Florida’s Cultural Odyssey: Fort Myers and Sanibel

by Peter Morrell on 29 October 2014, 10:10AM

Peter Morrell continues his journey in Florida and on the third leg has the perfect combination of culture and relaxation

After a hectic time in Sarasota I was on my way to the Fort Myers area, about a 90-minute drive south. Leaving the motorway, the last half hour of the journey took me through fields of cattle, reminding me of the little known fact that cowboys originated in Florida and is still where their tradition lives on.

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My first stop was Matlacha (Mat-La-Shay) a tiny fishing village and very old school Florida. The village is the gateway to Pine Island, very laid back and picturesque, it is just perfect for the thriving community of artists who live there. Driving over the small bridge onto the island it was impossible to miss a house painted purple, green and blue; it's the gallery and garden owned by the community’s best known ambassador, Leoma Lovegrove.

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Leoma is a larger than life character, sporting a pair of signature funky white glasses, and with her hair plaited in multi-coloured braids.  A really extrovert artist, she has even painted designs on her jeans and shoes and her gallery is a must visit. The garden is a riot of creativity and colour, and is like stepping into Alice through the Looking Glass. As she takes us on a tour of this unspoilt village I felt a real sense of community here where the social life revolves around Bert’s Bar and the seafood restaurants.

Next stop was Fort Myers, on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, and I started off by paying a visit to the estate where the winter homes of Thomas Edison (Seminole Lodge) and Henry Ford (The Mangoes) were built. The estate, divided by a road which used to be a cattle drive, has Edison’s laboratory/workshop and an exhibition on one side and the houses of the two industrialists on the other. The exhibition is a fascinating insight into the lives of two men who shaped the 20th century. Apart from the Model T Ford, there are lots of Edison’s inventions on display.

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Across the road are the two very attractive but relatively modest wooden houses where the men stayed with their families in the winter. The knowledgeable guide kept visitors amused with anecdotes about Edison, Ford and their good friend Harvey Firestone.

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On the river in downtown Fort Myers is a smart new building that’s home to the Art of the Olympians. Founded by gold medal discus thrower Al Oerter the gallery is dedicated to all forms of art created by Olympic athletes. Sadly, Al is no longer with us but his dream lives on and the gallery continues to thrive and expand under the management of his widow Cathy, and Bob Beamon, gold medal long jumper winner at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

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Dinner that evening was at the historic Veranda Restaurant. Originally two houses which were built in1902 by early settlers, the joined buildings are now a fine dining venue serving culinary highlights featuring fresh seafood and meat with matched fine wines. A stroll from the restaurant is the Arcade Theatre, home of the Florida Rep, one of the State’s leading companies.

Built in 1908 as a vaudeville venue, the theatre was frequented by Edison, Ford and Firestone who went to watch a new form of entertainment – the movies. Rescued from dereliction in 1991, the building became the permanent home of the Florida Repertory Theatre in 1998. When I arrived the audience all seemed to know each other and I got the feeling that, like many other places in Florida, there was a real community spirit.

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After a breakneck schedule since arriving in Florida the next day promised some relaxation.  I was on my way to the two barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva. A long causeway across the edge of San Carlos Bay took me to the single road which runs up the spine of Sanibel.

Along this road and hidden by the lush vegetation are shops, bars and restaurants where you can spend time browsing, eating and relaxing. As with Pine Island it is an ideal environment for artists, calm, peaceful and with the most amazing quality of light.

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A short drive and a hop over a tiny bridge brought me to the tiny island of Captiva. This, like Sanibel, is a verdant sub tropical paradise surrounded by the palms and banana trees. Its stunning long white sand beach overlooks the Gulf of Mexico and perched cheekily on it, was The Mucky Duck, an English Pub. Sipping a pint, with a cloudless azure blue sky above, while watching the Pterodactyl like silhouettes of Pelicans diving for fish, seemed just about as close to heaven as you could get.

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I reflected on my time in Fort Myers and Sanibel, although not well known to the UK visitor it is well worth putting on your list of destinations, there’s plenty to do and see.

For more information about Florida, visit Tourism Florida

To find out more about holidays to Florida, click here

Author bio: Peter Morrell is the editor of www.aboutmygeneration.com & www.culturalvoyager.com


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