Walking along the Ft. Myers Yacht Basin in the center of the city, you would never know that three months ago, it was littered with boats and destruction, havoc wreaked by Hurricane Ian. The feeling of calm felt almost eerie as I remembered the horrific TV images of months past.
Lee County’s Ft. Meyers and Bonita Springs are beach towns, bastions of sun and surf for snowbirds and tourists alike. With beaches closed and without facilities – possibly true for the foreseeable future – I found myself seeking other entertainment options – and I wasn’t disappointed.
There are still nature parks, island cruises have just started up again, hiking, of course, canoeing, boat excursions, flea markets, historic sites but I’m going to focus on three unusual attractions that don’t usually fall on the must-see itinerary.
Shangri-La Springs Resort, in concert with its name which usually conjures up a fantastical paradise, is actually where the springs that give the city of Bonita its name were first discovered by the Calusa Indians – the first mineral springs spa in North America. The hotel oozes history and healing inside and out.
At the Harvest and Wisdom Restaurant, I felt my mind expand even as I was being seated. Architecture, landscape and gardens provide extensive farm to table offerings. With only regenerative farming practices used, the 100% organic, sustainable products preserve the natural state of the plants. This was now over my pay grade dealing with essential oils, natural yeasts and beneficial bacteria but I was pretty sure the vegetables I was eating were pretty fresh.
Asian art proliferates throughout the property, inside and out. It’s a boutique hotel impersonating an art gallery. Even the lobby aquarium has tiny Asian sculptures. The fish, I assume, were local.
The springs themselves resemble a small river floating under extensive tree canopies. The large fountain erupting in the center was probably not there when first discovered… The grounds bring to mind a mini-Botanical garden (not the only Bonita Springs hide-a-way to do so but more on that later), proffering a quiet, restful ambiance accentuated by streams, fountains and sculptures. And then there’s the Spa which reflects internally the graceful serene exterior.
So from the sublime to the ridiculous – and I say that in the most loving of ways…. As a long-time travel writer, there are a few things I find anathema due to de rigueur repetitive visits. I tend to avoid tours of forts, butterfly gardens and shell factories. But the world’s largest Shell Factory and Nature Park in Ft. Myers beckoned despite my internal protestations. And what an adventure it was!
Apparently, they left off amusement park in the site’s name because these are the activities I first noticed: a carousel, mini-golf, zip-line, climbing wall, gem mining, paddle and bumper boats, arcade games, a performance arts center and two restaurants. And oh yes, there is also a shop that sells shell necklaces. Well, okay – perhaps a tad more than that. How about the World’s Largest Shell Factory and this country’s largest gift shop.
A place so big it warrants its own zip code and, no surprise, they have their own post office to accommodate it. Inside, in addition to those afore-mentioned shells, there’s a fudge factory, a Christmas store, ice cream bar, t-shirts galore, more greeting cards than in a Hallmark warehouse (maybe several warehouses…) and miles and miles of quirky items you never knew you wanted until you tripped over them.
An onsite fudge-making operation is one of many surprises at the Shell Factory. They have everything and all of it in abundance, attested to by a self-aware sign that states: “If you can’t find something in this store, they just don’t make it!” And that includes the kitsch-en sink.
And did I mention the Nature Park? Four-hundred-and-fifty animals ranging from the expected alligators, tortoises and peacocks to lesser-known lemurs, camels and reptiles to virtually unknown tayras, caracels and a huge Eurasian Eagle-Owl. And, of course, a petting zoo with goats, alpacas and an ox and a Dinosaur Park offering visitors a chance to walk through our prehistoric past. They were the only animals who were not real. Although I suspect the animals are well-taken care of, some of the habitats felt a little cramped and I wasn’t sorry to leave.
Nonetheless, apparently I have to rethink my aversion to Shell Factories. But the Everglades Wonder Garden in Bonita Springs — a sort of hidden gem — left all thoughts of its Nature Park behind – it was a place I didn’t want to leave. If you’re old enough to remember the “roadside attraction” designation – this one dates back to 1936 – it usually conjures up an image of very unhappy animals in a very unsavory environment.
Though a step-back in time to a mainstay of Florida tourism, this roadside attraction evokes a totally different mind-set. It is the “later” I alluded to earlier, though more of a semi-tropical rainforest than botanical garden.
Scarlett, Calypso, Rudy and Murphy act as a very colorful and loud welcoming committee. Compared to the Shell Factory, these parrots are in luxury outdoor accommodations. Visiting the various rescued animals over three very airy and well-signed acres – alligators to tortoises, flamingos to lorikeets, over bridges and walkways, alongside streams and splashing waterfalls, amid an avalanche of tropical plants – the feeling is one of expansiveness and immersion in nature, with an appreciation of what a wonderful home these animals have. I suspect many of then think they are still in the wild.
Whether an exotic plant, animal or waterfall, there’s something to gawk at around every turn. My personal favorite? A giant orange and black iguana straddling a tree. Squawks, shrieks, yelps and tweets (no, not THAT kind!) reinforce the jungle atmosphere. Even the few cages on the property are expansive enough to resemble the same jungle impression prevalent outside of them.
Even as I re-read this, I realize how much of Lee County involves a natural habitat of sorts. So yes, Bonita Springs and Ft. Myers may be all about beaches, but they are also, thankfully, all about nature. Besides, who had time to sunbathe? For more information, visit www.shangrilasprings.com, www.shellfactory.com and www.wondergardens.org.