By Lori John
FORT MYERS, Fla.: Fort Myers became known as “Dunk City” after Florida Gulf Coast University’s men’s basketball team went on an improbable journey to the Sweet 16, and now is scoring points by offering visitors a feel of old and new Florida.
The city received national attention during March Madness, sparking folks to wear out Google searching for facts about Fort Myers, new fans to flock to FGCU for T-shirts and other gear, and high schoolers to start talking to their parents about attending college in the area.
They were discovering what others have known for years. The area is a longtime winter playground for the rich and for snowbirds.
On a visit to Fort Myers, you can see FGCU’s basketball team in action at Alico Arena, check out spring-training games at the new JetBlue Park or visit new attractions such as the Mohawk Veterans Memorial Reef.
If that’s too much action, the Fort Myers area, which includes Sanibel and Captiva islands, offers 590 miles of shoreline and 50 miles of beaches, making it easy to soak up the sun, search for the legendary “green flash” as the sun sets on the watery horizon and visit local landmarks, on and off the water.
Probably the most famous fans of Fort Myers were Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, whose homes, gardens and laboratories are part of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, one of the city’s main attractions.
You’ll pull into the estates from the palm-tree-lined McGregor Boulevard to tour the property, which Edison purchased when he and his family began spending winters in Fort Myers in 1901 (he planted the palm trees). More than 225,000 people annually visit the attraction, which spans 20 acres, including homes and gardens along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River.
Even with groups of people wandering around the property, it’s a peaceful trip back into time.
You can stroll charming wide front porches and peek into the restored homes, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, to spot furnishings, lighting and other details from the past. Edison’s laboratories, gardens and a museum, are on the other side of the street (where you can buy tickets and receive a listening device for the self-guided tour).
Hundreds of unusual plants and trees, including a banyan tree that was a gift from Akron industrialist Harvey Firestone in 1928 and believed to be the largest banyan tree in the continental United States, are Instagram-worthy. A laboratory on the estate was used to test potential sources of domestic organic rubber.
The museum showcases inventions such as Edison’s phonographs and antique automobiles, and a new exhibit focuses on the camping trips Ford, Edison and Firestone took together.
Before or after visiting Edison & Ford Winter Estates, you’ll find shopping, dining, theater, art and music walks, historical walking tours and other events in downtown Fort Myers, called the River District. A redevelopment project, with new fountains and other features, is adding a new look to the waterfront.
A trip to Southwest Florida isn’t complete without visiting Sanibel Island. You’ll have to pay $6 to drive the Sanibel Island Causeway and $2 per hour to park at a beach on Sanibel, but the treasures you’ll find while shelling on the beaches make the cost worthwhile. We adopted the “Sanibel stoop” after seeing a nonstop collection of shells of all colors, even entire sand dollars.
The island will host the 2014 Sanibel Shell Festival on March 6-8, and the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum has been showing off shells since it opened in 1995. The numerous bike paths also make it easy to explore the island on two wheels (or a few more, since we saw kids with training wheels on the paths, too).
Divers can explore the Mohawk Veterans Memorial Reef, a former Coast Guard cutter from World War II about 28 miles off Sanibel Island.
Sanibel’s and Captiva’s beaches — as well as Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Beach and Naples to the south — are great gathering spots at sunset, where people try to view the elusive “green flash” (I’ve never spotted it, despite numerous attempts).
After sunset, you can catch a show at Fort Myers’ numerous arts venues, including the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, Broadway Palm Dinner Theater and Florida Repertory Theatre.
A few miles from the beaches and on the other side of Interstate 75, you’ll find the new JetBlue Park, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox, which opened in 2012. The park has its own version of Fenway Park’s “Green Monster,” and hosts other baseball and softball tournaments throughout the year.
A bike route links JetBlue Park and the Lee County Sports Complex/Hammond Stadium, where the Minnesota Twins play during spring training. Near the park is Norman Love Confections’ Fort Myers Chocolate Salon, where people wait in line to hover around a case of colorful, artistic chocolates and gourmet truffles in flavors including caramel macchiato, mango and key lime shell.
Workers at the nearby Southwest Florida International Airport recognize the tropical green Norman Love boxes. A gate attendant asked for a chocolate in exchange for my boarding pass, and I almost gave him the entire box for the opportunity to stay in Southwest Florida for a few more days.