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RSW Living Magazine

Magical History Tour: Spice up SWFL sightseeing with a sense of the past

May 07, 2021 02:49PM ● By JEFF LYTLE

The Beatles made a movie and album about a Magical Mystery Tour. Today, Southwest Florida serves up a magical history tour for those who want a sense of the past to spice up their sightseeing. And although much of our area is shiny and new, there is a lot to learn about how we got where we are today.

Let’s start at the northern frontier of Southwest Florida in North Fort Myers, home to the Shell Factory & Nature Park. What might seem like just another water park and gift shop actually earns a niche in history as a quintessential tourist trap 80 years ago hawking souvenir shells and everything encrusted with them. It’s grown into a vibrant complex full of animals, water slides and pools, a zipline, restaurants and yes, a really big gift shop.

Next, if you’re serious about exploring all that Lee County has to offer, set aside two days for Boca Grande, Cayo Costa Island State Park and Pine Island. They represent a trip back in time—to truly old “Old Florida,” rustic and understated.

Highlights on Boca Grande are the lighthouse, with a house used by the doctor who performed port quarantine surveillance, and the Gasparilla Inn, which has evolved into a full-fledged resort with golf, tennis, beach and fine dining. No wonder the Bush family political dynasty vacationed there every Christmastime years ago.

For your next stop, consider Pine Island, which includes scenic, low-key venues such as Matlacha, Bokeelia and St. James City. As you gaze at lush orchards and aging cottages and galleries at water’s edge, try to remember you are a stone’s throw from the mega wealth and ultra-modern development standards of Sanibel Island, Captiva Island and Fort Myers.


From there, book a ferry to Cayo Costa and its shell mounds, which tell us Native Americans lived and fished here for 4,000 or more years before the arrival of Europeans in Florida. Cayo Costa, which means Key by the Coast or barrier island, hosted Spanish fishermen from Cuba in the early 1800s.

By the early 1900s, nearly 20 fishing families lived on Cayo Costa, building a school, post office and grocery store. The state park features rustic cabins available to rent. Be sure to plan ahead and make reservations.

Moving right along, Sanibel and Captiva make a great pairing for a day trip. They walk the walk when it comes to environmental protection and restrained growth. No Miami high-rises or nightlife here. Prepare to take it slow and soak up the ambiance. Rent a bike and explore.

Sanibel’s J.N. “Ding” DarlingNational Wildlife Refuge, named for a crusading editorial cartoonist and acquired by the federal government in 1945, is a 6,300-acre showcase of nature, with birding, fishing, paddle watercrafting and hiking galore—either on your own or with guides. Or take the tram. Also worth a visit is the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village, founded in 1984 with a mission to preserve and share the city's history.

 A must-see on Captiva is the aptly named ’Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa, circa 1930, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound, with beach access, marina, restaurants and bars. The bright, festive venue sets the tone for an area whose history is dotted with tales of the Calusa, Spaniards, pirates and fishermen.


Let’s do Fort Myers next. Its waterfront downtown district is a historic treat all its own, with many buildings that have been pampered and preserved for well over a century since the days when cattle, fishing and agriculture were king. Professional offices blend with antique shops and cafés, although high-rise development is arriving.

You’ll be within walking distance of the Old Lee County Courthouse, built in 1915 with Classical Revival architecture, and the iconic Edison & Ford Winter Estates. It’s a must-see for tourists and residents alike, with gardens and laboratories built by Thomas Edison in his quest for better rubber and for lightbulb filaments.

The Edison-themed Collaboratory, also downtown, breathes new life into the city’s circa-1920s train station. Original tracks lead to the front door; the lobby’s separate ticket windows were for white and Black passengers. The facility is owned by the Community Foundation of Southwest Florida. It lets small businesses and civic groups use its office and meeting space, encouraging users to share info about projects and collaborate on better outcomes.

Edison left his imprint on another downtown landmark, the Historic Arcade Theatre. He handed out high school diplomas on its stage and showed his experimental movies to friends such as Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. It’s now is home to the professional actors and musicians of the nationally acclaimed Florida Repertory Theatre.

Before leaving Fort Myers, catch a bit of history that escapes most visitors: Terry Park, built in 1906, was the spring training home of baseball pioneer Connie Mack—whose son and grandson went on to represent our area in Congress—and his Philadelphia Athletics pro team. Later tenants were the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals.  



Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Roberto Clemente played on its hallowed grounds, which now host three fields used by leagues of all ages. JetBlue Park at Fenway South and CenturyLink Sports Complex both owe homage to Terry Park.

As we head south, a stop at LoversKey State Park en route to Estero and Bonita Springs provides a lesson on what conservation and leadership can achieve. The property was rescued from high-density residential development so imminent that canals—now frequented by manatees—were dredged, and properties had been numbered for homesites. 

In Bonita, cruise downtown on Old 41 Road, which is a predecessor of the Tamiami Trail. Stop by the Shangri-La Springs Spa & Resort, and also Everglades Wonder Gardens, a hybrid zoo and botanical showcase.

The resort, newly refurbished, dates back to the 1920s, when lore says gangsters of the era would hide out there. Later, Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Buddy Hackett would check in for rest and relaxation. The grounds, now with a top-notch gourmet restaurant, retain an organic commitment by owners in the 1960s.

Everglades Wonder Gardens works to evolve from humble origins as a roadside tourist trap with pens for alligators. New leadership with solid credentials is aboard, stressing ethics and education. Children get a big kick out of feeding the stars of the show—flamingos.

Up the road in Estero, history buffs can glimpse the past at otherwise modern Estero Community Park’s pioneer cottages. One served as a schoolhouse.   



Now it’s time for Naples, to the south in Collier County, named for Barron Gift Collier, who owned most of the land and built the scenic route U.S. 41. Start where the town did, at Naples Pier, which was a commerce and tourism lifeline before becoming an iconic Southwest Florida landmark and trademark, rebuilt several times because of hurricanes and age.

A stroll on nearby Third Street South offers a glimpse of several remaining original buildings, although repurposed as restaurants and shops. Also within walking distance sits Palm Cottage, a mini museum and Naples’ oldest house, protected by the city’s historical society.

Just a quick drive away, Naples Depot Museum, a circa-1920s train center, is a museum of local history, as well as Lionel model trains. (There’s little left of the original Naples Airport, a military pilot training center, the third leg of the founding transportation network.)

Naples City Hall is a short hop from the depot, and it rewards you with walls full of some of the very best—and biggest—vintage photos of the now fabulously wealthy city in its most humble origins of sand dunes and palmetto scrub. As you sightsee beyond the city’s core, keep in mind most of what you see is outside the actual city limits and didn’t exist before Hurricane Donna in 1960, considered the catalyst to today’s Naples.

No visit to Collier County is complete without a day trip to Marco Island, Everglades City and Chokoloskee. Marco’s branch of the county museum network shows off its prized Key Marco Cat, a wood sculpture fashioned by ancient Calusa and unearthed amid a circa-1890s mud dig. While on the island, notice its vast network of massive canals. The scope of the project is what led to the banning of such dredge-and-fill development nationwide.

Everglades City looks a lot like it did while serving as the county seat until 1962. City Hall and a shuttered bank highlight a panorama as if from a time machine. The century-old Rod & Gun Club, with much of its original furniture, fixtures and animal trophies, has housed and fed guests such as presidents, Ernest Hemingway and Mick Jagger. The trip to Chokoloskee, while you’re in the neighborhood, is worth it just for Smallwood’s Store, a 1920s-era trading post that’s now a museum.

So there you have it: a primer on historic sites in Southwest Florida. There are plenty of others on websites of the National Historic Register, chambers of commerce, cities and counties. See for yourself. Doing a little homework on each history venue before you go makes the learning process even more enjoyable. And don’t forget to consult public health protocols, just to be safe.

Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.