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Thursday, May 23, 2024 at 7:25 AM


From kids to veterans to art aficionados and car buffs, we’ve got places you’ll love
A Harley-Davidson carrier pigeon bike at America’s Military & First Responders Museum, Naples


Museums abound throughout Southwest Florida. Some of them connect visitors to the local color and quirkiness of the region that no doubt inspired tales of “a Florida man” long ago. There’s also an authentic Seminole trading post deep in the Everglades where an infamous murder took place. And there’s a one-time roadside attraction that today promises visitors a look at real live gators, colorful birds and botanical wonders. 

We also have museums for kids, autophiles and art aficionados, as well as one reminding us to never forget the horrors of the Holocaust and the will to survive, and at least three museums dedicated to America’s military history. 

America’s Military & First Responders Museum 

Best for: Military history. Spanning the Revolutionary War to the war in Afghanistan, this hidden gem at the Naples Airport honors all military branches, its 800-square-feet jam-packed with memorabilia including Medals of Honor, uniforms, weapons, flight suits, photos, model planes and battleships donated by veterans and their families. There’s even a Civil War surgeon’s medical bag with bone saws. Much of its 10,000-plus collection is warehoused; displays honoring first responders are currently on loan to NCH.

Haunting tributes: The POW/MIA memorial table honors those who gave all, with each element — from the white of the tablecloth to the upended goblet — chosen for its symbolism. 1,952 American flags pinned to an oversized Florida state flag serve as a reminder of Florida’s fallen Vietnam soldiers killed and missing in action. A kamikaze flag boasting the traditional signatures of villagers and commanders and a display with a red swastika armband, Nazi-era German work permits and weapons are a somber reference of hatred. 

Hmm, how’d that happen? One of the more curious items is an instrument panel from a Huey helicopter purportedly flown in combat during the Vietnam War — origins unknown, for the record. Another fan favorite is the 1939 WWII Harley-Davidson carrier pigeon bicycle. 

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon to 3 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Free 

— 500 Terminal Drive, Naples 614-205-0357, www.amrfm.org 

— Other military museums in the area include: The SWFL Military Museum & Library, 4125 Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers (inside Edison Mall), www.swflmm.org, and the Military Heritage Museum, 900 West Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, www.militaryheritagemuseum.org.

The Baker Museum 


Take your time: Spend an hour or two exploring The Baker Museum’s large-scale outdoor installations, the most concentrated collection of public sculptures in the U.S. Better yet, join a docent tour at 10 a.m. any Thursday. 

Must-see: A mainstay since the museum’s opening, “Persian Seaform Ceiling” by renowned multimedia artist Dale Chihuly demonstrates why he’s the master of glass as light plays with 1,028 pieces of blown glass, creating an ethereal under-the-sea ambiance. Among the museum’s permanent collection of mostly modern and contemporary art, you literally can’t miss the 25-foot “Dawn’s Forest,” illustrating Louise Nevelson’s iconic assemblage style. 

2023 Highlights: Love is in the air as The Baker Museum presents the final U.S. stop of “Love Stories from the National Portrait Gallery, London,” featuring 17th-century to modern-day British portraiture (through May 7). The museum revisits its widely popular 2016 exhibit, “Naples Collects” with the 2022-23 rendition, featuring significant artwork from local private collectors (March 4-Oct. 15). 

Take in a sunset: Art after Hours, from 6-9 p.m. on the last Wednesday or every month, offers complimentary admission and prime sunset viewing on the museum’s new third-floor sculpture terrace. 

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday (closed Monday) 

Admission: $10 adults, $5 students, free for children 17 and younger. 

— 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples 239-597-1900, www.artisnaples.org/baker-museum

Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples 

Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples I COURTESY PHOTO

What’s to love: Primarily screen-free, C’mon, as it’s affectionally known, proves play has no age limit, delivering an immersive, fun and educational experience for children and families. Here, kids can build a spaceship (and fly far away), stage a rocket launch, tend to animals at a pet vet, journey through the Everglades and explore the world around them. 

2023 highlights: “Namaste India,” through May 14, provides a day-in-the-life perspective of children in India, covering cricket to Bollywood and food to schools. Children can also step inside the pages of celebrated children author Mo Willems’ “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” May 17-Sept. 13. 

Fun fact: The museum’s experiential focus and emphasis on experimental play was developed by child psychology experts to foster creativity, curiosity, empathy and self-esteem. 

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday-Sunday (closed Wednesday) 

Admission: $20 general, $15 local residents, $2 for EBT, SNAP and WIC cardholders 

— 15080 Livingston Road, Naples 239-514-0084, www.cmon.org 

— Fort Myers also has a children’s museum. The IMAG History & Science Center is at 2000 Cranford Ave. just east of downtown off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; www.theimag.org. 

Holocaust Museum & Cohen Education Center 

The Holocaust Museum & Cohen Education Center, Naples I COURTESY PHOTO

What to expect: Visitors embark on a chronological journey through history’s darkest days — from Jewish life between the two world wars, the rise of the Nazi party and the horrors of concentration and slave labor camps to Allied liberation and the Nuremberg Trials. With more than 1,000 WWII, Holocaust artifacts and original photographs, you’ll learn about odds-defying reunions and heroes who harbored families as told by Southwest Florida survivors, their families and liberators. 

Don’t miss: Docents share more local stories during 90-minute tours at 1:30 p.m. 

2023 highlights: “Two Regimes,” through April, chronicles the genocide-by-starvation Holodomor in 1930s Soviet Ukraine and the Holocaust as documented in the writings and paintings of a Ukrainian woman and her daughter. 2023 also ushers in a mid-year expansion, including a new gallery dedicated to identifying and preventing genocide as part of the museum’s mission of teaching the “lessons of the Holocaust to inspire action against bigotry, hatred and violence.” 

Fun fact: Now in its 21st year, the Holocaust Museum traces its roots to a local seventh-grade classroom project. 

Hours: 1-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday 

Admission: $15 at the door, $13 online

 — 975 Imperial Golf Course Blvd., Suite 108 Naples 239-263-9200, www.hmcec.org 

REVS Institute 


Best for: While gearheads and diehard car enthusiasts seem the most likely visitors, the nonprofit Revs is revered by researchers, restoration experts, scholars and anyone who wants to learn how the advent of the auto forever changed daily life, influencing society and sport. 

What to expect: Celebrating the automobile as art, the institute features more than 100 historically significant vehicles built between 1896 and 1995 from the personal collection of founder Miles Collier, whose father and uncle are credited with introducing sports car racing to the U.S. Vehicle displays illustrate/provide a veritable roadmap and historic timeline, motoring visitors through the infancy of the auto to the freedom of the open road, the need for speed and the race-winning excellence of Porsche. 

Insider intel: Delve deeper during a docent-led tour and a behind-the-scenes walk-through of Rev’s working workshop, where cars are meticulously restored to working condition and their former beauty. Preview the online collection, including cars not displayed, by manufacturer, year and keywords (“rare” returned a 1961 Citrően 2CV Sahara and a 1901 carriage-like Benz Dos-à-Dos). 

2023 highlights: “Speed, Grace, Power, Beauty,” through August, highlights the Spirit of Ecstasy, the iconic Rolls-Royce mascot created by sculptor Charles Sykes. 

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 

Admission: $20, docent tours $30, docent/workshop $35. Online reservations are required. 

— 2500 Horseshoe Drive S., Naples 239-687-7387, www.revinstitute.org 

Smallwood’s Store 

Smallwood’s Store, Chokoloskee 

Best for: Local flavor and life in Florida’s final frontier 

What to expect: Opened in 1906 and perched above Chokoloskee Bay in the Ten Thousand Islands, the store-turned-museum and National Register of Historic Places site houses ancient Calusa artifacts, the original furs, animal pelts and carvings harkening to its days as a Seminole trading post and the only market and post office in the untamed western Everglades wilderness. 

Why you know the name: Townsfolk gunned down Wild West outlaw and suspected murderer Edgar J. Watson outside the store in 1910, memorialized in the 1990 novel “Killing Mr. Watson.” 

More to do: Boat tours are often accompanied by sightings of the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish that favors the bay.

Don’t miss: Kids love the novelty of an ice-cold Coca-Cola served by a restored vending machine. The Tigertail gift shop honors Seminole Chief Charlie Tigertail and offers authentic Seminole crafts and local artwork. 

Hours: December-April, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; May-November, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily 

Admission: $5 

— 360 Mamie St., Chokoloskee 239-695-2989, www.smallwoodstore.com 

The Wonder Gardens 

Best for: Colorful kitsch and a glimpse into Old Florida 

Highlights: An original 1936 roadside attraction, the Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs officially dropped “Everglades” from its name in 2020 (seems some folks were adamant it’s not actually in the Everglades). Gone are the swinging bridge over the alligator pit, alligator feedings best viewed from said bridge and the curious, often-unidentifiable jarred specimens collected by the gardens’ founders. Today, the nonprofit Wonder Gardens celebrates the area’s local flora and fauna as a colorful botanical garden and a haven for more than 300 rescued, rehabilitated and non-releasable reptiles and birds, including juvenile gators, free-range peacocks strutting their stuff under sprawling banyan trees and flamingos frolicking in their version of a splashpad. 

Stay tuned: The Wonder Gardens is planning a new and improved version of its natural history museum, damaged by recent hurricanes. It houses wildlife exhibits, plants and former resident (now taxidermied) Big Joe, who at 15.5 feet was once the world’s largest living crocodile. 

Insider intel: Pose for a photo op as you feed a gator, offered daily at 12:30 p.m. 

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily 

Admission: $12 adults, $7 children 4-12, $10 seniors. 

— 27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs 239-992-2591, www.wondergardens.org 

— Naples Botanical Garden also celebrates Southwest Florida’s native flora (and other subtropical and tropical flora around the world), as does the Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens in Punta Gorda. Find out more at www.naplesgarden.org and at www.peacerivergardens.org.