10 Best Outdoor Pleasures
Where to go for romance, adventure and just pure fun.
Ahh, the warmth.While people are suffering from frostbite up north, we’re enjoying the opportunity to go outside and do almost anything we want—without woolen mittens, long underwear or a pocket ice scraper. We’re not mocking those people; they’ve made their choice, albeit a horrible one. And so, as we think about planning the upcoming days of the new year, we need to take advantage of what a sun-kissed 80 degrees offers: top-down comfort, boating and fishing, beach time, golf, cocktails and so much more. And as part of a love letter from Southwest Florida to our poor, unfortunate friends who’ve lost all feeling in their extremities, we thought we’d share some of the ways to savor what our outdoors has to offer. Ways we plan on enjoying all year long.
Bicycling on Sanibel Island
Paying the $6 to cross the Sanibel Causeway from the mainland is an investment in mental and physical wellbeing. It is a world away from the Applebee’s and Total Tans of Fort Myers, offering visitors a chance to experience a vacation any day of the week without massive commercialism bowling you over. Known for their spectacular shelling beaches and wildlife refuges, Sanibel and Captiva are quirky throwbacks to a time of surf music and transistor radios set amidst the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There are multiple public beaches, but our favorites are Lighthouse Beach located at the island’s eastern-most point (at the end of Periwinkle Way), which features a functioning lighthouse, and the very secluded Bowman’s Beach. You could conceivably shell your way west by northwest all the way to the north end of Captiva (approximately 17 miles via beach), with only a quick detour via bridge where Sanibel and Captiva islands meet. And while that would be a lovely way to spend a very long day, you could speed up that journey by renting a bike at any number of rental spots (Billy’s Sanibel Bike Rentals, Finnimore’s Cycle Shop, etc.) and cruising the many miles of bikepaths, a number of which lead to the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to more than 220 species of native birds. Then, pedal north to the Mucky Duck off Andy Rosse Lane to enjoy a frothy beverage and the perfect sunset. Billy’s Sanibel Bike Rental, 1470 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 472-6224,billysrentals.com; Finnimore’s Cycle Shop, 2353 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 472-5577, finnimores.com; The Mucky Duck, 11546 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva Island, 472-3434, muckyduck.com
Sunset Cocktails at LaPlaya’s Outdoor Fire Pits
Just try and find a more perfect spot to relax after a grueling week of work or golf or shopping or spa treatments (or whatever you claim to do all week)—it’s impossible. Just head over to LaPlaya on Gulf Shore Drive and hand your keys to the valet. A short walk through the lobby and you’ll begin to feel the weight of the world begin to lift. It’s funny how the proximity to the bar seems to affect our sense of self. But don’t stop at the stylish and inviting interior bar—keep moving out to the beach where LaPlaya has the perfect venue to a wind-down week: Adirondack chairs surrounding fire pits on the edge of the Gulf. Sublime is not accurate enough for the experience. Roast a marshmallow and/or sip a glass of wine while the flames flicker against the perfect backdrop. Open daily from 4 p.m.to midnight. LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort, 9891 Gulf Shore Drive, Naples, 597-3123, laplayaresort.com
Ghost Orchid Spotting at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
If you love scavenger hunts, have recently visited your optometrist and own a pair of high-powered binoculars, have we got the adventure for you. The exceedingly rare ghost orchid, made famous in the book The Orchid Thief, is one of those things people hunt for all their lives (such as a white rhino or a good Tim Allen movie). But it turns out that there’s not one, but two of the scarce flowers visible from the boardwalk of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a 13,000-acre preserve with the largest stand of old-growth bald cypress trees in North America. As you might expect, you’ve got to walk as far away from the visitor’s center as possible to see them, but if you come equipped with binoculars, they’re located between 40 and 100 feet from the boardwalk and about 50 feet up in an old-growth bald cypress. They normally bloom in June, but can continue to flower into the beginning of October. If you want to add a degree of difficulty, the park offers night events once a month under the full moon. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary & Blair Audubon Center, 375 Sanctuary Road W., Naples, 348-9151, corkscrew.audubon.org
Convertible Trip to Boca Grande
When I first moved here I hopped in the Porsche, put the top down and cruised north to check out Boca Grande, a small residential community on the south end of Gasparilla Island where the Bush and Du Pont families regularly winter. The island is accessible by car only via the Boca Grande Causeway in Placida near the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park. It’s a picturesque drive, but the tollbooth to the island doesn’t accept SunPass, so you better have cash on hand or the tollbooth operator will direct you to the nearest ATM (been there, paid the service charge). To get there from points south, you could take I-75 and main drag it over to the island, but it’s more fun to take Old Burnt Store Road. You can connect to it at Matlacha (population: 735), which is packed with small galleries, shops, seafood restaurants and cottages. From there head north to Punta Gorda (Spanish for “fat point”), which is worth its own trip. A quick turn on Tamiami Trail North and across Charlotte Harbor will eventually lead you to Gasparilla Road, home of the cash-hogging toll booth. You’ll then creep south along the island’s thoroughfare, entering the upscale world of Boca Grande, known for a relaxed luxury best traversed by golf cart. There is plenty of parking at the ends of the quiet residential streets along the Gulf side or at one of several parks in the community. There are several nice restaurants on the island, such as the Loose Caboose on Railroad Avenue, but the parks have plenty of tables if you want to go the picnic route.
Taking the Kids to Tigertail Beach on Marco Island
It’s an understatement to say we are blessed with some beautiful beaches along the Gulf Coast. Head west from virtually anywhere and you’ll end up at a beach. But not all beaches are the same. Most only offer two things: sand and water. But if you’ve got a troop of young kids in tow, you might prefer a beach that offers them some distraction from the endless bird watching and sunscreen applications. To that end, drive to Marco Island (via North Collier Boulevard) then hang a left onto Hernando Drive and pull into the parking lot of Tigertail. You’ll immediately realize that you’ve made a good choice. There’s a café, a large kids play area, restrooms, beach rentals and boardwalks connecting them all. The beach, which is set in a three-mile-long preserve, is enormous, so splurge for a cabana rental and when you get a little restless, rent a kayak, stand up paddle board, sea trike, paddle boat or an electric-powered Sea Squirt that features a water cannon! Send the kids to the playground or grab a burger or wrap at the café while you dig your toes into the only natural white sand beach in Collier County. Tigertail Beach, 490 Hernando Drive, Marco Island, (866) 703-1230, tigertailbeach.net
Type image credit here
Grab the kids, rent a cabana and enjoy the water at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.
18 Holes of Golf at Tiburón
A round of golf can be the most aggravating walk you ever take. But if you’re already afflicted with the disease, there’s no better medicine that a round at one of Tiburón’s two Greg Norman-designed courses. Located at the corner of Vanderbilt Beach and Airport-Pulling roads, this gorgeous location is the home to the Franklin Templeton Shootout. If you’re used to traditional courses from up north, Tiburón will be an interesting departure because it has no rough. The fairways are edged with pine straw and features stacked sod wall bunkers. And we promise you there’s enough sand to make you long for the beach. (You’ll actually discover it’s crushed coquina and has a lovely tangerine hue when you land in it—often.) Thanks to the uniformly short-trimmed fairways, smart players consider pulling out their putters before they even reach the greens. Tiburón Golf Club, 2620 Tiburón Drive, Naples, 593-2201,tiburongcnaples.com
Don’t get us wrong, we love the beach. But what’s even cooler is to leave the beach behind and go cruising out into the Gulf of Mexico for a day of fishing. And if you’re going to go fishing, why not go after something that is bigger than you? This area is known for its world-class tarpon fishing and if it were up to us, we would do it all day every day (for about two days). Tarpon can grow to up to eight feet and weigh as much as 280 pounds. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida currently holds 29 world records for tarpon, so even on a bad day you won’t confuse one with a guppy. Even better, these fish are fighters, known for leaping out of the water while you’re desperately trying to reel them in. It’s a major adrenaline rush. And though there are a bunch of qualified charter captains in the area, we spotted Capt. Jason Marsh of Angler’s Choice Outfitters on The Outdoor Channel’s Monster Fish series, and like the idea that conceivably we might end up on television reeling in another world record. Angler’s Choice Outfitters, Punta Rassa, 18500 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, 246-3579, anglerschoiceoutfitters.com
Kayaking the Great Calusa Blueway
Kayaking is the most fun you can have with a 14-foot piece of fiberglass wrapped around your abdo- men. And to get the most out of it we recommend you paddle your way around the Great Calusa Blueway. Stretching from North Naples all the way to Charlotte Harbor, the official trail is a whopping 190 miles of scenic coastal waterways and inland tributaries. Unless you’re trying to impress someone, we don’t recommend hitting all 190 miles but rather a small section where you can relax and smell the mangroves. We’re partial to exploring Estero Bay, but if you’re up for a bit of a drive, head to one of our favorite places, Matlacha (pronounced as if Nick Lachey had a brother, Matt) on Pine Island and begin your adventure from there. That’s where Gulf Coast Kayak is based. You’ll encounter manatees, dolphins, pelicans and a host of other wildlife. (We’re choosing not to mention the alligators to keep from scaring you.) You’ll be surprised how much you notice when you aren’t in your speedboat. Great Calusa Blueway, calusablueway.com; Gulf Coast Kayak, 4530 Pine Island Road, Matlacha, 283-1125, gulfcoastkayak.com
Bar Hopping on Fort Myers Beach
Sometimes you just need to let your hair down and chill. No expensive wine. No valet. No dress code. It’s liberating. Especially with libation in a plastic container. And all it takes is a quick drive down San Carlos Boulevard to Fort Myers Beach to find yourself in one of the least judgmental places in the state. Thanks to a culture that has embraced the spring break way of life, the beautiful sands along the Gulf are conveniently dotted with hot spots that are more than capable of satisfying your inner college sophomore. We tend to start at the Lani Kai because it has multiple tiki bars (and we like to claim Polynesian ancestry). It even has two rooftop restaurants from where you can glimpse the very last sunset. A short walk up the beach places you at one of the beach’s most infamous stops, Junkanoo (pronounced John-Canoe). It’s known for its luaus and red Solo cups, and the perfect evening there will have you dancing to live music on the sand. Other options include Nemo’s on the Beach, Top O’ Mast Lounge and the Beach Pub, just to name a few. The Beach Pub, 1668 I St., Fort Myers Beach, 765-6102; Junkanoo, 3040 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach, 463-6139, fortmyersbeachrestaurants.com; Lani Kai Resort, 1400 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach, 463-3111, lanikaiislandresort.com; Nemo’s on the Beach, 1154 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach, 233-8224; Top O’Mast Lounge, 1028 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach, 463-9424
Dining Alfresco at Sale e Pepe on Marco Island
Eating inside is for northerners. And although you can get any number of places to serve you burgers or flatbreads on their “patio” or sidewalk, to sample a fine dining experience while outdoors, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico is a tougher thing to accomplish. One of the few places to fit that bill is the incomparable Sale e Pepe, located at the Marco Beach Ocean Resort on Marco Island. This place is so romantic it almost smolders. There are hand-painted frescos on the walls, marble floors, aged stone accents and, when you choose to walk westward through the dining room, the most elegant spot from where to partake of filetto di manzo while overlooking the beautiful white sands and the blue greens of the Gulf of Mexico. The terrace actually has several rows of seating so, if possible, reserve a table along the front line of the terrace for an unimpeded view of the beach and sunset. Plan early; everyone knows this is the place for a romantic dinner at sunset and reservations fill up fast. Sale e Pepe, Marco Beach Ocean Resort, 480 S. Collier Blvd., Marco Island, 393-1400, marcoresort.com/sale-e-pepe-italian-restaurant.htm
Since so much of our lives is spent outdoors, we knew a Top 10 list wasn’t going to come close to covering everything great to do and see. So here’s another 10.
1. Fireworks at the beach: Both Fort Myers and Naples have piers that are the perfect stages for holiday fireworks displays. Count on New Year’s and the Fourth of July, with the occasional non-calendar celebration.
2. Swamp Walk with Clyde Butcher: The Everglades answer to Ansel Adams offers fairly regular swamp walks for those of us who want to experience the grandeur of nature but want to see it with someone who knows how to get us back out.
3. Boating to Keewaydin Island: A quick trip via boat puts you along the beautiful sandy shores of Keewaydin, one of the largest unbridged barrier islands in Florida.
4. Parasailing: For those times that being in the water just isn’t good enough, take the opportunity to be above it. While strapped to a parachute.
5. Sunset at the pier: Things you’ll see: barefoot guys fishing, tourists with questionable handbag and shoe combinations, sunset.
6. Trip to a farmer’s market: Food tastes so much better when you buy it from a person driving a truck fresh off the farm.
7. Horseback riding in Lee County: It’s like kayaking on dry land, but with less paddling. All you have to do is call a local stable; many offer trail rides.
8. Concerts at Cambier Park: The perfect venue for a night of jazz under the stars.
9. Spring training games: This is why some people we know moved down here in the first place. The new JetBlue Park is gorgeous, but the traffic is better at Hammond Stadium.
10. Sun Splash Family Water Park in Cape Coral: Because the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t have the X-Celerator free-fall speed slide or the Terror Tube partially enclosed free-fall waterslides.