Paragon The­aters at The Pav­il­ion across the street. North Naples also has its own com­edy clu­brestau­rant com­plex.

For quirky spec­ta­tor sport en­ter­tain­ment, you can’t beat the Swamp Buggy Races held three times each win­ter. It in­volves big-tired Ever­glade ve­hi­cles, lots of mud, and a fes­ti­val queen who ends up in the deep­est mud hole.

East of town in Immokalee, the Semi­nole Casino Hotel hosts gam­ing and big-name en­ter­tain­ment. To the north, Bonita Springs is build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for com­edy, live mu­sic, din­ing, per­form­ing arts and in­die films. It is also home to a greyhound race­track.

Down­town Fort My­ers has the hottest nightlife and spe­cial events scene in town. Fort My­ers is also home to two Ma­jor League Base­ball sta­di­ums that host the Min­ne­sota Twins and Bos­ton Red Sox dur­ing spring train­ing. Come sum­mer, the Fort My­ers Mir­a­cle take to the field. The Tampa Bay Rays train in Port Char­lotte to the north, and off-sea­son, the Char­lotte Stone Crabs bat the ball around.

The Sara­sota-Braden­ton area is home to two spring train­ing teams as well—the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates and Bal­ti­more Ori­oles, plus sum­mer’s Braden­ton Ma­raud­ers. In 2019, the At­lanta Braves plan to move their train­ing sea­son to North Port, south of Sara­sota.

Much of Sara­sota’s en­ter­tain­ment and nightlife is of a higher brow ilk, with a rep­u­ta­tion for fine the­ater, sym­phony and opera. Down­town Sara­sota sparkles at night with so­phis­ti­cated clubs, and Si­esta Key has a beachy party at­mos­phere in the village.

Don’t miss the beach clubs of Braden­ton Beach for more laid-back en­ter­tain­ment op­tions. Braden­ton’s Mana­tee Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter in­fuses en­ergy into down­town, as does its dy­namic River­walk, the venue for De­cem­ber’s long-run­ning blues fes­ti­val.

OP­PO­SITE TOP: A young bird­watcher at Six Mile Cy­press Slough Pre­serve in Fort My­ers TOP: Skim­board­ing in the Fort My­ers area. CEN­TER: Shelling on Kee­way­din Is­land. RIGHT: Fam­ily boat­ing in Naples.

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