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Thursday, May 23, 2024 at 7:21 AM
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SWFL FIVE WAYS

CHECK OUT THESE FIVE AREAS FOR DISTINCTLY DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES
SWFL FIVE WAYS
Naples Design District

Source: CARONCHI PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY PHOTO

Talk about character! Southwest Florida brims with neighborhoods and communities that defy pigeon-holing. From historic riverfront downtowns to up-and-coming shopping districts, you’ve got a lot of exploring to do.

South Cape

SE 47th Terrace, South Cape Coral

Three parallel roads — Cape Coral Parkway, SE 47th Terrace and Lafayette Street —  define Cape Coral’s downtown area, which has evolved over the past decade into a dining and entertainment mecca. Cape Coral Parkway, the main thoroughfare, takes motorists from the Caloosahatchee River waterfront to the heart of the city, lined with fun and quirky dining establishments with names like Nevermind Awesome Bar & Eatery and Nice Guys Pizza. 

Slip off the parkway in either direction to find more fun spots. To the west on Lafayette Street you’ll find Jungle Bird Authentic Tiki and the Monkey Bar Steak & Seafood. Head east to SE 47th Terrace and you’ll land at a streetscaped pedestrian mall, where deciding on a place to eat and drink requires serious research (or determined bar-hopping). There’s Cork Soakers Deck & Wine Bar, Big Storm Brewery, Fish Tale Grill, Duval Street, Dixie Live —the list goes on and on. Many establishments on Cape Coral Parkway are also accessible from the pedestrian walkway through their backdoors, giving them a speakeasy feel. 

Downtown Cape Coral takes advantage of its abundant eat-and-sip options with trolley-hop events to celebrate everything from New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day to bacon and martinis. Other downtown events include arts festivals, gay pride parades, farmers markets, bike nights, symphonies in the park and pub crawls. 

South Cape’s renewal got its jump start in 2019 with a $13 million beautification project that added brick-paved pathways and pedestrian crossings, decorative streetlamps, a traffic roundabout and public Wi-fi. Today, the SE 47th Terrace promenade continues to buzz day and night with diners and clubbers looking for the heart of Cape Coral’s social scene. 

Downtown Bonita

Everglades Wonder Gardens, Bonita Springs I COURTESY PHOTOS

Old 41 Road takes you to the historic heart of Bonita Springs. Dating back to the 1920s, downtown backslid for many decades as the action moved out to the new U.S. 41, or Tamiami Trail. 

In the past handful of years, however, downtown Bonita has slowly but surely reverted back to its glory days. Three historic hubs reflect the community’s roots and glow today with restoration and preservation efforts. 

Since 1921, Shangri-La Hotel has graced the banks of the springs that gave the town its name. Since then, it has undergone a number of reincarnations, eventually as today’s healthful asylum and spa with the organic garden-fed Harvest & Wisdom restaurant. 

To the north, Everglades Wonder Gardens surfaced as a roadside wildlife attraction in 1936. Today’s version keeps the gator appeal and adds sophistication with Victorian structures, a tea room and flamingo yoga. 

Riverside Park has returned as downtown’s community center, where festivals, movie nights and other family-friendly gatherings happen among the amphitheater and mid-20th century Liles Hotel and fish houses turned retail shops and galleries. 

Riverside Park, Bonita Springs I COURTESY PHOTO

Interspersed between the relics of yesteryear, entertainment venues such as Chartreuse Craft Cocktail Lounge, Downtown Coffee and Wine, Ceremony Brewing and The Bohemian restaurant have blossomed among longtime favorites like Grandpa’s Pizza and Mexican-steeped Maria’s Restaurant. 

Naples Design 

District One of the most up-and-coming retail neighborhoods of Southwest Florida has been around for decades, but only in the past few years has hit its stride. Just in time for Hurricane Ian to hit below the proverbial belt.

Defined as a 12-block area northeast of famed Fifth Avenue South’s tony eat-and-shop strip, the Naples Design District at the intersection of Central Avenue and Tamiami Trail started out as a shopping destination for working decorators and DIY home improvers. 

More recently, art galleries, architect offices and food-and-drink venues joined antique shops and second-hand stores. The vibe turned youthful and lively, with a brand of chic between shabby and snobby. The future looked bright with the opening of The Collective, a hub of design businesses unfortunately flooded by Ian. 

Tenants are coming back, however, and Warren Whisky Kitchen is again under construction there. Most of the existing restaurants have reopened, including Bodega Ole and Grappino. Riptide Brewing Company, undaunted by the high tide that ripped through the area, still pours its craft beers. Plus, on the horizon are Gulfshore Playhouse’s new and state-of-the-art facility, a boutique hotel and the completion of a community sculpture park in partnership with Naples Botanical Garden. The latter will host a ribbon-cutting on March 1 as part of a special Naples Design District celebration. The day will applaud and showcase the district’s comeback and also pay tribute to Naples’ centennial with restaurant specials, sales, historical scavenger hunts and an art unveiling. 

Fort Myers Historic River District 

Fort Myers Historic River District I STEPHANIE DAVIS / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Like many downtowns of a certain age, there came a time for Fort Myers when urban sprawl left its core looking a little abandoned and forlorn. With all its historic gems, however, wiser heads prevailed to save the Historic River District from falling victim to trends and “out with the old.” 

Thanks largely to the vigor of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates at is fringes, historic downtown renewed. An old, achingly handsome federal building became an art center; a circa-1915 vaudeville house, a theater. Stores and restaurants moved into buildings dating back to the late 18th century, as was the case with The Veranda, a gracious restaurant that lives in two pioneer homes. 

Bootleggers Alley, Fort Myers Historic River District I STEPHANIE DAVIS / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Ambitious undertakings like the Franklin Shops turned one vintage structure into a crafty mall of sorts. Bars and lounges drew a young crowd to frenzied hangouts such as the Sky Bar and Cowboy Up. 

The riverfront spruced up with the remastering of Centennial Park and the appearance of Luminary Hotel & Co. with its modern good looks rooted in local history (named for Thomas Edison’s claim-to-fame). With it came another rooftop bar and a smattering of other food and beverage hotspots. 

Despite Hurricane Ian’s efforts to stymie the forward and upward trends, the Historic River District continues to take full advantage of its waterfront beauty and bygones intrigue as more hotels move in and people of all ages come out for its monthly street parties and annual festivals. 

Downtown Punta Gorda 

The Wyvern Hotel rooftop bar, Punta Gorda I COURTESY PHOTO

Another downtown, a different river running through it, old Punta Gorda turns its face toward the Peace River, as it has since the late 19th century. It remembers the past in a series of larger-than-life murals throughout its streets. They recall the railroad days, the area’s fishing heritage, conquistadors, cattle drives and other highlights of the small town’s heyday. 

Marion Avenue constitutes the main drag for shoppers and diners, who find anything but cookie-cutter in art galleries, gift boutiques and restaurants like The Perfect Caper at the high end and Celtic Ray Public House, a long-enduring Irish pub filled with character and, typically, characters. 

Streets and avenues such as Sullivan, Taylor, and Olympia hold more gems begging to be explored. On the riverfront, Wyvern Hotel and its rooftop bar and TT’s Tiki Bar keep the party going day long. 

Laishley Park and its namesake restaurant serve the salty crowd and families along the town’s extensive system of bike trails that skirt the river. Stately historic homes and Gilchrist Park on Retta Esplanade keep Punta Gorda rooted to its past. 

Follow the river west to Charlotte Harbor and you reach another relic of the past: the old city docks remade into the entertainment and shopping center known as Fishermen’s Village. 

The Military Heritage Museum next door, newly relocated and elevated, is worth a visit. Its Gulf Theater hosts tribute bands and other live performances, while downtown’s Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center books acts from concerts to expos.


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