By Stephanie Davis
For me, and for many Fort Myers residents, there is home—and there is the faraway land of SoCo.
For those not in the know, anywhere on U.S. 41 south of Colonial Boulevard is SoCo—and anything south of College Parkway is
SOSoCo. At their lengthiest, these journeys are only about 7 miles away from my home—but trust me, it’s a very long 7 miles of traffic lights, strip malls and slow drivers in the left lane.
My neighborhood is historic downtown Fort Myers—otherwise known as CoZo—my comfort zone.
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Sticking close to it, I’ve developed a reputation as a downtown diva—I’ve lived in Fort Myers since I was in grade school (let’s just say a few decades) and I can count, on both hands, the number of times I’ve ventured south to Naples—and still have a finger or two to spare. If I can barely endure the 6-mile trek to the Bell Tower, struggling to Naples means packing water, energy bars, my passport and any daily prescription medications I might need. I’ve found that this painstaking effort is not worth sitting outside a restaurant on Fifth Avenue South with a $15 glass of wine just to watch people stroll by in nice shoes.
There, I said it. I’ve never warmed to Naples—when I’m in Naples, I feel like a Ross Dress for Less girl trapped in a Nordstrom world. Neapolitans seem taller, blonder and sparklier. They play a lot of golf and tennis and carry expensive handbags. The men appear to be required to wear Ralph Lauren (is there a city ordinance or something?). On glittery Fifth, my Ford Fiesta looks so sad parked next to a shiny new Ferrari. To put it simply, Naples makes me feel dowdy—and really, who wants to drive so far just to feel dowdy?
And because of that I’ve missed out on some Naples treasures such as Naples Botanical Garden, a one-of-a-kind, tropical paradise boasting the gorgeous new LaGrippe Orchid Garden, the only outdoor garden devoted to orchids and epiphytes in the United States. Then there’s the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, with lions and tigers and bears (oh, my), which celebrated its 45th anniversary last year. Of course, on the few treks I’ve made to Naples, some really memorable moments came at concerts at Artis—Naples, which not only gets some incredible national and international acts, but also has its very own in-house symphony orchestra. Naples also has the new Gordon River Greenway—which could be why so many Neapolitans look so tan and fit. With pathways, kayaking and picnic areas, it’s a nature lover’s dream.
So, recently, when faced with the challenge of comparing Naples to Fort Myers for this assignment, I told my girlfriend Michaela, who I hardly ever see since she lives in Naples. Intrigued, she offered me a proposal I couldn’t refuse—if I would give her city a chance, she and her boyfriend, Johnny, would drive me down there and back. Michaela is a Naples enthusiast—as a marketing pro, stylist, former model and tall, blond person, she is Naples. And so I slipped on my most expensive outfit from Ross and nicest shoes from Target, packed some trail mix and gave Naples another shot.
Our first stop was Mercato, which I think is one of the smartest things Naples has ever done besides declaring an official Myra Daniels Day. Mercato is just far enough into Naples to still be Naples, but close enough to Fort Myers to be accessible; plus it has actual parking spaces, which downtown Fort Myers, unfortunately, has very few of. We hit Bravo first for $5 martinis and bar snacks starting at $3.95, and the place was packed, proving that even Neapolitans love a good bargain. Afterward, we strolled over to The Pub, which, if I’d been kidnapped and my blindfold was removed once inside, I could have sworn was a British pub in New York or Boston. Attractive young people enjoyed happy hour where cute boys and girls in kilts served cold beer. When we walked back outside, I had to blink my eyes a few times—oh, right, Naples—I forgot for a minute.
I wanted to go into Whole Foods before we left Mercato—or stop in Trader Joe’s at some point—because for many of us folks of the Fort, the allure of Naples really lies with its trendy grocery store chains and we’re unashamedly envious. Don’t worry, The Fresh Market, we’re grateful to have you at Bell Tower, it’s just, well—you understand.
My past experiences with Naples have mostly been based on posh Fifth Avenue South and the chic Waterside Shops, so after the Mercato, it was a nice surprise to stop into South Street, a family-style sports bar that features live music and a younger clientele as the night wears on. Off the beaten path in a strip mall at the southwest corner of Pine Ridge and Goodlette-Frank roads, the bartenders were friendly, the wine affordable and patrons mostly wore jeans. A stark contrast to what followed next—Café Lurcat on Fifth. After we found parking in what felt like Immokalee (as far as parking is concerned, downtown Fort Myers and downtown Naples run neck and neck when it comes to disappointment), we walked into the very South Beach-esque, all white and cream eatery with lots of leather and glamour where I could have ordered the $1,200 bottle of wine on the menu or the $18 cocktail—or a $5 Budweiser (I went with something in between). We couldn’t resist Café Lurcat’s famous warm, cinnamon-sugar, mini doughnuts, which go surprisingly well with red wine (who knew?). The crowd included well-heeled folks mostly over 50—plus a handful of attractive, festive young people.
After a nice drive down by the beach, we ended up in a private dining room at LaPlaya with some very fun stars from the TV show Major Crimes. It wasn’t by accident; they were in town for a Sunshine Kids fundraiser and Michaela, who’s on the committee for the event, needed to make an appearance. So, I got to chat with famous people, which is another thing that Naples has on Fort Myers—more celebrities seem to flock to there. I’m going to attribute this to Naples having more luxury resorts per capita than Fort Myers.
In conclusion, I learned that there’s a whole lot more to Naples than I assumed. But, there’s one thing for sure: Neapolitans are just like Fort Myers folk—they generally stick to their neck of the woods. On the way home, as Johnny drove us past Bonita Beach Road, he marveled, “I haven’t been this far north in years.” I guess you might call that North of Naples, or NoNa. And as we drove further into Fort Myers, I found myself getting more comfortable, because while I had a truly fine time south of the border, there’s no place like home—and home wins every time, even without a Trader Joe’s.
Related: Naples vs. Fort Myers: Whose Nightlife is Better
By Liz Kellar
I glance at my cell phone to double-check that I’m in the right place.
I want to be sufficiently shady-looking as I make my entrance; it only seems appropriate, considering my destination. So I’ve come up through the alleyway, almost bumping into a sculpture of an octopus holding a beer bottle, past a man selling black-light art, the figures eerie and luminescent.
Finally, when I catch sight of a silent film flickering on the wall, I know I’ve found it—this is The 86 Room, Fort Myers’ self-described “local speakeasy prohibition bar.”
It’s also one of the many stops on my own personal “Fort Myers Fun” tour. There’s an upright piano in one corner, heavy velvet curtains and a drink menu that lists such 1920s-style libations as a Pimm’s Cup, a Sidecar and one named for silver screen star Mary Pickford. After consulting with bartender Anthony, I go for a St. Germain Martini, an aromatic combination of Bombay Sapphire gin, imported elderberry liqueur and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice that turns out to be lighter and more refreshing than I expected.
But is it fun?
It’s the question I’m here to answer, and the one I’ve asked at every stop I’ve made.
That includes the GreenMarket at the Lee County Alliance for the Arts, where I indulged in homemade cookies by Judi Mae Bayer and sampled local honey from Claudia Silveira, the “Lee Queen Bee,” all while admiring the tables of just-picked veggies and bulking up on my green thumb during a free hydroponic gardening workshop.
And I considered it as I strolled the streets of downtown Fort Myers, stop- ping into the Franklin Shops to browse knickknacks and keepsakes galore, impressed by just how much the retail collective has grown since it opened a few years ago. As I left, my eye caught a sandwich board advertising tour company True Tours’ roster of offerings, such as Public Art, Downtown Revitalization, Haunted History and Founding Females—the latter a nod to the women who helped to build and beautify Fort Myers in its early days.
I popped into Bennett’s Fresh Roast for a cup of coffee to refuel and walked along the windy waterfront, keeping an eye open for dog walkers; one of the best things about Fort Myers, Bayer told me, was its dog-friendliness. She was right, too—dogs trotted alongside their owners, sprawled in the shade of benches and stopped to sip water from the many bowls placed as a courtesy outside the shops and restaurants in the downtown area.
Later, I made my way through Fort Myers’ monthly Art Walk, enjoying local artwork—that beer-swilling octopus; jewelry; and works by
painters, caricature artists and even “Skullee the Skullptor,” whose collection included “Boney Babies,” small beanbag dolls painted to look like skeletons. With a grin, Skullee told me that this is “what happens when children no longer love their Beanie Babies.”
A bit macabre? Maybe. But perhaps not unexpected in the town that welcomes thousands of the undead each October as part of Zombicon, a gore-and-glam street festival of costumes, contests, music and dancing that benefits local arts charities. The building that helped to inspire the event—the
Sidney & Berne Davis Arts Center, which makes a cameo in director George A. Romero’s 1985 zombie flick Day of the Dead—is alive tonight with a very different festival, the holiday festival of trees.
And these are only a smattering of the highlights. My notes are full of coming attractions and missed connections, hidden corners where fun stuff is preparing to emerge.
Art Walk and Music Walk are about to become a trifecta, thanks to the addition of Mystery Walk, an entertainment- and performance-themed monthly walk, while just off First Street, brown paper covers the windows of the soon-to-open “Art Bar,” which will offer live jazz and blues, painting parties, craft beer and wine.
I’ve lived in Naples since 1998, and I consider it my town. In the mornings, I walk the beach, collecting seashells and trying not to giggle at the earnest- ness of the Nordic Pole walkers I see. In the evenings, my husband and I take our sputtering old 1979 Vespa to Third Street South for dinner, and we are always excited when we get to park it next to a shiny new Ferrari.
“Hey,” we tell onlookers. “They’re both Italian.”
I love Naples for its beauty and its many upscale amenities, but also for its surreal charm, its insular quirkiness. But fun?
There’s no denying that Fort Myers has something that Naples doesn’t, some lively and alluring tangle of bohemian funkiness, historic charisma and urban renewal. It’s noticeable even in the daytime, after I leave
the Alliance—I’m making a mental note to return for one of their highly recommended monthly Bluegrass in the Theatre concerts—and drive along McGregor Boulevard, past sunlit palm trees and the entrance to the gracious Edison & Ford Winter Estates.
Bayer describes Fort Myers as a town that combines city conveniences with natural beauty, but she adds that it’s also a place where something is always happening, and that’s part of the fun of living there. Sometimes she doesn’t even know what that thing will be—on a recent weekend morning, she looked out her window and a crowd of runners stormed by as part of a race.
This sense of Fort Myers’ ongoing activity is one I hear over and over again.
After pouring me a glass of pinot noir, my bartender James at the Patio de Leon steakhouse Prime de Leon puts it bluntly: “Naples is about class, about money. Fort Myers is about let’s party and keeping things as new as possible,” he says. “Things are constantly changing down here.”
Back at the GreenMarket, Queen Bee Silveira credits the continuing efforts of the revitalization for helping to launch Fort Myers into the fun stratosphere.
“It’s working very well,” she says. “This place was dead, dead, dead.”
Now it’s a town where you don’t have to go far to find the latest and greatest, whether it’s a street party, a craft cocktail, an independent film screened by the Fort Myers Film Festival or an original play performed by the Ghost Bird Theatre Company or Theatre Conspiracy. But in Fort Myers, the future and the past have a comfort- able relationship—there’s a speakeasy, historical tours and restaurants such as The Firestone Grille, which also screens black-and-white films for its guests.
In the end, I leave the way I came, out the alley that led to The 86 Room, saying goodbye to the octopus as I go.
Going back to go forward feels right—and definitely fun.