Lee County, Florida leaves a lasting impressionApr 26, 2023 12:25PM ● By Victor Block
Arriving in Lee County, Florida, just weeks after Hurricane Ian devastated the area, I expected the worst, and my first impression supported that fear. Beachfront lots previously occupied by houses were empty, victims of wind and water. Some homes that escaped being obliterated had gaping holes in their roofs which were covered by blue tarpaulins. Piles of debris littered sidewalks.
But to my surprise and delight, concern about how I would spend the next few weeks soon dissipated. Stretches of beach were being reopened to sun worshippers. A few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, there were few indications of the big blow that had wreaked havoc along the coast.
I discovered that the appeals of that area of southwest Florida provide a variety of diversions that can fill days and evenings. Compared with the glitz and glitter of Miami and the go-go action at Walt Disney World, I found Lee County to be a lesser-known, but no less inviting, jewel of the Sunshine State.
No wonder many “snowbirds” trade the cold for a subtropical climate and make it their winter retreat. I took advantage of both memorable man-made attractions and Mother Nature’s magnificent handiwork to sample some of what the location has to offer.
Gifts of the sea
The list begins with the setting itself, a tableau of pine flatwoods, cypress swamps and bands of mangroves. Bays, rivers and streams have long played an important role in the local way of life. We spotted a sign that read, “Welcome to the boating lifestyle,” and placards urging residents to “Adopt a canal.”
The Calusa [kuh-LOO-suh] were a Native American people who were drawn to this estuarine environment over 6,000 years ago, when they built shell mound complexes, seasonal campsites and canal systems.
Contact with Spanish explorers and their diseases eventually decimated the indigenous population, but evidence of this chapter of history remains at Mound Key in Estero Bay, the former Calusa capital; the Calusa Heritage Trail, which is lined by informative interpretive signs; and Cabbage Key, where an inn and restaurant sit atop a large shell hill.
The Calusa’s focus on fishing continues today in a state that is ranked among the best in the country for the activity. The year-round warm climate, diverse ecosystems and variety of aquatic settings offer options ranging from deep sea and reef fishing to backcountry and fresh water angling.
Gasparilla and Sanibel islands are known as the best shelling spots among a number of them, which makes Lee County a virtual mecca for those seeking to collect mollusks in an assortment of colors, shapes and designs. A familiar site is people of all ages bending over in what is termed the “Sanibel stoop,” picking up exotic shells with imaginative names like Lion’s Paw, Ponderous Ark and Banded Tulip.
Visitors interested in the closest things to cities face an equally welcome choice. The county seat of Fort Myers encircles a brick-lined main street, long residential thoroughfares lined by towering royal palm trees and traditional Florida “cracker” houses.
Paintings, metal sculptures and other street art add a touch of whimsey to the scene, and the Edison & Ford Winter Estates relate the fascinating story of two of America’s industrial icons.
Thomas Edison first visited Fort Myers in 1885 and built a winter retreat. Henry Ford came to town at Edison’s invitation in 1914 and bought an adjacent bungalow. Today the complex they share includes botanical gardens and the laboratory in which Edison tested more than 17,000 plants while seeking a substitute for natural rubber. He finally selected goldenrod as most promising. A 15,000-square-foot museum is packed with his innovative inventions and other displays.
Boca Grande became a winter escape before roads were built for northerners who arrived by train. That time is evoked by old Florida homes and tree-framed streets. The calm is disrupted each spring by fishermen seeking their luck in one of the best tarpon hideouts in the world.
Bonita Springs, a personal favorite, traces its birth to the mid-1800s, but the Calusa had lived in the area long before then.
Banners proclaiming “small town charm,” which are displayed throughout the historic downtown neighborhood, don’t lie. Early 20th century frame cottages and unpretentious food shops that sell local honey, Gulf fish and home-laid quail eggs demonstrate the town’s down-to-earth appeal.
History & Nature
Surrounding these towns and historic sites are natural places that warrant a visit. The Bird Rookery Swamp Trail leads through wetlands inhabited by alligators, otters, bobcats and other water and land dwellers and a virtual aviary of colorful, and colorfully named, birds.
The Six Mile Cypress Slough (pronounced slew) Preserve is a narrow wetland which serves as a home and safe travel route for wildlife, including endangered species. A boardwalk provides easy access and convenient viewing areas.