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Hidden Treasures of Southwest Florida

An insider's guide to the places to go—and things to do—for living the good life



Instructor Jessica Hesser enjoys the grounds of Shangri-La Springs.

Craig Hildebrand

 

Southwest Florida makes no secret that it is an enviable slice of paradise filled with endless reserves of natural beauty, fine dining, artworks, entertainment, shopping and adventure. It is also an area with hidden treasures—some hiding in plain sight and some requiring a little digging. Find gems glittering in ordinary strip malls and jewels slightly buried in places you never thought to explore. Riches of all kinds stretching from south Collier to north Lee are just waiting to be added to your list of favorites.

 

Everglades City and Ochopee

Camellia Street Grill and Joanie’s Blue Crab Café

We’re sure some of you might turn your nose up at the thought of driving toward the Everglades without the promise of South Beach on the other side, but we have two food finds alone well worth the drive. Set nondescriptly on the water just up-river from Chokoloskee Bay, Camellia Street Grill in Everglades City promises seafood as fresh as it gets: catfish, stone crab claw, oysters, shrimp, grouper—and also gator. And if you’re lucky, like we were, you might even see the vegetables of your salad in hand on their way from the garden to your plate. And in nearby Ochopee stands Joanie’s Blue Crab Café. We love that their website doesn’t offer a street address, but rather a map and rough directions based on the town’s post office, followed by this hint: “If you want fast food, go to Miami or go to Naples. Both, by the way, are 50 miles and a half-century away.” Similar hyper-locally sourced Old Florida favorites await, like the Swamp Combo of frog legs, gator nuggets, crabcake, Indian fry bread, cole slaw and Joanie’s famous salsa. 239-695-2003, facebook.com/camelliastreetgrill; 239-695-2682, joaniesbluecrabcafe.com (Photo by Karen T. Bartlett)

 

Tamiami Trail “Triathlon”

One of the more secreted ways to explore Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve is one of the best. It’s up to you how long you linger at each site and sight with the Tamiami Trail “Triathlon.” Together the two parks challenge us to get out of our cars, presenting from three access points a 15-mile bike loop, 3-mile hiking path and 3.5-mile canoe/kayak route to “race” year-round at our own speed. nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/tamiami-trail-triathlon.htm

 

Cape Romano

Dome Homes

Gaining notoriety as the failed “dome homes” are the stunningly crumbling stilt homes slowly being swallowed by the sea off Cape Romano. Once a self-sustaining family vacation home, built in 1980 by an independent oil producer, the now abandoned structures have been turned into a local fascination by shifting sands and passing time. But rather than ogle over the eerie photos, take to the waters and get up close on your own or by way of the several kayak, waverunner or boat tours through the 10,000 Islands that stop by. (Photo by Jim Freeman)

 

Golden Gate City

Floridita Cuban Bakery & Restaurant

Lesser-known doesn’t always mean lesser-quality, and that’s certainly the case with Floridita. Off Collier Boulevard just north of Golden Gate Parkway is where you’ll find quite possibly the toastiest medianoches, sweetest cafés con leche, cheesiest croquetas de jamon and flakiest empanadas you’ve ever tasted, in town or otherwise. 239-331-8600, floriditarestaurant.com

 

Let’s Put on a Show Productions

The average Southwest Florida theatergoer might not expect alternative, envelope-pushing or established, big-guns productions to come out of a community center, but that’s exactly what Let’s Put on a Show is managing in Golden Gate. Up next month is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and its cast of pros and emerging actors is likely to stand up to the stiff competition in town. 239-398-9192, letsputonashowproductions.com

 

Naples

Escargot 41

If an eatery is going to label itself “Escargot 41,” it better deliver on the title goods. So does the restaurant tucked away in Naples’ Park Shore Plaza—if you were blind-folded on your way in the door, you’d never guess it was sandwiched between a Burlington Coat Factory and Dollar Tree. And the cozy classics done oh-so right don’t stop at its seven servings of snail. Continue an authentic tour de France with dishes like onion soup baked with croutons and emmental cheese, sea salt-cured duck pan-fried in goose fat, and veal scaloppini sautéed with sweet apple and mushroom Calvados cream sauce—all with names much more French-sounding, of course. 239-793-5000, escargot41.com

 

Mattis Jewelers

This place in Parkshore Centre is worth adding to your phonebook for when you need a repair on your favorite piece. In fact, the co-owner, Matthew Skis, can re-design that piece if you want to give it a second chance at life. The master jeweler, who owns the store with his wife and two sons, previously designed for Harry Winston and Tiffany’s in New York, where he even helped create pieces for Princess Diana, Nancy Reagan and gem queen Elizabeth Taylor. 239-793-4400

 

Hotel Escalante

In perhaps the most surprisingly secluded spot on our list stands this beautiful boutique hotel at the intersection of two Naples mainstays: Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South. Step beyond the property’s hedges and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped onto another continent, with vine-covered pergolas, trickling fountains and a stone drive more reminiscent of Europe. If you’re not staying to be ultimately pampered in one of its 10 rooms, you can still enjoy the seriously romantic setting at its French- and Asian-influenced fine dining restaurant, Veranda E. 239-325-3474, hotelescalante.com

 

The Revs Institute

Southwest Florida has a way of desensitizing its residents to the finer things in life, even things so fine as a Bentley or Rolls Royce. But it’s not every day, even here, that you get to see more than 100 rare and important cars from as early as 1896. Buried on the industrial park’s Horseshoe Drive is The Revs Institute—home to the Collier collection (yes, that Collier) and a full-time staff of restorative technicians to care for it. Even non-auto enthusiasts can appreciate the history behind the Panhard et Lavassor Wagnonette, the oldest vehicle on-site; Clark Gable’s short-chassis 1935 Duesenberg SSJ; and the first Ferrari race car ever imported stateside. 239-687-7387, revsinstitute.org

 

Captain CJ’s Jet Pack Adventures

We’ve obviously taken advantage of our waters by kayak, canoe, Jet Ski, paddleboard, even parasail. But how about a water-propelled jetpack? Right in Naples, you can get the feeling of flying without being towed by a boat or jumping out of an airplane over solid ground with Captain CJ’s Jet Pack Adventures. From Naples Bay, you’ll work your way from being waist-deep in the water to being up to 30 feet above it with guidance from a certified instructor. 239-389-9538, jetpaction.com

 

Rhode’s End

Reward yourself for a (very brisk, because it’s only three-quarters of a mile) walk down Clam Pass Park’s shaded boardwalk with a bite from the beach bar at the end. The Naples Grande Beach Resort’s new Mediterranean eatery encourages us to consume the calories we just burned, in the form of falafel, gyros, fried squid, pita bread and lots of tzatziki. But really, there’s almost no better public place to catch the sunset with a cocktail in hand than its outdoor seating, complete with an unobstructed view of the Gulf—and the option of a tram ride back. naplesgrande.com/dining/rhodesend

 

The Good Bad Kids

The Good Bad Kids have a refined folk rock/bluegrass sound you’d be more apt to find in a budding Nashville band, but if you go on the right night you’ll find them right here at some of your favorite haunts. The group of four brings its energized harmonies and dance-inducing beats to spots like The Bay House, 7th Avenue Social, Point Ybel Brewing Company and the Old Marco Pub. 239-405-3100, thegoodbadkids.com

 

Thomas Riley Studio

One of Naples’ newest galleries is only right on the edge of unknown, just about to burst beyond to staple status after sustaining its momentum following an impressive debut. Evolved from the Thomas Riley Artisan Guild, well-known in Naples as a specialist of interior woodwork and furniture, Thomas Riley Studio brings to the Naples Design District an ambitious array of contemporary craft and fine art. Its walls this month alone will see a new take on the lost art of Persian carpets and a side-by-side comparison of works by a paper engineer and metal sculptor. It seems the studio won’t allow a piece to enter unless it truly is wow-worthy and unlike anything seen here before. 529-2633, thomasrileystudio.com

 

Mally Khorasantchi

Better known nationally than locally, this artist captures any eye that lands on her exuberant paintings. The Germany native with a Southwest Florida studio is particularly interested in the interaction of nature and man—it’s represented often in her works by the hexagon, which her research has shown symbolizes “connectedness and continuance between chaos and order and earth’s remarkable ability to self-heal.” mallykhorasantchi.com

 

BR Uno

Mysteriously missing from Third Street South’s illustrious shopping reputation—and even the district’s own Web directory—is BR Uno. Perhaps its Hermes china, Baccarat crystal, pretty pet accessories and other European riches are set off the main street just far enough that it gets lost in the shuffle, but the eclectic stop is not to be skipped. 239-261-9806

 

Black Eyed Pig BBQ

Don’t let the proximity to tow yards or less-than-attractive bruised swine logo of this restaurant turn you off to it. It’s a bit of a hole in the wall, yes, but a clean and delicious one, and that’s all we need from a barbecue joint. Plus fried okra, jalapeno corn bread and Texas toast to help us mop up our deliciously dripping ribs or pulled pork, but they’ve got that covered, too. 239-593-5006, naplesbbq.com

 

Theater Perks

Our outstanding local theater is a big part of the Southwest Florida good life, but there are ever more clever ways to experience it. The Naples Players, for example, allow you behind the scenes and on the stage Thursdays at their host Sugden Community Theatre, showing you where sets and costumes are constructed, where the actors get dressed and rehearse, and more. The Gulfshore Playhouse Synergy Series down the street is packed with panels, pre- and post-show discussions, behind-the-scenes opportunities and even a Script Club where members chat about each text like they would at a book gathering. And in Fort Myers, Florida Repertory Theatre offers “talkbacks” after the first Saturday matinee of each production, giving the audience 30 minutes to chat with the cast and directors—plus a lesser-known children’s theater that tours Collier and Lee counties. Both Florida Rep and Gulfshore Playhouse also offer annual festivals that bring works in development to audiences before their paint has dried. 239-434-7340, naplesplayers.org; 239-261-7529, gulfshoreplayhouse.org; 239-332-4488, floridarep.org

 

Bonita Springs

Island House Café and Survey Café

Bonita conceals two culinary takes on a house, leaving two very different positive impressions. The Island House Café, less than a stone’s throw from safari-themed mini golf, feels like a home not in the literal sense but in a bring-your-friends-and-stay-a-while way. It’s a great go-to if you’re looking for uber-casual patio conversation, thin-crust pizza and beer. And in an actual historic home is the Survey Café, serving up cozy Southern-slanted breakfast and lunch classics. You’ll feel more like you’re seated at the owner’s kitchen table or on their front porch. 239-498-6900, facebook.com/islandhousecafe; 239-992-2233, thesurveycafe.com

 

Shangri-La Springs

Take the right step off well-traveled Old 41 and you’ll find yourself on reputed sacred ground. Shangri-La Springs, a host of programs for mind, body and spirit housed in the historic Heitman Hotel, is so named for its location on a natural mineral spring. The picturesque wellness center offers programming in meditation, massage, yoga, science and spirituality, and more, plus guided tours, organic weekday lunch, a gift shop and a brand-new, full-service spa. It’s a chance to get away without going far. 239-949-0749, shangrilasprings.com

 

CGT Kayaks Imperial River Bat Tour

The gorgeous Gulf and Everglades grab all the attention when it comes to paddle excursions, but CGT Kayaks offers another worth writing home about. In addition to the historical Mound Key Adventure tour it’s named for (Calusa Ghost Tour), its relaxed bat tour treats kayakers to two hours of moonlit cruising that culminates in the flight of more than 1,000 of the mammals from beneath the Matheson Bridge for their nightly hunt. 239-221-8218, cgtkayaks.com

 

Koi Lounge

Tiki bars just say “fun,” and the newly opened Koi Lounge delivers on that notion. But it takes the typical thatched roof up a notch with an extensive fresh sushi menu, prettily presented and expertly crafted cocktails, and, of course, a classy koi pond. 239-895-8924, thekoilounge.com

 

Fort Myers

Berne Davis Gardens

Did you know there were Berne Davis Gardens? Neither did we. We of course are very familiar with the like-named art center in downtown Fort Myers, but it has overshadowed a peaceful property designed and planted by the Fort Myers-Lee County Garden Council off McGregor Boulevard not too far from the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. Its bromeliads, fruit and bonsai trees, herbs, roses, orchids and more are the perfect backdrop for a stroll, book chapter or picnic lunch. 239-332-4942, fmlcgardencouncil.com

 

Caffé Toscano

Fresh truffles. Mammoth hunks of imported Parmesan. A chef who grew up in Florence, with a wife who bakes beautiful desserts. What else could you want from an Italian restaurant? Florida Rep founder (and amateur chef himself) Robert Cacioppo says Caffé Toscano is “the closest thing to eating in Italy.” And it’s tucked away not in the Italian countryside but a Fort Myers strip mall. Some of Cacioppo’s favorites? Olive oil cake, Bolognese with wild boar and liver pâté. It’s the real deal. 239-415-8466, caffetoscanofl.com (Photo by Brianne Hayden)

 

The Ranch Concert Hall & Saloon

This might not be so hidden anymore by the time this issue hits your hands, but when we went to press The Ranch was just heating up—but quickly. The Western-style nightclub and concert venue gets party animals out in droves for those free dance lessons you’ve always wanted (line, cha-cha-line, two-step, nightclub waltz, east and west coast swing)—plus a mix of emerging acts and bands as big as Ambrosia and Third Eye Blind. The 400-foot bar can’t help but add to the good time. 239-985-9839, theranchfortmyers.com

 

Buckingham Farms

You may not ever be genuinely “in the neighborhood,” but you will find yourself making excuses for special trips out (and we Neapolitans mean out) to this Fort Myers farm. The 50-acre working hydroponic farm also encourages visitors to its country store, “Rustic Barn” event space and counter-service café with a vegetation view. While they also offer weekday lunch and Friday dinner, we recommend you get your introduction to their fresh product with the to-die-for Saturday breakfast menu (read: bread pudding-style French toast, farm-fresh scrambled eggs and homemade biscuits “smothered” in rich sausage pan gravy). Afterward, drop into the store for stuff like honey, jam, heirloom tomatoes, kale, strawberries and Southern-style chow chow. Yum. 239-206-2303, buckinghamfarmsonline.com

 

Enjewel Boutique

Enjewel Boutique is a jewel of a find in downtown Fort Myers, buried along the beaten path of First Street. It takes all the trimmings of a good boutique—hand-picked apparel, jewelry, handbags—and makes them more interesting, bringing in artworks and vintage pieces and displaying items on antique furniture beneath high, exposed ceilings. And its shockingly affordable, too. 239-332-0293, enjewelboutique.com

 

Gulf Coast Model Railroad

Searching for something unique to make us simply smile, we came across this model in a tunnel under the Resident Activity Center at Shell Point. Three tracks in the shape of Florida were built in the early 1970s by Shell Point Residents, and residents today still volunteer to run its nine trains, operate its 100 switches, and point out the major Florida landmarks from the ’50s and ’60s along the coasts of the 41-by-43-foot wonder. Not only train buffs and children will want the chance to operate it themselves. 239-466-1131, shellpoint.org/trainroom

 

Sanibel and Captiva

Sanibel Sea School

Would you believe us if we told you there was a local school with three campuses that you’d never heard of? This one offers half-day and full-day courses, camps, and other programs for both kids and adults—but leave your notebook behind and bring your snorkel. This hands-on “school” gets its “students” out and into the sea with the mission of getting them to care about our oceans and everything in them. sanibelseaschool.org

 

Pine Island

Pine Island Fish Cabins

Sometimes we just want something interesting to look at, and the Pine Island fish cabins provide just that. Used as dormitories and ice houses in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s fishing industry, the remaining buildings upon pilings in Pine Island Sound also make for an interesting piece to the local history puzzle—eight are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Who knew? Today the huts are privately owned and occasionally rented out to recreational fishermen. (Photo by Ron Mayhew)

 

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