Walking along the Fort Myers Yacht Basin in the center of the city, you'd never know that several short months ago it was littered with boats and destruction, havoc wreaked by Hurricane Ian in late September 2022 - the worst storm to hit Florida since 1935 and the world's third costliest on record. The feeling of calm felt almost eerie as I remembered the horrific TV images of months past. Nonetheless, this Lee County city along with nearby Bonita Springs are beach towns, bastions of sun and surf for snowbirds and vacationers, yet beaches remain closed and without facilities – possibly true for the foreseeable future. So I found myself seeking other entertainment options – and I wasn’t disappointed. There are still nature parks, island cruises have just started up again, hiking, of course, canoeing, boat excursions, flea markets, historic sites but I’m going to focus on three unusual attractions that don’t usually fall on the must-see itinerary.
Shangri-La Springs Resort
Shangri-La Springs Resort in Bonita Springs Very Much Lives Up to Its Name
Shangri-La Springs, which usually conjures up a fantastical paradise, is actually where the springs that give the city of Bonita Springs its name were first discovered by the Calusa Indians - the first mineral springs spa in North America.- and this 102-year-old hotel with just eight rooms on 8½ acres oozes history and healing inside and out. Asian art proliferates throughout the property, inside and out. It’s a boutique hotel impersonating an art gallery. Even the lobby aquarium has tiny Asian sculptures. The fish, I assume, were local.
At the Harvest and Wisdom Restaurant (above) I felt my mind expand even as I was being seated. Architecture, landscape, and gardens provide extensive farm-to-table offerings. With only regenerative farming practices used, the 100-percent organic, sustainable products preserve the natural state of the plants. This was now over my pay grade dealing with essential oils, natural yeasts, and beneficial bacteria, but I was pretty sure the vegetables I was eating were pretty fresh.
The Shangri-La springs were originally discovered by the Calusa Indians and gave the city of Bonita its name Photo courtesy of Shangri-La Resort
The springs themselves (above) resemble a small river floating under extensive tree canopies (of course, the large fountain in the center wasn't there when they were discovered). The grounds bring to mind a mini-botanical garden (not the only Bonita Springs hideaway to do so but more on that later), proffering a quiet, restful ambiance accentuated by streams, fountains and sculptures. And then there’s the spa, which reflects internally the graceful, serene exterior.
So from the sublime to the ridiculous – and I say that in the most loving of ways…. As a longtime travel writer, there are a few things I find anathema due to de rigueur repetitive visits. I tend to avoid tours of forts, butterfly gardens, and shell factories. But the Shell Factory and Nature Park in Fort. Myers beckoned despite my internal protestations. And what an adventure it turned out to be!
Apparently they left off amusement park in the site’s name, because these are the activities I first noticed: a carousel, mini-golf, zipline, climbing wall, gem mining, paddle and bumper boats, arcade games, a performance arts center, and a pair of restaurants. And oh yes, there is also a huge shop that sells shell necklaces. Well, okay – perhaps a tad more than that. How about the "world’s largest shell factory. " including the USA's largest gift shop?
This is a place so big it warrants its own zip code and - no surprise - it has their own post office. In addition, there’s a fudge factory (above), a Christmas store, ice cream bar, t-shirts galore, more greeting cards than in a Hallmark warehouse (maybe several warehouses…) and miles and miles of quirky items you never knew you wanted until you tripped over them.
They have everything and all of it in abundance, attested to by a self-aware sign that states: “If you can’t find something in this store, they just don’t make it!” And that includes the kitsch-en sink…..
And did I mention the nature park? The Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs are home to some 450 animals ranging from the expected alligators, tortoises and peacocks to the lesser expected (lemurs, camels, and various reptiles) to virtually unknown (tayras, caracels and a huge Eurasian eagle-owl). There's also a petting zoo with goats, alpacas, and an ox, as well as a "dinosaur park" giving visitors a chance to walk through our prehistoric past (these of course were the only animals who weren't real). Although I suspect the animals are well-taken care of, some of the habitats felt a little cramped and I wasn’t sorry to leave.
Scarlett, Calypso, Rudy, and Murphy act as a very colorful and loud welcoming committee. Compared to the Shell Factory, these parrots are in luxury outdoor accommodations. Visiting the various rescued animals over three very airy and well-signed acres – alligators to tortoises, flamingos to lorikeets, over bridges and walkways, alongside streams and splashing waterfalls, amid an avalanche of tropical plants – the feeling is one of expansiveness and immersion in nature, with an appreciation of what a wonderful home these animals have. I suspect many of then think they are still in the wild.
Whether an exotic plant, animal or waterfall, there’s something to gawk at around every turn. My personal favorite? A giant orange and black iguana straddling a tree. Squawks, shrieks, yelps and tweets (no, not THAT kind) reinforce the jungle atmosphere. Even the few cages on the property are expansive enough to resemble the same jungle impression prevalent outside of them.
So apparently I have to rethink my aversion to "shell factories." But the Everglades Wonder Garden in Bonita Springs -- a sort of hidden gem -- left all thoughts of its nature park behind – it was a place I didn’t want to leave. If you’re old enough to remember the “roadside attraction” concept – this one dates back to 1936 – it usually conjures up an image of very unhappy animals in a very unsavory environment. Though a step back in time to a mainstay of Florida tourism, this roadside attraction evokes a totally different mind-set. It is the “later” I alluded to earlier, though more of a semi-tropical rainforest than botanical garden.
Even as I re-read this, I realize how much of Lee County involves a natural habitat of sorts. So yes, Bonita Springs and Ft. Myers may be all about beaches, but they are also, thankfully, all about nature. Besides, who had time to sunbathe?
For more on Lee County, click here.