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.
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.