Southwest Florida: an ecological oasis

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Irene Middleman Thomas discovers an unspoiled corner of Florida

The trees, draped with vines, closed over us as though we were in an equatorial jungle. Elegant egrets and ibis ignored us in their stillness from just a few feet away, as a skittish green lizard brazenly puffed out its yellow spotted red breast. A blaze of brilliant, coral-hued hibiscus was at our right, while a darkly mysterious mangrove swamp beckoned from the left. The fragrant, moist air was full of flowers and the sea. It didn’t feel like we were still in America, but we were – right in the middle of southwest Florida.

Southwest Florida boasts more than one million acres of nature sanctuaries, most of which have paths or boardwalks that allow visitors to easily explore and enjoy. These refuges boast unspoiled wetlands where everyone can experience the beauty of the state in its virgin condition. Such a variety of birdlife thrives there, that it is considered an ornithologist’s Mecca. All of this wilderness beckons, in addition to the region’s spectacular white-sand beaches, renowned as one of the world’s top three shelling destinations, featuring gentle surf and clear, clean aqua water.

Here are some of our favourite places and programmes

Best to see 500-year old enormous trees

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (image courtesey of Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau)


Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a watershed and cypress forest owned and operated by the National Audubon Society, is known as the ‘crown jewel’ of its sanctuary system. You’ll see many varieties of wading and migratory birds, including nesting wood storks, hundreds of alligators and other wildlife on two miles of boardwalk through the country’s largest remaining stand of virgin bald cypress with its 500-year-old trees being among the oldest in eastern North America, as well as a tropical jungle of ferns, orchids and wildflowers. Open 7am -7.30pm, April 12-Sept 30; 7am-5.30pm Oct 1-April 11; 375 Sanctuary Road, W. Naples;  239-348-9151.

Best wildlife watching
Big Cypress National Preserve is located in the western Everglades. Two pedestrian boardwalks allows visitors to pull off the Tamiami Trail Scenic Highway and take a short walk into the quiet coolness of an ancient cypress forest. Or drive down the unpaved Turner River Road to see alligators and birds or Loop Road for those, along with raccoons, butterflies, and rarely, Florida panthers. Between Naples and Miami, Turner River Road ispublic and accessible daily. The Oasis and Big Cypress visitor centers are open daily (excluding Christmas Day) from 9am-4.30pm. Admission is free. (239-695-1201; www.nps.gov/bicy/Index.htm)

Best place for wild animals
Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens: this lushly landscaped 52-acre zoo’s settings give the feel of the natural environment to tropical-climate animals. Tigers and lions emerge from dense fern groves, monkeys frolic on jungle islands and alligators lounge, wary and sinister, in the zoo’s marshes and lakes. Open daily from 9.30am-5.30pm. (1590 Goodlette-Frank Road; 239-262-5409; www.napleszoo.com).

Best place for shelling

Cayo Costa (image courtesy of Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau)


Cayo Costa State Island Preserve: accessible only by passenger ferry (239-283-0015, reservations required) or private boat.
Cayo Costa is north of Captiva Island in Pine Island Sound. One of the older barrier islands along the coast, this is a veritable paradise of deserted white-sand beaches, sabal palms, Australian pines, dense cabbage palm forests and gumbo limbo hammocks. The only full-time human residents on the island are the assistant park manager and two park rangers, who share this natural environment with sea birds and a few wild pigs. Because the island is fairly remote, its shores are noted for their excellent shelling potential. Open daily from 8am–sunset (239-964-0375; www.floridastateparks.org/cayocosta).

Best place for birdwatching and kayaking/canoeing

Ding Darling bird watching (image courtesy of Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau)


J.N.  ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, on the northeast side of Sanibel Island. The more than 6,400-acre refuge features delightful footpaths, winding canoe/kayak trails and a 4-mile scenic drive, all of which are lush with seagrape, wax and salt myrtles, red mangrove, cabbage and sabal palms and other native plant varieties. ‘Ding’ Darling is one of the top birdwatching destinations in North America. During a walk, canoe trip or drive (or take the excellent guided tram tour), visitors may see one of many endangered or threatened species, some of which are relatively common here. Shy white pelicans, roseate spoonbills (often mistaken for flamingos), manatees, wood storks, bald eagles, American peregrine falcons, ospreys, herons, raccoons, otters, American alligators and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are frequently sighted. The drive is open  Saturday to Thursday from 7.30am to a half hour before sunset. The visitor center is open daily from 9am-5pm from January to April, and from 9am to 4pm from May to December. (One Wildlife Drive, Sanibel Island; 239-472-1100)

Best place for endless, remarkable wilderness
Everglades National Park, a World Heritage Site, United Nations International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance, is the largest wetlands ecosystem in the US and unique on earth. Containing both temperate and tropical plant communities, the area is famed as an angler’s paradise and for its rich bird life, particularly large wading birds. There are countless scenic drives, hiking trails and swamp walks. Canoe and kayak paddlers enjoy wilderness routes through the ‘Ten Thousand Islands,’ mangroves, cypress, marshes and more. The Wilderness Waterway, in Everglades backcountry, is a 99-mile route from Everglades City to Flamingo – you won’t see a sign of civilisation during the whole  seven to nine day paddling journey, but you will see dolphins, manatees, birds, crocodiles and alligators (the only place in the world where both cohabitate.) Others can opt for one of the traditional airboat tours from Everglades City just outside the park boundary and along the Tamiami Trail. Everglades Area Tours (239-695-3633; www.evergladesareatours.com) offers guided motorboat assisted kayak tours from Chokoloskee deep into the saltwater estuaries of the Everglades along the Wilderness Waterway. You’ll take a ride on a motorboat to remote locations, then board individual kayaks for outstanding fishing and scenic paddling. Motorboat sightseeing and photography tours as well as fishing charters are also offered. The national park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center is open daily from 8am-5pm and admission is free.

To read more of Irene’s favourite ecological places and programmes in southwest Florida, don’t forget to log onto the CD-Traveller website this Wednesday (March 6).

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