Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 19, 2017
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Florida’s fresh side

Discover a Gulf Coast filled with pristine beaches, untamed dolphins and real-life adventures

No one can be blamed for thinking southwest Florida is all about beaches. Some of the world’s best are here: palm-lined, lapped by the Gulf of Mexico and blessed with subtropical breezes. Even the sand is superlative — which may explain why the American Sand Sculpting Championship is held here every November.

But the region offers much more than a day at the beach. Charlotte (tel: 800-652-6090; www.charlotteharbortravel.com) and Lee (tel: 800-237-6444; www.fortmyers-sanibel.com) counties, in particular, are notable for their diversity and, taken together, have all the ingredients for a great family vacation. Here are our favourite parent-tested activities.


Something Fishy

This area’s trophy-winning tarpon are a huge draw for experienced anglers (Boca Grande, remember, is considered to be the “Tarpon Capital of the World”); and while landing a 70-kilo catch isn’t child’s play, there are other fish in the sea. Moreover, there are family-friendly operators like Adventures in Paradise (tel: 239-472-8443; www.adventureinparadiseinc.com) who will happily help you hook one. The company’s three-hour group trip is just the right length for short attention spans, and the price (adults $45, children over 3 years of age $35) won’t break the bank. Since licenses aren’t required for those under 16-years old, another option is to simply let your offspring drop a line off any pier, dock, bridge or beach.

Prefer net gains? The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (tel: 239-472-2329; www.sccf.org) and the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center (tel: 941-575-5435; www.checflorida.org) each run free seasonal programs for hip waders who’d rather gawk at fish than reel them in. In both cases, participants are equipped with nets; they are then led out to explore the estuarine seagrass. It is rife with tongue fish, amberjack, seahorses, starfish and more — all of which are returned to the water unharmed.


Wet & Wild

Although the Sunshine State has numerous venues where you can “play” with dolphins or watch them do amusement-park tricks, nothing beats seeing these sleek, social mammals perform for their own pleasure in the wild. Captiva Cruises’ Dolphin Watch & Wildlife Adventure (tel: 239-472-5300; www.captivacruises.com; adults $20, children ages 4 to 12, $12.50) gives you a front row seat as you are virtually guaranteed to spot bottlenoses surfing the swells of Pine Island Sound and then bounding balletically back and forth across the boat’s wake. Rambunctious kids take note: the louder you clap, the higher they jump!

Manatees, Florida’s other favourite marine animal, aren’t nearly so graceful or gregarious. Nevertheless, these curious endangered critters are worth seeking out. Manatee Park (tel: 239-694-3537; www.leeparks.org), on the Orange River in Fort Myers, is a logical place to start looking because, in the colder months, they congregate in the warm water discharged by a nearby power plant.

The park has viewing decks where you can watch the massive mammals surface for air (roughly at five-minute intervals) as well as “hydrophones” that let you eavesdrop on their underwater chatter. In addition, a complimentary “All About Manatees” program is scheduled twice daily.


Shell Games

If you are zealous about good posture and forever reminding your progeny to stand up straight, you might want to skip Sanibel and Captiva. After all, it’s almost impossible to visit these two linked islands without succumbing to either the “Sanibel Stoop” or the “Captiva Crouch.” Those are the hunched positions assumed by conchologists and collectors alike when searching for the 400-odd species of seashells that are routinely swept in here by Caribbean currents.

The bounty is thought to be due to the islands’ flexed arm shape and atypical, east-west orientation. As you’d expect, less-trafficked strands (such as Bowman’s Beach and Turner’s Beach) yield the best results, and the optimal time to comb them is in the early morning, right after the tide retreats or immediately following a storm.

Dropping by the compact yet comprehensive Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (tel: 239-395-2233; www.shellmuseum.org; adults $7, children five to 16, $4) — which boasts North America’s largest collection of shells plus a hands-on Learning Lab — will help you identify your finds. As an FYI, dropping by one of the many area stores that sell seashells (by the seashore) will help you save face if you somehow come up empty handed.


Creature Features

Even little tykes who would sooner watch TV than explore the great outdoors will be won over by an outing to Babcock Wilderness Adventures (tel: 800-500-5583; www.babcockwilderness.com; adults $19.25, children $11.75) outside Punta Gorda. In part that’s because its narrated tours are offered aboard a camo-painted version of Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus, and in part because kids get to tick so many species off their “I saw it myself” list.

Habitats on the 295-square kilometre Babcock property include grassy ranchlands, pine forests and a freshwater marsh, which means you have the opportunity to spy anything from long-horned cracker cattle to cougars and cranes. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys and insatiably hungry wild pigs are also in residence.

Still, the star attractions, as far as most visitors are concerned, are those leathery alligators that live in the site’s cypress swamp. A boardwalk threads through this haunting locale, and on a quick hike down it youngsters get the inside scoop on Florida’s official state reptile. Those hungry for more information — or just plain hungry — can find related displays back at Babcock’s headquarters along with a restaurant that serves alligator in fried nugget form. Mmm… tastes like chicken!


Magical History Tours

When Ponce de Leon dropped by in the early 16th century, he wasn’t lucky enough to meet the sort of hospitable folks who now inhabit southwest Florida. Instead he encountered the native Calusa (aka “the fierce people”) who mortally wounded poor Ponce before he could locate the elusive Fountain of Youth. The now-extinct tribe dominated the region since pre-historic times, and evidence of their culture remains in the mammoth ceremonial shell mounds they constructed.

One of the most intriguing is a working archeological site on Pine Island overseen by the Randell Research Center (tel: 239-283-2062; www.flmnh.ufl.edu/rrc; adults $7, children $4). The centre sponsors guided tours on Wednesday mornings, January through April. At other times you are welcome to follow the interpretative signage on its kilometre-long Calusa Heritage Trail.

To approach the subject from a different angle, join Grande Tours (tel: 941-697-8825; www.grandetours.com; $50) for a kayak excursion to a shell mound in the Catfish Creek area. The two-hour Calusa Adventure is aimed at paddlers 12 years or older. Younger kids, however, may ride tandem, and history buffs of all ages will be fascinated by the Calusa factoids dished up en route.


Piratical Pursuits

At first glance, you’d never guess that this peaceful area was once a hotbed of “avast me hearty” activity. But easy-to-hide-in inlets and islets made it a haven for pirates from the 1800s onward. Lovers Key, for instance, is named for Calico Jack and Anne Bonny, a lascivious pair of pirates who honeymooned there, and legendary Spanish buccaneer José Gaspar is said to have buried his ill-gotten gains on Gasparilla Island.

For a PG take on the swashbuckling era (think more play, less plunder) set your compass for Palm Island Resort (tel: 941-697-4800; www.palmisland.com; one bedroom units from $184 nightly). Located on a car-free island near Cape Haze, this family-oriented villa rental complex hosts themed activities like scavenger hunts and “booty-full” jewelry making sessions for young guests.

Palm Island even has its own fancifully-attired resident pirate, Randy “Redbeard” Matthews, who sings and spins yarns every Friday evening in an hour-long concert staged outside the Rum Bay Restaurant. As if that wasn’t enough, Palm Island beaches yield treasure. Your motley crew won’t uncover doubloons, but sand dollars are plentiful, and pint-sized pirates seem to think that the fossilized shark teeth that wash up are as good as gold.


“Current” Affairs

It seems Florida is fertile ground for inventors. In the 19th century, a physician proved inspiration and perspiration really do go together by creating the first air conditioner here. Later, locals concocted Coppertone (the original suntan lotion) and Gatorade (named for the Gators football team).

Yet it’s snowbird Thomas Edison who wins the “most inventive” crown. Edison, holder of almost 1100 patents, wintered in Fort Myers from 1885 until his death in 1931. His home — along with the one next door owned by his pal Henry Ford — qualifies as a must see. Compared to modern-day McMansions, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates (tel: 239-334-3614; www.efwefla.org; adults $20, children $11) are decidedly understated, and, since each has been meticulously restored, they are crammed with cool curios.

For example, Edison’s property is notable for prototypical electric chandeliers; Ford’s houses vintage vehicles. Elsewhere on the 5.5-hectare site, you can check out Florida’s first swimming pool (another Edison brainstorm), plus gorgeous experimental gardens and the lab where Edison worked with tire magnate Harvey Firestone to turn goldenrod into rubber. A small on-site museum helps put his achievements in context for kids.


Fruitful Activities

This is a fine place to gorge on Florida citrus fruits. Oranges, limes, tiny tangerines: they’re all here. You can sample baseball-sized grapefruits, too. Of course, vacationers more interested in actual baseballs can always squeeze in a Grapefruit League game.

Fort Myers, which has hosted MLB teams since 1925, now serves as spring training headquarters for both the Boston Red Sox (tel: 877-733-7699/ 239-334-4700; www.redsox.com; $10-$44) and Minnesota Twins (tel: 800-338-9467/ 239-768-4270; www.twinsbaseball.com; $12- $22), starting in February.

This coming year, you will also be able to catch games in Port Charlotte when the Tampa Bay Rays (tel: 727-825-3137/941-743-2425; www.raysbaseball.com) begin training at Charlotte Sports Park for the first time. Field boxes at the newly-renovated stadium cost only $20, and you can park yourself on a foul-line berm for $7. Low prices aside, proximity is the major advantage of all Grapefruit League games. Port Charlotte’s facility, for one, is about eight times smaller than the Rays’ home field in St. Petersburg, so ball fans — and autograph hounds — can get much closer to the action.

For more information, consult Visit Florida (tel: 888-735-2872; www.visitflorida.com).

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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