An Ideal Bonita Springs Getaway Is More Than Alligators, Fish Tacos and Piña Coladas
A striving contemporary art scene bolsters this slice of Old Florida
Stipulated: the perfect travel time for a three-day weekend getaway is four hours. More, and you waste your vacation. Less, and you’re still near home. Hence our series, The 4-Hour Rule, dedicated to revealing the best destinations that are far away, yet still close to home.
Take a wild ride across Florida’s vast Everglades (watch for alligators and other critters along the way) to discover one of the Gulf Coast’s best-kept secrets in Bonita Springs. This pretty little place sits between Naples and Fort Myers, and is a lively mix of natural wonders juxtaposed with a very cool year-round arts scene.
The Journey Is Half the Fun: Driving Through Alligator Alley
Alligator Alley lived up to its name recently, as a 12-foot alligator stopped traffic on that 80-mile length of I-75 that stretches across the Everglades back in January. That four-lane stretch is also known as Everglades Parkway. Normally, the fences built along the way keep the swamp and its denizens off the highway, but sometimes not, which is what makes this road trip to Bonita Springs a bit of an adventure, especially considering that crocodiles, black bears, Florida panthers, bobcats and foxes also call the Everglades home.
To increase your chances of spotting alligators and their pals, try heading across this World Heritage Site/International Biosphere Reserve via the two-lane Tamiami Trail (US-41), passing through the Big Cypress National Preserve along that route. With fewer fences and numerous scenic turnouts, this is the route to take to really get close to nature — and perhaps an alligator or two.
Bonita Springs Home Base: Town, Bay or Beach
Pick the perfect spot for your getaway, from town to bay to beach. In town, where you’ll be close to the Center for the Performing Arts and the Wonder Gardens (more on those below), the Shangri-La Springs hotel has been welcoming guests since 1921 and boasts not only homey rooms, but a lush garden and the original springs that the city is named for. If resort living and a humungous swimming pool system (bring the kids) is part of your happy place, then choose the massive Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa, where tower rooms feature expansive views of Estero Bay and far out into the Gulf of Mexico.
However, if a secluded, quiet beach is your goal when escaping the Miami crowds, go for Lovers Key Resort, a beachfront spot perched on the edge of Lovers Key State Park. On one of the barrier islands that separates bay from gulf, this all-suite resort offers a reduced rate for Florida residents and is only a 20-minute drive into the heart of Bonita Springs.
Where the Arts Reign: Famed Arts Festival and More
“We have one of the largest outdoor arts festivals in the nation, that runs from January to March every year,” says Frank Blocker from the Centers for the Arts Bonita Springs. Heading into its 55th year in 2023, the massive festival is a juried event that highlights more than 200 artists, from local talents to international creatives.
That annual fest is just the beginning of what art lovers will find in the city, as Blocker, who serves as the centers’ film and theater director, explains: “We have two campuses, one for visual arts and the other concentrating on performances. We have two auditoriums, both refitted this past year with state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment.” Some of the many offerings of the centers include art classes in various visual arts as well as concerts, plays, movie series, comedy shows and more. “And we’re year-round,” Blocker adds, “We still keep live events running even in the sweltering months of late summer — we’re the cool respite indoors!”
The Weird and Wonderful: Koreshan State Park and the Wonder Gardens
Two don’t-miss outdoor adventures await in Bonita Springs, each one a reflection of Florida’s often weird and sometimes wonderful days of yore. Begin with a visit to Koreshan State Park, a 20-minute drive north. There you can go boating, fishing, camping, hiking and see all kinds of wildlife, from alligators and manatees to massive gopher tortoises and over 100 species of birds. But adding on a visit to the weird landmark within the park is what makes this place unique.
For this is the place where Cyrus Teed, a physician from New York, created his Koreshan Unity commune; his idea of a “New Jerusalem” fueled his religious cult from 1882 to 1920. Eleven buildings remain in the state park, complete with daily tours delving into how they lived and what they believed in, but no one seems to know why they picked a swamp as their promised land.
Being in the swamp made perfect sense to the Piper family in 1936, when they opened their Reptile Gardens on the Tamiami Trail in Bonita Springs, for where else do those cold-blooded creatures thrive? Eventually evolving into the Wonder Gardens, today the Piper’s dream is still alive, owned by the city and operated both as an animal-rescue charitable site and as a historical reminder of the area’s evolution. With wildlife galore (think alligators, tortoises, flamingoes and parrots) living in a lush garden home, this modern version of an old roadside sideshow (that even once had trained bears) is an essential Bonita Springs destination.
Dining Delights: From Taco Stands to Coconut Shrimp
Bonita Springs has a lively dining scene that, unsurprisingly, centers around seafood. In-the-know visitors make time for the El Gran Taco Loco stand behind Benson’s Grocery, where they’re serving up tastes like your Guadalajaran abuelita used to make. Find fresh seafood (especially grouper, the area’s go-to fish) at The Fish House, a casual spot with a lively dining room. For the best coconut shrimp around, it’s got to be Coconut Jack’s Waterfront Grille, whose location also allows for the requisite sunset cocktails. Try the Relax-a-Lada, their decadent take on a piña colada, and take a taxi home.
If you’re up for it, though, stop off for one more drink at Buffalo Chips, a local bar that dishes out wings and beer and stories of the old days, when they say Bonita Springs was kinda like the Wild West. These days, it’s more like the elegant west side of Florida, with a bit of old-time Florida sprinkled in for good measure.
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