Best feathered guest appearances: First, a single wild flamingo delighted bird watchers in Bunche Beach Preserve near the Sanibel Causeway, spotted in late January. Just weeks later, a great white pelican was seen at Sanibel’s J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge—a first in North America.
Best-hidden culture treasure: Silverspot Cinema is one of only a handful of Florida venues to present the fabulous Manhattan Short Film Festival each fall. Venues across six continents simultaneously screen 10 short films from different countries in the span of a single week, and audiences vote for the winning actor and film. Two of 2015’s entries ended up as 2016 Oscar nominees, and each one managed a diversely compelling and, amazingly, complete story in 14 minutes or less. Definitely two (emotional) hours well-spent.
Best fake-out: Many a resident was disappointed to learn the music group they thought they saw in the season lineup of Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall was Scottish bagpipers band The Red Hot Chilli Pipers—not legendary rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But those who showed up—some remaining unaware of the actual performers until they walked onstage—were rewarded with an awesome show.
Best bonus for drivers: A good trip to the DMV? Believe it. The DMV location off Immokalee Road in Green Tree plaza features quick service and friendly attendants.
Best place to sing Steve Miller Band: It’s only appropriate to belt out Fly Like an Eagle at the Shell Factory & Nature Park. Seated and strapped in two at a time, riders on its Soaring Eagle zip line “fly” above the property’s pond at up to 28 mph.
Best peaceful sidewalk stroll: Aside from our parks, there aren’t too many public places to safely enjoy a scenic, quiet walk. But heading north from Park Shore Drive along Gulf Shore Boulevard North, a lovely stretch dotted with water views begins at The Village on Venetian Bay and ends at the North Gulf Shore Beach Access.
Best lifesavers: The traffic lights at the back end of Mercato on Vanderbilt Beach Road and on U.S. 41 at Creekside Boulevard by the Trader Joe’s. Now, traffic in North Naples is a little less scary.
Best venue always in vogue: If you want glitz and you want Gulf, it’s hard to think beyond The Beach House. The Ritz-Carlton, Naples hallmark has for years maintained a reputation for delivering excellence on all cylinders. It’s pretty hard to beat its beamed high ceilings, wood floors, waterfront windows and way-classed-up-cottage feel.
Best sports celebrity showing: More than 3,000 Southwest Florida fútbol fans packed the FGCU soccer stadium to twice its capacity in January for the men’s team’s quietly promoted matchup against Major League Soccer team New York City FC. An added bonus to the Eagles’ opportunity? The pro team now employs three of the world’s top players, all of whom played in their training session vs. FGCU. Italian stalwart Andrea Pirlo and Spanish striker David Villa (right) have both been on the winning team of the World Cup, and Englishman Frank Lampard has competed in three—and the team is coached by French World Cup-winning player Patrick Vieira. FGCU put up an impressive fight in the 1-0 game.
Best place to lose your kids: At 48,000 square feet, HeadPinz better have enough going on to keep the kids occupied. And it does. The $8 million Fort Myers entertainment center has what could be described as a super-arcade, a bowling alley, a ropes course, a two-story glow-in-the-dark laser tag arena and—importantly, because your kids might never let you go home—food.
Best non-airborne way to glide through the sky: Twisting east from Old 41, the Imperial River (left) in Bonita Springs is what’s called a blackwater river. With waters so dark, its surface ends up as reflective as a just-cleaned mirror. Paddling across it has you feeling like you’re cutting your way through the clouds.
Best new escape routes: Southwest Florida International Airport introduced nonstop flights to Nassau, Bahamas, and Havana, Cuba. Naples Airport reintroduced commercial travel with Elite Airways, providing routes to get you to Portland, Maine, and the New York City area.
Best delicious hats: Grace Bolen and Heather Dockweiler at Hats in the Garden. The Grace of Grace and Shelly’s Cupcakes crowned herself with a cupcake-shaped cap, and Dockweiler (right) donned a custom-made piece of cake complete with a fork.
Best party trick: Michael Israel paints for all to see, the images quickly taking form before a big reveal: A turn of the canvas presents a portrait of John Lennon, Albert Einstein or another notable figure. The West Palm Beach artist wowed guests at the Live Life in Color Gala benefiting the David Lawrence Center and Foundation.
Best way to take Naples with you: The naples_fl Instagram account frequently updates with gorgeous scenic shots of Naples culled from other users.