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Six charming spots worth a closer look in Southwest Florida

Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve enables easy access to Florida’s natural wetlands right in Fort Myers
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve enables easy access to Florida’s natural wetlands right in Fort Myers
Jeff Briscoe

In a region blessed by picturesque views of a sprawling coastline, residents of Southwest Florida rarely have a valid excuse for spending a free day on the couch. Though rain and heat may limit ability to get out during the sweltering summer months, locals do not have to wander far to find the serenity and satisfaction that unblemished nature can offer. Mindful of typically limited budgets for weekend activities, here are six charming spots worth a closer look in Southwest Florida.

Fort Myers River District – When deteriorating conditions from a changing economy took hold in downtown Fort Myers, the city aggressively promoted the redevelopment of the neighborhood’s commerce. Still serving as the legal and municipal center of Lee County by day, the historic area along the Calooshatchee River additionally functions as a center for nightlife, fine dining, live music, dancing, and even showcasing art.

Gilchrist Bridge – Locals know there are few superior ways to capture a stunning view of the water than by walking (or biking) across one of Southwest Florida’s many bridges. Do ensure the journey is safe, as some passageways lack sidewalks. With a wide walkway facing the western-most Peace River, this 1.25-mile long bridge of the Tamiami Trail connects Port Charlotte to Punta Gorda. With a clearance of 45-feet at the center, take a camera to snap photos, but beware this spot can be downright crowded at sunset.

J.N. “Ding” Darling Natural Wildlife Refuge – Located on Sanibel Island, the refuge contains the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States and is renowned for possessing a diversity of migratory bird populations. The 5,200-acre refuge was established in 1976 and named for the political cartoonist with a passion for conservation. Over 220 species of birds depend on this protective habitat on Pine Island Sound. “Wildlife Drive” allows visitors a 4-mile trip through the mangrove forest and a wealth of opportunities to observe animals.

Matlacha Art District – Derived from native Calusa meaning “water to the chin,” Matlacha (pronounced ‘Matt-la-shay’) is one of five communities in the greater Pine Island area, and the first stop when heading west from the mainland at Cape Coral. Though surrounded by calm waters, the small town retains only a part of a once-rich fishing history. Instead, Matlacha’s closed businesses have overwhelmingly converted to art galleries and antique shops. Weekends witness pedestrians strolling peacefully from stop to stop in search of treasures.

Siesta Key Beach – Chosen by “Dr. Beach” as the best beach in America in 2011, this picturesque spot in Sarasota County offers a prime chance for beach-goers of all ages to frolic in the Gulf of Mexico. The barrier island’s white sands are composed of 99% quartz and generally stay cool even when battling the hot Florida sun. Siesta Key’s main beach provides parking, picnic areas, and restroom facilities, while shallow waters and a year-round lifeguard presence permit vacationers to cooling down swimming.

Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve – Development in Southwest Florida has dictated that most hikes through the swamp require a trip to Everglades. But this Lee County facility enables much easier access to Florida’s wetlands, right in Fort Myers. With a 3,400-acre ecosystem of natural drainage, the slough (pronounced ‘slew’) holds surface level water. The park further provides home for native animals, including alligators, river otters, and blue herons. An elevated 1.2-mile winding boardwalk enables visitors to journey close, but gratefully remain dry.