After you've seen the sites of Sarasota, you'll want to explore south of the city, taking in some of the coastal towns, wildlife refuges, parks, and other museums.
Known as “the City of Palms,” Fort Myers began as a Calusa Indian settlement, then became a Seminole War fort. Just as Thomas Alva Edison, Fort Myers' leading resident, predicted, Fort Myers has evolved from a sleepy cow town into one of Florida's fastest-growing, most sophisticated cities. Besides its posh shopping and dining, Fort Myers' most notable attraction is the Thomas Edison Winter Home — but before visiting it, stop in at the Fort Myers Historical Museum, housed in an old Atlantic Coastline Railroad depot a few blocks up the street. One of the exhibits explains the invention of the world's greatest cure for hangovers — Alka Seltzer — by Dr. Franklin Miles, a Fort Myers resident. Admission is $2. (Open Tuesday through Friday 9:00 A.M.–4:30 P.M., Saturday and Sunday 1–5 P.M., 941-332-5955)
Wintering here for almost fifty years, Edison experimented with thousands of plants, including the bamboo he found on the site. He discovered that using carbonized bamboo fibers helped make the light bulb practical, and often used the chemicals produced by his plants in his inventions. His exotic garden, where the tour begins, provided him with a variety of tropical foliage, from the wild orchids to an extraordinary African sausage tree to fragrant frangipani. There are also beds of solidago Edisoni, a giant strain of goldenrod that he developed while trying to discover alternate methods of producing rubber. Pause to admire the sprawling banyan tree, which Edison grew from a two-inch-diameter seedling given to him by rubber-king Harvey Firestone in 1925. Dropping its aerial roots as it spread, the tree has grown to a perimeter of more than 300 feet, making it the largest tree in Florida.
When you enter the museum, you become aware of Edison's genius. Early on, he designed an improved ticker-tape machine, the proceeds from which helped to finance the invention of the phonograph in 1877, and two years later he discovered the electric light bulb by passing electricity through a vacuum. You'll see a variety of disc and cylinder phonographs, plus some of the first bulky light bulbs, and lots of other gadgets. Edison also invented the Kinetoscope, from which he derived the first early movie projector in 1907, which earned him over a million dollars annually in patent royalties. There's even a Model T that his friend and next-door neighbor, Henry Ford, had made especially for him. Unfortunately, you can only glimpse Edison's home through the windows.
But unlike Edison's, you can go inside the Ford Winter Home next door. Ford had been Edison's close friend since 1896, when Edison praised his concept of the automobile. So Ford bought the adjacent property in 1915. The interior has been restored to the style of Ford's time with similar furnishings. Tours of both homes begin every thirty minutes between 9 A.M. and 4 P.M. Admission is $4 for the Edison home and $8 for both homes. (Open Monday through Saturday 9 A.M.–4 P.M., Sunday 12:30–4:00 P.M., 941-334-3614)
Sanibel and Captiva Islands
Geographically, Sanibel and Captiva islands are about 5,000 years old. Once believed to have been a single island, today they're joined by the Turner Bridge. Gulf tides and currents rolled and swept thousands of tons of seashells onto a sandbar to form the island of Sanibel. In time, vegetation and freshwater pools developed. When the Spanish arrived in the early sixteenth century, they found the Calusa fishing and living off the land. According to legend, the Spanish originally named the island Santa Isabella, which later became shortened to Sanibel.
According to legend, José Gaspar, known by his pirate name of “Gasparilla,” set up headquarters on Gasparilla Island fronting Charlotte Harbor. The former Spanish naval admiral gave up his position to become a pirate, but retained his love of beautiful women. He kidnapped the richest and loveliest and held them captive for ransom on another barrier island, Captiva.
While you're on Sanibel Island, you may want to visit the Sanibel-Captiva Nature Center, supported by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, where you can view informative live exhibits. There's also a native plant nursery and 4 miles of trails. Begin your adventure by hiking the Sabal Palm Trail to an alligator hole and continue on the Upper Ridge Trail, then the Wildflower Trail, and finally the fern-lined West River Trail, along which you may see a gopher tortoise as it makes its way to its burrow. Pause at the Sanibel River overlook and observation tower to see ospreys flying overhead.
Sanibel's fame as a prime shelling destination is world renowned. The eastward hook on the island's southern shore allows it to snag shells from the sea. You can easily scoop up scallop, turkey wing, lucina, cockle, and angle wing shells, as well as alphabet cones, fighting conches, tree tulips, junonicas, lion's paws, olives, and lightning whelks You may also find sand dollars and sea fans, especially after a storm. To help identify your finds, use one of the shell charts published in most of the free tourist magazines available in local restaurants and shops. The best place to find shells on Sanibel Island is Bowman's Beach. Captiva Beach also provides good shelling.
Plan on getting “shell bent” in Sanibel as you develop the famous “Sanibel stoop” — the classic bent-from-the-waist stance used while looking for shells. But be sure to obey the city ordinance that limits you to taking two live shells — that is, with a creature living inside — per species per person. The penalty is a stiff $500 fine or prison sentence per incident.
The shallow bays and creeks on the opposite side of Sanibel Island are the home of brown pelicans, ospreys, and the ever-present alligators of the 5,000-acre J. N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge. Stop at the Visitor's Center to learn about the preserve's flora and fauna, as well as the life of Ding Darling, the Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist who passionately fought to save the area's water birds. Climb the observation tower for an overview of this wild world and afterward take a ride along 5-mile-long Wildlife Drive, but do so slowly and stop frequently to observe the wildlife. Admission is $3 per car. (Open daily sunrise to sunset, 941-472-1100)
You'll find even more opulence farther south in the sleek tropical community of Naples, the gateway to the Tamiami Trail, the route through the Everglades to Miami begun in 1918. To learn about the history of the city, stop at the Collier County Museum, which exhibits local historical artifacts, including a fine collection of the shell tools and ornaments used by the Calusa Indians. There's also a diorama of a Spanish shipwreck, with actual coins, cannonballs, and olive jars brought up from the deep, and assorted Seminole and Seminole War objects, including trade items like furs, alligator skins, and beeswax. “Old Number 2,” a steam locomotive that once ran local routes for a cypress-logging firm, stands out front. You can also tour a re-creation of a Seminole village. (Open Monday through Friday, 941-774-8476)
One of the oldest structures in the city is the Seaboard Coastal Line Railroad Depot, built in 1926. It's currently a railroad museum and community art center. Another historic place is Palm Cottage, built in 1890 and one of the few houses in Florida constructed of tabby, a primitive form of cement.
Another place of special interest in the Naples area is the Koreshan State Historic Site. Cyrus R. Teed, a religious visionary, founded the Koreshan Unity and in 1894 led his followers from Chicago to this site near Naples, where they founded a settlement called Estero. The settlers built twenty buildings, including a school, and created a botanical garden of trees and shrubs. Today, you can tour twelve of the original community's frame vernacular buildings. (Open daily 8 A.M.–dusk, 941-992-0311)
Cyrus Teed preached a strange gospel of reincarnation, communal ownership, celibacy, and the notion that the sun was really inside the earth. He predicted that 10 million believers would flock to the community, but they never arrived. He thought himself immortal but died in 1908.
When pioneers settled in Naples in 1887, they combed the beaches for shark teeth, which come in different shades of color depending on their age. Today, you can do the same if you can be the first to arrive at one of the more remote beaches, such as Barefoot Beach State Preserve and Delnor-Wiggins Pass Recreation Area, after a major storm.
From Naples, it's 15 miles southeast on U.S. Route 41 to the 6,423-acre Collier-Seminole State Park where Big Cypress Swamp joins the Everglades. By the 1920s, Brian Collier, a pioneer developer, had purchased almost a million acres of land in southwest Florida. He set aside 150 acres in the royal palm section of today's park, which he hoped would become the Lincoln-Lee National Park. But the federal government rejected his offer. Eventually, the county accepted his donation in 1944, then turned it over to the state.
The park, where 40 species of trees, 44 species of mammals and reptiles, and 117 species of birds thrive, is a transitional area where salt waters merge with fresh and where tropical vegetation intermingles with that of the temperate zone.
Sarasota is the home of the awesome John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, a vast display of opulence on a 66-acre estate encompassing the Ringling Mansion, Cà d'Zan, the Asolo State Theater, Museum of Art, and Museum of the Circus, plus tropical gardens with mammoth banyan trees, royal palms, and a rose garden. The complex is located off U.S. Route 41, 2 miles north of downtown.
One of the owners of the fantastically successful Ringling Brothers Circus, which toured the United States from the 1890s, John Ringling invested the circus's profits in railroads, oil, and real estate, acquiring an estimated $200 million fortune by the 1920s.
Begin your visit at Cà d'Zan, or the “House of John” in Italian, the Ringlings' fabulous thirty-room Italianate mansion, built to resemble the Doge's palace on Piazza San Marco in Venice, with columned halls, ornately tiled towers and plazas, and breathtaking views from the living areas. Ringling had architectural elements and furnishings shipped to the site from around the world to create a monument to the opulence of the Gilded Age. Workers completed the mansion in 1926 at a cost of $1.5 million. Though expensive objects and furnishings fill its rooms, Ringling and his wife, Mable, had good taste and exercised restraint. She even had her own gondola moored at the waterfront behind the house.
Next to the mansion stands the Museum of the Circus, probably the best reason to visit Sarasota. Housed in an elaborate structure patterned after a nineteenth-century Parisian circus amphitheater are priceless old photos, costumes, circus parade wagons, calliopes, and colorful posters, recalling the glory days of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. For circus fans, there's even a scale model of the Ringling Brothers' tent circus with a narration telling what went on behind-the-scenes.
On his trips to Europe to scout for new circus talent, Ringling became obsessed with baroque art, and over five years he acquired more than 500 old masters — many of them mural size — making his collection one of the finest of its kind in the country. To display his paintings, Ringling erected a museum on his estate around a reproduction of a fifteenth-century Italian palazzo, decorated with high-quality replica Greek and Roman statuary. To say that this Italian Renaissance-style villa is stunning is an understatement — the building itself is a work of art. Within its walls exists one of the country's finest collections of old master baroque, Spanish, Dutch, and Flemish paintings, including five enormous paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, commissioned by a Hapsburg archduchess in 1625. From the landscaped fountain-adorned courtyard, containing a reproduction of Michelangelo's David, you'll get a great view of Sarasota Bay.
Next door to the art museum stands the Asolo Theatre, a genuine eighteenth-century Italian court playhouse built in 1798 into the castle of the Italian queen, just as it once stood in the town of Asolo near Venice. As the town prepared to demolish the building, someone had the foresight to box up the sections of the rococo-style, three-level theater. Later, an architectural antique dealer purchased the theater in pieces and sold it to the Ringling Foundation, which in the 1940s had it shipped to Sarasota and reassembled. Here it served as the home of the Asolo Theatre Company until the troupe outgrew it, necessitating the construction of the larger Asolo Center for the Performing Arts, the current home of the repertory company.
Take the free guided tour of the estate that departs from the entrance. Admission to the Ringling Estate is $9 for adults, children under 12 free Sunday through Friday. Saturday is free for everyone. (Open daily 10:00 A.M.–5:30 P.M., and on Thursdays until 10 P.M., (941-351-1660)