Best claim to a nationwide “awww”: We’re not ashamed to admit we were among the thousands across the country keeping tabs on the Southwest Florida Eagle Cam. Many already knew its star, bald eagle Harriet, from her 2012 nesting season in Fort Myers with mate Ozzie, who died in October. But she found a new mate, and this time even more viewers were transfixed—from the time she laid two eggs in late November until she welcomed her eaglet (only one hatched, sadly) on New Year’s Eve.
Best reasons to brag: Southwest Florida was heaped with accolades this year. Naples was named the happiest city (The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Survey), the cleanest city (Realtor.com) and one of the best beach towns to spend Christmas (Coastal Living) in the country. Meanwhile, Bankrate called Cape Coral the best place to retire in Florida.
Best Christmas spirit: It’s news to few but worth a mention: Naples neighborhood Victoria Park. Its residents have long impressed with their coordinated decoration efforts, drawing parades of cars—and even trolleys—to see each street’s annual theme. The annual islands-wide Luminary Holiday Festival on Sanibel and Captiva is gorgeous, too, and we’d also nominate the Naples residents of 1386 Trail Terrace Drive, who seemingly pack just as many lights into their single small property.
Best use of hot air: Hotel guest or not, you can take a glassblowing class poolside at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples. Fine artist Conrad Williams, who trained under the famous Dale Chihuly, teaches the beautiful craft there during season. Who’da thunk it?
Best interpretation of “toes in the sand”: Baleen restaurant at La Playa Beach & Golf Resort offers advance reservations for private beach dining. And by “beach,” they mean those chair legs are right among the shells. We challenge you to find a better backdrop to a candlelit, white-
tablecloth meal than an unobstructed sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.
Best way not to get sand in your car post-beach: In February, Collier County launched a 35-seat trolley beach shuttle from North Collier Regional Park that takes sun worshippers to Vanderbilt Beach and Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park. It’s a big win for residents who live a bit farther east and don’t want to fight (or pay handsomely) for parking.
Best places to encounter an alligator: We've spotted gators just about everywhere, from the shores of Fort Myers Beach to a drainage pipe in Fort Myers to a golf course in Estero. But the Everglades Wonder Gardens just completed its viewing platform, so you can observe its 38 resident gators safely—from up above and behind a fence.
Best ways to kill time at the Southwest Florida International Airport:
- One-hour delay: Grab a drink and a meal at Shula’s Bar & Grill. It’s certainly a step above the standard airport fare. (We recommend the sizeable Shula Burger.)
- Two-hour delay: Check out the art. The airport teams with Alliance for the Arts to bring exhibits from notable locals, such as Leoma Lovegrove and News-Press photographers.
- Three-hour-plus delay: Stick to the cellphone lot. RSW had the ingenious idea of putting the now ubiquitous cellphone lots next to a convenience store.
Best bow to the straight-laced patron: As a fisherwoman, restaurant owner Sandy Stilwell thought “SS Hookers” was a fun name for her Fort Myers eatery located just before the Sanibel toll both. Well, “I found out almost immediately after opening that the name was a little too edgy for some,” she told The News-Press in October. Enter Summerlin Jake’s Seafood and Steaks, named instead for Florida settler Jacob Summerlin in honor of the very spot from which he shipped his cattle to Cuba in the 1800s.
Best failure to act: As part of a rebranding attempt, the City of Fort Myers raised the idea of—gasp—changing its nickname, City of Palms. After a quick public outcry, the city clarified that it will forever be the City of Palms. Our recommendation? Just add a word to reflect the city’s reliance on the almighty tourist dollar: City of Palms Out.
Best unexpected success: As evidenced by more and more country clubs going so far as to install special courts, pickleball is taking off in Southwest Florida. East Naples Community Park hosted the first U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in 2016, and organizers pushed to have Collier County renewed as the tournament’s site through 2021.
Best romantic gesture en masse: We just love (see what we did there?) that Lovers Key State Park hosts couples to renew their vows each year on Valentine’s Day. In 2017, more than 85 couples participated in the two ceremonies, which raised money for Friends of Lovers Key.
Best Birdwatching indoors: Florida Repertory Theatre’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Powerful, moving and still relevant after all these years, the show featured some mighty fine acting from the youngsters as well as the adults in the cast.
Best reason to brave the crowds: The Naples Zoo is, well, a zoo the first Saturday of every month, as that’s the day it offers free admission to Collier County residents. But if all we need is a form of ID to see so many wonders of the natural world, sign us up despite the sea of people.
Best news for art lovers: Witness the expansion here: The Baker Museum has received massive donations, both in money and collections of works; the popular Fort Myers Art Walk expanded from one to two days; we saw the launch of the SoCo (South of Colonial Boulevard) Cultural District of artists, performers and entrepreneurs and its Second Saturday event; the Naples Art District has continued its push for growth, with more creators banding together and raising awareness for its twice-monthly Art Alive events; Gallery Row in downtown Naples revived its Art Walk evenings; Shangri-La Springs in Bonita reopened, rejuvenated, after many quiet years, bringing with it art exhibits, drum circles and more. Are we forgetting anything?