Back home in Boston, I have to whisper this tidbit—it’s practically akin to admitting you root for the Yankees (shudder) or listen to Rush Limbaugh (giant shudder). When I make this confession, I’m inevitably met with the same responses: “I hate Florida.” “The humidity is terrible.” “It’s full of old people.”
Well, first of all, I didn’t ask if you liked Florida; I just said that I like it. Everything is air-conditioned, which can make summer in Florida actually more tolerable than summer in New England. And I like old people. I’m going to be one someday.
Fortunately, my father has lived in Southwest Florida for more than a decade, which allows me an excellent opportunity to visit at least annually—usually during February or March, when Boston really starts getting serious about snow.
Although I enjoy lying at the pool or beach (heeding Nicole’s advice about sunburns, of course), I also like to get out and explore the surrounds. Lest you think Southwest Florida has little more to offer than golf and Red Sox Spring Training, here are 5 alternatives:
1) Naples Botanical Garden. This marks my third year visiting this scenic park, and there’s always something new to see. Divided into a “Florida Garden,” a “Caribbean Garden,” a “Brazilian Garden,” an “Asian Garden,” and more, the area showcases a wider variety of plant life than you’d think possible in South Florida, on 170 acres with 2.5 miles of walking trails. The Botanical Garden also offers movie nights, concerts, and family-friendly events.
2) Turner River Road. When I first visited my dad in Florida, I had one request: I want to see gators! And did my father deliver. Sure, we could have taken an airboat ride or visited a touristy alligator theme park. Instead, we headed out down to Turner River Road to view the creatures in their natural habit. Following a dusty dirt road past rustic cabins and trailers until we were finally surrounded only by swamp and jungle, it became clear to me that we were far from the manicured golf courses and gated communities of Naples proper. This was old Florida—as real as you could get. People fished a creek, in some cases standing right beside colonies of gators, herons, snakes, and other wildlife. We stayed in the safety of our car, but I was able to snap photos of some three-dozen alligators, getting my reptile fix and then some.
3) Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. If you like wildlife, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is also worth a visit. Considered the largest remaining virgin Bald Cypress forest in North America, the area is home to five different types of habitats (swamp, jungle, etc.)—and a wide variety of plants, animals, and birds. I always enjoy strolling across the 2.25-mile boardwalk, taking pictures all the way and looking for gators, herons, ibis, otters, and more.
4) Holocaust Museum. It may not exactly seem like a fun destination, but the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida is a must-see if you’re in the area. Having visited Dachau during a trip to Germany, I was interested to experience how Florida would tackle this somber topic. As it turns out: with grace, intelligence, and plenty of resources and information, thanks to the many survivors who now call Southwest Florida home. The museum’s setting—a few rooms within an unassuming strip mall—belies the experience, which includes a comprehensive 1.5-hour tour.
5) Naples Philharmonic. I’d love to include the Naples Museum of Art on this list, but the sad fact is that I still haven’t visited. In lieu of that, I’ll ask you to consider taking in a show at the adjacent Naples Philharmonic. The next time someone tells me that Florida lacks culture, I’ll direct them to this lovely building, which hosts major touring musicians, singers, comedians, and musicals (we saw the current national production of La Cage Aux Folles). As a bonus, the “Phil” houses two small galleries that contain impressive works from well-known artists—including a huge scarlet blown-glass “chandelier” by Dale Chihuly.
What hidden gems have you found in unexpected locales? Leave us a comment!