109 things to do in Southwest Florida before you die
And good news, Southwest Florida: We’re living longer — more time to get stuff done. We’re not talking about the mundane things like mowing the lawn or cleaning out the litter box (although you better do those things, too). What we propose is that you do the things that make life here worth living. We’ve compiled a set of actions that not only define the spirit of our subtropical playground, but will define you as a spirit who populated it; who embodied the warm, fecund, larky essence of Southwest Florida.
Time is short. Here’s your checklist. Get crackin’.
1. Learn how to sail. You can’t do it in a day, but it’s a skill that will give you enjoyment for a lifetime. Check out the Offshore Sailing School for a week of intensive lessons, or a nonprofit sailing club for learning at a more leisurely pace. Captiva Island and Fort Myers Beach (offshoresailing.com), Naples (gulfcoastsailingclub.org) and Fort Myers (edisonsailingcenter.org)
2. Can how do you stuff 50,000 people into a sweet backwater hamlet? Promise them mountains of seafood and buckets of beer. The annual Everglades Seafood Festival is Everglades City’s premier party that draws folks from all over for the food and fun. This year’s festival is set for Friday through Sunday, Feb. 12-14. Make sure to poke around the town’s quaint historical center while you’re there. (evergladesseafoodfestival.com)
3. Explore a sanctuary for abandoned and abused exotic wildlife in your own backyard. For 40 years, the mission of Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary has been to provide a healthy recovery and to create comfortable a living environment for mistreated wild animals. (octagonwildlife.org)
4. Make the international art scene with a visit to Marcus Jensen’s downtown Fort Myers studio, UNIT A. Mr. Jansen displays his paintings all over the world. You might just find something you really have to have. 1922 Evans Ave., 240-1053 (marcusjansen.com)
5. Homer Helter’s Military & Antique Mall in Naples is a hidden gem that offers a view of incredible military memorabilia and the opportunity to coffee klatch with veterans. Not only are they happy to explain the origins of practically everything displayed, the resident experts are founts of knowledge for anyone who has questions. 5510 Shirley St.
6. The Celtic Ray in Punta Gorda took top honors for Florida in Buzzfeed.com’s “Here’s the Best Irish Bar in Every State.” The Punta Gorda restaurant, bar and entertainment hot spot was noted for its earthy comedy, music and food. “This place is for real,” the report states. “The owner’s a hoot — he tells the best jokes — and they also have great food ... A must!” (celticray.net; buzzfeed.com/ anniedaly)
7. Catch a Florida Rep show at the historic Arcade Theater, 2269 First Street. Any show will do. You’ll dig the creaky floors and the place still smells like the 1920s (in a good way). (floridarep.org)
8. Make one more big splash while you can. Neapolitans will bid farewell this year to their favorite end-of-season tradition: the Great Dock Canoe Race. For 40 years, amateur paddlers have made fools of themselves, experts have sweat it out to the finish line and everyone else has enjoyed a tailgate party on shore at Naples Bay. We’re so sad to see it go, but you can bet its swan song on Saturday, May 14, will be the most absurd, competitive and booze-soaked race yet. (greatdockcanoerace.com)
9. Listen to the salacious lyrics and spectacular brass of Here Come the Mummies at Funk Fest. The Punta Gorda music festival is set for March 4-5, featuring the heavily horned Mummies and 11 other bands in two days. (funkfestpuntagorda.com)
10. Paddle the Great Caloosa Blueway — a 190-mile marked paddlecraft trail that meanders through Lee County’s coastal waters and inland tributaries. (leeparks.org/blueway)
11. Visit the Revs Institute for Automotive Research (formerly the Collier Automotive Museum) and get some serious car envy going. It’s a carefully curated assemblage of some of the most profound and rare automotive innovations of our time. The New York Times has declared it the finest sports car collection in America. (revsinstitute.org)
12. Experience Southwest Florida’s flora and fauna in ways you never imagined by taking a Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center guided walk. CHEC also hosts a number of learning and social activities that bring the community together. (checflorida.org)
14. Get a taste of authentic Florida Cracker culture by watching the twice yearly Swamp Buggy Races at Florida Sports Park in Naples. The next one is March 12. (thefloridasportspark.com, 774-2701)
15. Visit Catania’s Winery in Englewood. Tour the diminutive building and sample its wine and olive oil, which can be paired with cheese, crackers and soppressata, if you call ahead. 524 Paul Morris Drive, Suite B, Englewood. (941) 475-7553 (cataniaswinery.com)
16. Roll on the floor laughing at one of the many comedy clubs in Southwest Florida. We like Off The Hook (offthehook comedy.com), Visani Restaurant & The Comedy Zone (Visani.net) and Laugh-In Comedy Cafe (laughincomedycafe.com)
17. Visit the Skunk Ape Research Center on Alligator Alley (U.S. 41 or 40904 Tamiami Trail E.). While you’re there, have your picture taken next to the giant panther statue at Trail Lakes Campground across the highway. (skunkape.biz)
18. Camp at Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, 3800 Corkscrew Road, and feel the vibe of Cyrus Teed, founder of the Koreshan sect. (floridastateparks.org/park/koreshan)
19. Find some fine fiddle and gee-tar pickin’ at The David & Cecile Wang Opera Center, where Russ Morrison’s Florida Fish Hook Tour has set up residence with its annual Cluster Pluckin’ bluegrass festival and a stellar line-up of down-home concerts each winter. (follow Florida Fish Hook Tour on Facebook)
20. Go to the movies where you can have a real drink, gourmet dinner and sit in a big cushy recliner as you gaze at the silver screen at Prado Stadium 12, 25251 Chamber of Commerce Drive, Bonita Springs.
21. Bring a pool noodle and ride the tide through the channel with a drink in your hand at Keewaydin Island. More Redneck Yacht Club than not, here’s where you can join the locals who love tying their boats to the beach and basking in sun, sand and beer.
22. What’s better than sitting on a beach listening to music, viewing original art and experiencing literary readings? The Hermitage Artist Retreat in Englewood offers such cultural experiences regularly at no charge to the public. (hermitageartistretreat.org)
23. Take your boat or the ferry to Cayo Costa State Park for a look at an untouched Florida beach not accessible by bridge or land. Explore nature trails, snorkel, fish, picnic and stay in a primitive cabin.
24. Attend the annual anti-hurricane party on the last Saturday in June. Little Bar’s Spammy Jammy combines processed pork products, pajamas and quirk to create a party that perfectly captures the Goodland spirit. (littlebarrestaurant.com)
25. Get your car fix at Muscle Car City, a museum showcasing more than 200 muscle cars from the ’50s to the ’70s. After looking under the hoods, tuck into the retro diner and visit the retro-inspired gift shop. 3811 Tamiami Trail, Punta Gorda. (941) 575-5959 (musclecarcity.net)
26. Ride your bike through the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. Choose to pedal the 4-mile loop within the refuge or the 8-mile loop that returns via the bike path on Sanibel-Captiva Road. Either way, you’re guaranteed to see more birds and critters than just about anywhere else around these parts, especially this time of year. (fws.gov/dingdarling)
27. Spend a weekend at The Ritz- Carlton Beach Resort and promise yourself not to leave the AAA Five- Diamond rated property — for anything. Check in and check out of your daily routine for some pure indulgence. There’s really no other place like it. Don’t you deserve it? (ritzcarlton.com/ naples)
28. Take a walk on the artful side at Gallery Walk from 5-8 p.m. every third Thursday in Punta Gorda. Shops stay open later and local artists display their work. Live music and special events liven up the path. (On Facebook: Gallery Walk Downtown Punta Gorda)
29. Take a picture with the controversial urinating dog and man statue in downtown Fort Myers at the corner of Main and Hendry streets. While you’re at it, check out the other 22 iron sculptures by Edgardo Carmona scattered throughout the River District. They’ll be on display though March 31 before heading to another exhibition in Spain.
30. Sit outside at The Dock at Crayton Cove on the weekend of the Naples Winter Wine Festival and watch the steady stream of private jets come and go from Naples Municipal Airport. Your next chance is Jan. 26-29, 2017.
31. Buy the Thirsty Thursday Pack for the Fort Myers Miracle games starting in April at Hammond Stadium, 14400 Six Mile Cypress Parkway, 768-4210. You get general admission and your own 14-ounce mug to bring on Thirsty Thursdays. Cheers.
32. Work up an appetite and tuck into a 1-pound Kobe burger at Jimmy P’s Butcher Shop & Deli in Naples (across from Coastland Center on U.S. 41). While waiting for your order, peruse the cases filled with every cut of meat imaginable. (jimmypsbutchershop.com)
33. Discover what’SUP at night and take a Light Up the Night Paddle tour with Hooked on SUP. These excursions light up the Gulf with paddleboards or kayaks as you float in shallow water, viewing starfish, live shells, sponges and tons of fish. (hookedonsup.com)
34. Eat swamp cabbage, the traditional dish made from the hearts of the common sabal palm, especially at the Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle this weekend. (swampcabbagefestival.org)
36. For a lesson in the ephemeral nature of barrier islands, take a boat to Cape Romano to see the dome houses built in 1980 that were eventually overtaken by the sea. Thirty-plus years ago, they were a testament to space age architecture; today they are more reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic shelter.
37. Visit the Military Heritage Museum at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. Displays include artifacts and memorabilia from all branches of the service, from the Civil War through current operations. 1200 W. Retta Esplanade; (941) 575-9002
39. Bored on a Sunday afternoon? Try some Drag Queen Bingo at The Bottom Line, 3090 Evans Ave., Fort Myers. (tblnightclub.com)
40. Fulfill your need for speed at a Friday night drag race at the Immokalee Regional Raceway, where drivers can get their hot rods up to 140 mph in just 1/8 mile. (immraceway.com)
41. Walk or run the bridge between Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte and take in great breezes and incomparable views of Charlotte Harbor. The terrific exercise is an added benefit.
43. Go on one of photographer Clyde Butcher’s swamp walks out back behind his Big Cypress Gallery in the Everglades. Even better: Do it when you can book a night or two in the onsite Bungalow or the Swamp Cottage. 695-2428 (clydebutchersbigcypressgallery.com).
44. Collect shark teeth on Venice Beach (off U.S. 41 about 30 miles north of Punta Gorda), known as the shark tooth capital of the world. Taking up this meditative hobby of finding two — or two dozen — shark teeth has restorative benefits for the soul.
46. Tuck into a pile of succulent stone crab claws at the no-frills City Seafood on the waterfront in Everglades City. Season starts in mid-October and can run through May. (cityseafood1.com)
47. Venture out to Solomon’s Castle in Ona, about an hour’s drive from Punta Gorda. Take a tour of the quirky castle designed and built by Howard Solomon that houses galleries of his fantastic sculptures. Have lunch in the “Boat in the Moat” restaurant and take a stroll along Horse Creek. But leave your credit cards at home. They don’t accept them. (863) 494-6077 (solomonscastle.com)
49. Go muddin’. This redneck tradition involves spinning tires and drenched soil. (redneckyachtclubmudpark.com)
50. Sip wine as world-class jazz musicians perform at the Punta Gorda Wine & Jazz Festival, coming up Feb. 20 at Laishley Park. Continue the jazz vibe the next day, Feb. 21, at a jazz brunch held at the Isles Yacht Club. (941) 639- 3720 (puntagordachamber.com)
52. Get your fill of swamp meat from Cracklin’ Jacks in Naples, where you can order a plate of gator tail, frog legs and catfish. (cracklinjacks.com)
53. Make music, not war, with the Punta Gorda Guitar Army on its Thursday night jam sessions at Gilchrist Park. It starts at around 6:30 p.m. rain or shine, and sometimes goes into the wee hours of the morning (theguitararmy. wordpress.com)
54. Kayak among the manatees in the Orange River. If you can’t kayak, you can still check out the sea cows at Manatee Park, 10901 Palm Beach Blvd.
55. Visit the ValuJet Flight 592 monument. Flight 592 out of Miami crashed in the Everglades on May 11, 1996. The memorial consists of 110 concrete pillars pointing to the location of the crash several miles into the swamp. It’s just north of Alligator Alley about 12 miles west of Miami’s Krome Avenue.
56. Take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico on a full-moon night and stir up the phosphorescence. Take a couple of children with you if you can. It’s like magic.
57. Groove to the funky beats of the tropics — including Charlotte County’s own Jim Morris — at the Nav-A-Gator, the No. 1 Trop Rock venue in the United States. Take a Peace River wildlife tour with Capt. Dennis Kirk (941) 625-4407 (nav-a-gator.com)
58. Snap a selfie for posterity under Thomas Edison’s massive banyan tree, 2350 McGregor Blvd. (edisonfordwinterestates.com)
59. Catching a flick by moonlight is a great reminder that the great outdoors can improve any experience. Mercato presents free screenings one night a month on the lawn under the stars, showing a wide array range genres, from children’s movies and blockbusters to classic Hollywood flicks. The next movie, “Wall-E,” starts at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16. (mercatoshops.com)
60. Beat Bobby Flay vicariously. Order Chef Jeanie Roland’s mussels and frites at The Perfect Caper. This dish beat world-famous chef Bobby Flay at his own game on the Food Network. (theperfectcaper.com)
61. Glow bowl at HeadPinz Entertainment Center, 14513 Global Pkwy. Enjoy the rest of the games, food and drinks at this sprawling indoor playground for kids and adults alike. (headpinz.com)
62. Go stargazing in an ancient bald cypress forest at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The next monthly Corkscrew After Hours is Friday, Feb. 20. There will only be a sliver of a moon, which means dark skies for great stargazing. (corkscrew.audubon.org)
63. Sip a cocktail at sunset at TT’s Tiki Bar at the Four Points by Sheraton. Known for its comfortable outdoor ambiance and incomparable harbor views every day of the year, it’s a draw for both visitors and residents. 33 Tamiami Trail, Punta Gorda; (941) 637-6770
64. Catch a roller derby bout. Grab a pitcher of beer and watch tough women in stockings and rollerskates. (fortmyersderbygirls.com)
65. Find your center and breeeathe at a sunset yoga session at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park every Monday at 5 p.m. (weather allowing). Instructors from Green Monkey Yoga lead participants through a practice in front of one of the world’s most inspiring landscape views. (greenmonkey.com)
66. Dine outdoors day or night under a marvelous canopy of seagrapes at Trabue Restaurant in Punta Gorda. (941) 639-0900 (trabuerestaurant.com)
67. Fish off the Matlacha Bridge, where Pine Island Road connects Cape Coral to Pine Island.
68. Gardeners from cooler climes are often fascinated with the tropical variety we have in South Florida. If a view of exotic orchids, native wildflowers and sustainable produce interest you, head to Naples Botanical Garden and see its extensive collection and beautiful grounds. Don’t miss the great gift shop where you can buy all manner of botanically inspired home goods, plants and gardening equipment. (naplesgarden.org)
69. See SWFL flora and fauna the way it can only be seen from a kayak on Charlotte County’s Blueway Trails. (charlottecountyfl.com/communityservices/ blueway.asp)
70. Rent a jet ski at the beach and look for dolphins. For a bonus, ask your guide to point you in the direction of that little island near Big Carlos Pass at the south end of Estero Island where the nudists like to, um, hang out.
71. Family bike rides can be an interesting prospect in Naples. We highly recommending loading up the kids and breezing down the Gordon River Greenway on Golden Gate Parkway. The 1.5-mile paved loop offers pedestrians and cyclists a scenic view of Naples’ wild interior that includes mangroves, backwaters and wildlife. (gordonrivergreenway.org)
72. Take a picnic basket to Pottery Express & Bamboo Farm and spend the day surrounded by nature and beautiful, colorful pottery from around the world. Step inside and explore a mini pottery museum. (941) 505-8400 (potteryexpress.com)
73. Head to Key West for the weekend but don’t suffer that long drive. Sail there on the Key West Express. The big catamarans leave from Fort Myers Beach, 1200 Main Street. (seakeywestexpress.com)
74. Go through the red tape and get permission to have a bonfire on the beach on Sanibel Island. Permitting is through the Sanibel Fire Control District, and you must present the application in person. It’s worth it. 472-5525 (sanibelfire.com)
75. Relish “toes-in-the-sand” dining at The Turtle Club at Vanderbilt Beach, the only Naples spot where diners can enjoy a gorgeous beach day with a fork, knife, cocktail and tableside service. (windwardhospitality.com/naples)
76. Enjoy the spectacular views from the Wyvern Hotel’s Rooftop Bar in downtown Punta Gorda. The view is spectacular. 101 East Retta Esplanade (thewyvernhotel.com)
77. Stake out a great viewing spot and catch the Edison Festival of Light Parade — a two-hour extravaganza featuring national participants and local marching bands. Wave to Paperboy on the Florida Weekly float. This year’s parade takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20. (edisonfestival.org)
78. It can be difficult to tell, but tony downtown Naples has much more to it than grand homes and sparkling boutiques. Book one of Naples Historical Society’s walking tours to find out the who, what and where of the city’s formative years. The organization also hosts tours of Historic Palm Cottage, (adjacent to Naples Pier on 12th Avenue) and its surrounding gardens. (napleshistoricalsociety.org.)
79. Meet the silver king. Anglers from across the globe visit Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande Pass with hopes of reeling in a tarpon in proclaimed “tarpon capital of the world.” Enter the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament May 19-20, with $80,000 in prize money. (worldsrichesttarpon.com)
80. Step aboard the Seminole Gulf Railway: Murder Mystery Train and experience dinner theater on the old CSX railroad line. For reservations, 275- 8487. (semgulf.com)
81. This isn’t your grandpa’s threering circus. Cirque des Voix (circus of voices) calls together top circus aerialists and artists (including comedic daredevil Bello Nock), a 100-member chorus and a live orchestra under one big top. Key Chorale conductor Joseph Caulkins is the “ringmaestro” of this “mélange à trois,” happening March 19-20 at Nathan Benderson Park, 140 University Town Center Drive, Sarasota. (keychorale.org)
82. Nature lovers can’t leave Southwest Florida without strolling the twomile boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which wends its way through a variety of inland Florida habitats. (corkscrew.audubon.org)
83. Who knew Naples was so Irish? It’s not really, but the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade could fool anybody because in a town that loves a processional, this one is the biggest and rowdiest. This year, Irish eyes are smiling on downtown Naples at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 12. (naplesparade.com)
84. Tour the Three Suns Bison Ranch in Punta Gorda and learn about American bison, its history and how they live on the ranch, which raises hormone and antibiotic-free meats (threesunsranch.com)
85. Toss a mullet at the annual Mullet Toss Championships at Matlacha Community Park, 4577 Pine Island Road, Saturday, March 19 starting at 10 a.m. (matlachamariners.org)
86. Imagine you’re taking a magic carpet ride when you encounter the masses of fiddler crabs that overtake Marco Island’s Tigertail Beach in the winter months (turn off Collier Boulevard onto Kendall Drive. The beach is at the end). Don’t make any sudden moves — they’re shy — and you can see thousands of the tiny critters covering the sand, searching for a snack and a mate.
87. See how wildlife can be nurtured back to health at Peace River Wildlife Center, a nonprofit rehab facility. 3400 Ponce de Leon Parkway, old Marion Avenue West in Punta Gorda; (941) 637- 3830 (peaceriverwildlifecenter.org)
88. Order the Green Eggs and Ham pizza at Nice Guys, 1334 Cape Coral Parkway. It comes with fried egg and prosciutto. Sound weird? It is. It’s also delicious. (niceguyspizza.com)
89. Have a taste for community theater? Tiny Marco Island is the home of The Marco Players (themarcoplayers.com), Island Theater Company (theateronmarco.com) and the Marco Island Shakespeare Festival (shakespeareislandstyle.org). The latter stages a production of “The Tempest” Friday through Sunday, April 22-24. Between the three companies, there’s a constant supply of one-man shows, historical re- enactments and more.
90. Find everything you need and 10 million things you don’t at Fleamasters Fleamarket in Fort Myers, 4135 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. (fleamall.com)
91. Primate boat excursions at The Naples Zoo are practically a rite of passage for local school children. Spotting the primates in treetops and swinging from branches is pretty thrilling for grown-ups, too. (napleszoo.com)
92. Catch football’s fall classic, the Coconut Bowl, Collier County’s longrunning football feud between Naples High School and Lely High School. Winner takes the “nut,” a 40-year-old coconut that was recently renamed “The Joe Klimas Trophy.” (naplesfan.com/Coconut Bowl.html)
93. Drink a Gateway Gold at Fort Myers Brewing Company in Gateway, 12811 Commerce Lakes Drive, 313-6576. Or try some of the other unique flavors it has on tap.
94. Borrow a convertible and drive to the end of Captiva Island.
95. Eat lychees. They’re indigenous to China and grow well in South Florida. Pine Island is the hot spot for their cultivation in Southwest Florida. Look for them at stands and farmers markets from late May to early July.
96. Take your friends on a bar crawl in downtown Fort Myers: Spirits of Bacchus, French Connection, City Tavern, Indigo Room and The Lodge are just a few of the great watering holes in the River District.
97. On your mark, get set, go run the Edison 5K. Thousands of spectators line the route waiting for the parade that follows. But really, they’re there to watch you run. This year’s run takes place at 5:45 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20. (edisonfestival.org)
98. Rent a beachfront hotel in summer on Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel or Manasota Key. Then watch lightning light up the skies after the sun goes down.
99. Polish off a plate of corned beef hash and French toast at the Over Easy Café on Sanibel Island, 630 Tarpon Bay Road, 472-2625. Then walk off those calories on the beach.
100. Jump out of an airplane. Don’t forget your parachute. SW Florida Skydive Club (skydiveswflorida.com in Punta Gorda or skydivespaceland.com in Clewiston)
101. Do a song crawl. You’ve heard of a “bar crawl.” But at the Island Hopper Songwriter Fest, you can jump from venue to venue catching renowned singer/ songwriters performing at small venues throughout the region. This year’s event takes place from Sept. 23-Oct. 2. (fortmyers-sanibel.com/island-hopper)
102. Relieve some stress and smack a few balls at the batting cages at Mike Greenwell’s Bat-A-Ball & Family Fun Park. 35 NE Pine Island Road, Cape Coral, 574-4386
103. Ride the bus. Make conversation with the transportation-challenged working class. (rideleetran.com)
104. Catch an intimately close concert at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. The refurbished historic federal post office building often hosts worldclass performers from classical musicians to rockers in a room that seats just a few hundred attendees, making sure that you more than hear the music — you feel it. (sbdac.com)
105. Buy fruit from a roadside stand.
106. Take aforementioned fruit and eat it with someone special by the water’s edge.
107. Volunteer at the CCMI Soup Kitchen. 3429 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (ccmileecounty.com)
108. Wear a New York Yankees jersey to a Red Sox spring training game at Jet Blue Park in March. Really, it’s no problem... (boston.redsox. mlb.com/ bos/ ballpark/ jetblue_ park.jsp)
109. Have some frog legs at Fancy’s. (fancyssoutherncafe.com) ¦