Within 24 hours of arriving in Fort Myers in March 1885, Thomas Edison bought 13 acres on the Caloosahatchee River, and before long he was planting palm trees along the dirt road between downtown and his spread. The road is now McGregor Boulevard, lined with thousands of royal palms (not all courtesy of Edison) and congested in tourist season, and Fort Myers is still seducing Northerners.
Now a mally, sprawly city of 48,000, spawning suburban housing developments, it offers not only warmth and sunshine, but boating, beaches, spring-training Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox games, and a pedestrian-friendly downtown historic district with restored buildings and diet-busting restaurants. There are frequent downtown festivals; the largest is the Festival of Light, celebrating Edison's bulb, in January and February each year.
For a weekend visit, Fort Myers offers a variety of places to go and some interesting choices for dining. Here are 11 recommendations:
1. Friday 5 p.m.: Slip Into Sandals
Stroll the winding walkways of Centennial Park on the Caloosahatchee River and sit for a moment by "Uncommon Friends," a fountain with statues of Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. Wander out on the docks to look at sightseeing and dinner-cruise boats (J.C. Cruises, 239-334-7474), the yacht-filled city marina, and the new high-speed ferry that runs daily round-trips between Fort Myers and Key West (Fast Cats, 239-332-7777). Take in the scene: teenagers huddled under a shelter, slapping bongos; a bicyclist pausing to toss chips to sea gulls; dozing fishermen along the seawall. Take a picture of the sherbet-hued sunset fringed with mangroves and coconut palms.
2. 6:30 p.m.: Conch Sushi at Shannon
Head for Shannon (1406 Hendry St., 239-689-2675), where brick walls, a fireplace, overstuffed chairs and the yellow pine bar offer the ideal setting for unwinding and imbibing. Have an appetizer of conch sushi ($4) or mussel tapas ($8) and a chocolate martini ($8).
3. 8 p.m.: Music of the Night
Feast on good things for the palate and the ear at Ellington's Jazz Bar and Restaurant (2278 First St., 239-337-5299; live jazz at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. on weeknights). Try the smoked duck with sweet potato risotto and glazed turnips ($26) or the grilled New York strip steak ($26). Save room for the cocoa-flavored bread pudding with hazelnut ice cream and raspberry puree ($7). A gray-haired woman at a table one recent night confided that the man leading the combo and alternately playing sax, clarinet and jazz pennywhistle was her husband and had been with Tommy Dorsey's band.
4. Saturday 9 a.m.: On Broadway
Sit by the front door at Bara Bread Bistro (1520 Broadway, 239-334-8216) to visit with its Breton baker, Jean Pierre Cadiou, while you have coffee and a white omelet with spinach and tomato ($5.95) or a French pastry breakfast ($4.95). You may catch Cadiou mixing almond cream for king cakes, traditional in early winter. After breakfast, walk to the end of the block and check out Flowers to Fifties (2133 Main St., 239-334-2443), which sells relics of the 1930s to the 1970s. Reminisce among polyester leisure suits and chrome toasters.
5. 10:30 a.m.: An Electrifying Experience
Join other tourists at the winter homes (2350 McGregor Blvd., 239-334-3614) of Edison and Ford, his neighbor after 1916, who, according to the tour guides, rolled up the rug here almost every day for a square dance with his guests. Tour the laboratory where Edison, Ford and Firestone experimented with goldenrod to make a rubber for tires, achieving some success. There are more than a thousand plants from around the world in Edison's botanical garden (9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $14 for adults, $7.50 for children).
6. Noon: Food Trumps Decor
Don't let the unimpressive ambience of Ida's Bon Appiteatery (2208 First St., 239-332-8151), with its peachy paint and scuffed wooden booths, deter you from having homemade tomato bisque soup ($2.50) and a Reuben ($6.95) in this friendly neighborhood spot where thirtysomething locals mingle with out-of-towners.
7. 1 p.m.: Do Downtown
Wander in the downtown historic district, making sure to look up at the ornate, colorful facades of commercial buildings dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You will find outdoor restaurants, courtyards and fountains, a browsable independent bookstore called Shakespeare Beethoven & Company (1520 Broadway, 239-332-8300), and scattered antiques and gift shops. On the first Saturday of the month there is a walking tour here ($5 for adults and $3 for children, 239-332-5955) and streets close for an antiques and collectibles fair. The Arcade Theater, built in 1908, houses the Florida Repertory Theater (2267 First St., 239-332-4488). The eclectic Southwest Florida Museum of History (2300 Peck St., 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 239-332-5955; $6 for adults and $3 for children) offers a self-guided tour that starts with prehistoric animals and ends in a 1929 private Pullman railway car.
8. 2:30 p.m.: Times Square, Beach Style
Pack your towels for a 16-mile drive (starting southwest on McGregor Boulevard for 10 miles, then turning left onto San Carlos Boulevard) to the town of Fort Myers Beach, a 30-minute trip if traffic is light. Once you cross the 65-foot-high Matanzas Pass bridge, turn right to find public parking; the wide, white sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico; a fishing pier; and, yes, Times Square. Follow the brick path to the town clock hub, where Birdie McClarine, a street performer, recently juggled rubber chickens and flaming torches and spray-painted a picture of outer space. Snack on conch fritters ($7.95) and locally harvested steamed clams ($9.95) at the Beach Pierside Grill and Blowfish Bar (1000 Estero Blvd., 239-765-7800), where you can watch parasailers, boaters, fishermen and the sunset over Sanibel Island. The restaurant offers free plastic sand pails and shovels to children who eat there.
9. 7:30 p.m.: Polished Grits
For an elegant meal in an old-Florida setting, make reservations at Veranda (2122 Second St., 239-332-2065). It is housed in two 100-year-old homes that were joined by Peter Pulitzer, the publishing heir, in the 1970s. A garden courtyard is used for outdoor dining. Try artichoke fritters stuffed with blue crab ($7.95) or savor grit cakes with pepper cheese ($6.95). Then dine on local grouper with blue crab hash and a caper vinaigrette ($27.95) or rack of lamb ($27.95).
10. Sunday 9:30 a.m.: Under the Live Oak Tree
As you sit at an umbrella table on the tiled patio at the McGregor Cafe (4305 McGregor Blvd., 239-936-1771), look up into the branches of the large live oak tree covered with fuzzy air plants called ball moss. Order eggs and grits ($5.50) or homemade biscuits and sausage gravy ($5.50) and maybe a frothy latte ($3.25). The cafe opened as a burger joint in 1937, according to Cristof Danzi, the owner and chef, who frequently leaves the grill, which he refers to as his office, to visit with customers.
11. 11:30 a.m.: She Sees Sea Cows
From downtown, drive 10 minutes east on State Route 80. At the Florida Power & Light power plant turn right into Lee County Manatee Park (239-694-3537). During the winter, as many as 100 manatees, some with calves, are visible from an overlook; many of these endangered mammals are scarred by encounters with boat propellers. They flock to the warm water of the power plant's discharge canal. You will see ripples in the dark water, then a large flat back surfacing, and perhaps a small whiskery face. Amble along trails to the Orange River to see how Florida looked before developers arrived. (The park is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.)