Have a ball, basket or other, in Ft. Myers
FORT MYERS, Fla. - Fort Myers became known as "Dunk City" after Florida Gulf Coast University's men's basketball team went on an improbable journey to the Sweet 16, and now is scoring points by offering visitors a feel of old and new Florida.
The southwest Florida city received national attention during March Madness, prompting folks to wear out Google searching for facts about Fort Myers, new fans to flock to the university for T-shirts and other gear, and high schoolers to start talking to their parents about attending college in the area.
They were discovering what others have known for years. The area is a longtime winter playground for the rich and famous, snowbirds, and water-loving folks who have vacation homes there.
On a visit to Fort Myers, you can see the university's basketball team in action at Alico Arena (games started Nov. 12), check out spring training games at the new JetBlue Park, or visit new attractions such as Mohawk Veterans Memorial Reef.
If that's too much action, the Fort Myers area, which includes Sanibel and Captiva Islands, offers 590 miles of shoreline and 50 miles of beaches, making it easy to soak up the sun, search for the "green flash" as the sun sets over the water, and visit local landmarks on and off the water.
Probably the most famous fans of Fort Myers were Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, whose houses, gardens, and laboratories are part of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, one of the city's main attractions.
You'll pull into the estates from the palm-lined McGregor Boulevard to tour the property, which Edison bought when he and his family began spending winters in Fort Myers in 1901 (he had the palm trees planted). More than 225,000 people a year visit the attraction, which spans 20 acres, including houses and gardens along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River.
Even with groups of people wandering around the property, it's a peaceful trip back in time.
You can stroll charming wide front porches and peek into the restored houses, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, to spot furnishings, lighting, and other details from the past. Edison's laboratories, gardens, and a museum are on the other side of the street (where you can buy tickets and receive a listening device for a self-guided tour).
Hundreds of unique plants and trees, including a banyan tree that was a gift from tire magnate Harvey Firestone in 1928 and that is believed to be the largest in the continental United States, are Instagram-worthy. The museum showcases inventions such as Edison's phonographs and has a collection of antique automobiles.
Before or after visiting the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, you'll find shopping, dining, live theater, art and music walks, historical walking tours, and other events in downtown Fort Myers, called the River District (myriverdistrict.com). A redevelopment project with new fountains and other features is adding a new look to the waterfront.
A trip to southwest Florida isn't complete without visiting Sanibel Island. You'll have to pay $6 to drive the Sanibel Island Causeway and $2 per hour to park at a beach on Sanibel, but the treasures you'll find while shell hunting on the beaches make the cost worthwhile. We adopted the "Sanibel stoop" after seeing a nonstop collection of shells in all colors, even entire sand dollars. The island will host the 2014 Sanibel Shell Festival March 6 to 8, and the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (shellmuseum.org) has been showing off shells since it opened in 1995. Numerous bike paths also make it easy to explore the island on two wheels (or a few more, as we saw kids on bikes with training wheels on the paths, too).
Divers can explore the Mohawk Veterans Memorial Reef, a former World War II Coast Guard cutter about 28 miles off Sanibel Island.
Sanibel and Captiva's beaches - as well as Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Beach, and Naples to the south - are great gathering spots at sunset, where people try to view the elusive "green flash" (I've never spotted it, despite numerous attempts).
After sunset, you can catch a show at Fort Myers' numerous arts venues, including the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, Broadway Palm Dinner Theater, and Florida Repertory Theatre.
A few miles from the beaches and on the other side of Interstate 75, you'll find the new JetBlue Park, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox, which opened in 2012. The park has its own version of Fenway Park's "Green Monster," and it hosts other baseball and softball tournaments throughout the year.
A bike route links JetBlue Park and the Lee County Sports Complex/Hammond Stadium, where the Minnesota Twins play during spring training. Near the park is Norman Love Confections' Fort Myers Chocolate Salon, where people wait in line to hover around a case of colorful, artistic chocolates and gourmet truffles in flavors including caramel macchiato, mango, and key lime shell. Workers at nearby Southwest Florida International Airport recognize the tropical green Norman Love boxes. A gate attendant asked for a chocolate in exchange for my boarding pass, and I almost gave him the entire box for the opportunity to stay in southwest Florida for a few more days.