Known for its pristine white sand beaches, deep-sea fishing and golf courses, Fort Myers is quickly becoming one of South Florida's go-to destinations for those seeking a spot that offers as much recreational activities as it does historical and cultural attractions. Fort Myers, which is the largest city in southwest Florida, has a population that is increasing steadily, with 62,298 people calling the city home in 2012—up 23 percent since 2000.
The Seminole Wars & Early Settlers
Named in honor of Colonel Abraham C. Myers, Fort Myers was one of the first of it its kind built on the Caloosahatchee River as a base of operations for soldiers in 1841 during the Seminole Wars, eventually becoming the location of The Battle of Fort Myers in 1865, later dubbed the "southernmost land battle of the Civil War." With 349 residents in tow, Fort Myers was officially incorporated in 1885. By the late 1980's, Fort Myers became the farming and cattle epicenter of southwest Florida.
The opening of the Royal Palm Hotel in 1898 solidified Fort Myers' status as the first nationally known winter getaway. The city's growth boomed at the turn of the 20th century with the expansion of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1904, soon followed by the construction of the Tamiami Trail Bridge in 1924, which really spurred a population increase, resulting in a real estate boom.
Long before the Seminoles came the Calusa, a Native American people of the Caloosahatchee culture, estimated to have settled in Fort Myers in 5,000 B.C. Relics of their technologically advanced, seafaring civilization include gigantic shell mounds, which can be explored on Pine Island.
History buffs can indulge in the rest of Fort Myers' rich roots by visiting the Southwest Florida Museum of History, The Railroad Museum of South Florida and The Williams Academy, the first African American history museum established in southwest Florida, to name a few.
Florida is usually the go-to refuge for those wishing to escape winter's harsh chill—Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were no exception. Edison, the renowned inventor, became enamored with Fort Myers' lush surroundings during a visit in 1885 and quickly purchased property. Two years later, work on Seminole Lodge was completed, and the estate remained his winter retreat for the remaining 46 years of his life.
Edison's pal Ford, of automobile fame, followed suit when he purchased The Mangoes estate in 1916, an adjacent property also located on McGregor Boulevard. The two properties, now known co-jointly as the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, have been transformed into a museum open to the public. A 17-acre botanical garden at The Mangoes is a crowd pleaser, consisting of more than 1,000 plant varieties. A 400-foot banyan tree, gifted to Edison by Harvey Firestone, is the main attraction.
Parks and Recreation
With over 40 parks in the vicinity of Fort Myers and Coral Gables alone, there are plenty of options for those seeking an outdoor escape. Visitors of Lake Regional Park can go freshwater swimming, fishing, paddle boating and paddle boating at this massive, 279-acre park.
Those hoping to get a glimpse of wildlife can do so at Lovers Key state park. Between the bottle-nose dolphin and West Indian manatee sightings, as well as the logger head sea turtles and bird watching, all along two and a half miles of white sand beaches, this park beats any zoo.
Along with its reputation for being a top spot for fishing, Fort Myers is also known as being a mecca for seashell collectors, known as “shellers.” The Shell Factory and Nature Park, located in North Fort Myers, is known as the "world's collection of rare shells, corals, sponges and fossils from the seven seas." The factory consists of a museum, nature park and gift shop.
Baseball fans can get an inside look at the Boston Red Sox's training action at jetBlue Park at Fenway South, which replaced City of Palms Park as the Bosox’s new spring training home in 2012.
The Arts Scene
Looking to beat the Florida heat? Head down to the historic downtown Fort Myers, also known as The River District, to catch a show at one of its many theaters, restaurants and art galleries. One of the most beloved art-centered attractions is the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center. Originally opened in 1933 as a United States Postal Service office, it offers of art and culture-driven experiences, including gallery exhibits, film viewings, and live classical, jazz and rock performances.
A few other standouts of the arts-rich district include The Art of the Olympians Gallery and Museum, The Arts for ACT Gallery and Boutique, as well as the Florida Repertory Theater, which was attracts over 70,000 visitors annually and was lauded recently for its great work by The Wall Street Journal. The River District is also home to ArtFest Fort Myers, an annual festival of the arts that takes place on the first weekend of February.
With a burgeoning arts scene, affordable housing (median price for a condo was just under $138,000 in 2009) and beautiful natural surroundings, Fort Myers not only makes for an ideal winter escape, but a great place to make your home as well.
Enjolie Esteve is an editorial assistant at The South Florida Cooperator and other publications.