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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
15 Apr 2023

NextImg:Lee County, Florida: Unanticipated Bonus Compliments of Hurricane Ian

Walking along the Fort Myers Yacht Basin in the center of the city, you would never know that several months ago it was littered with boats and destruction—havoc wreaked by Hurricane Ian. The feeling of calm felt almost eerie as I remembered the horrific TV images of months past.

Lee County’s Fort Myers and Bonita Springs are beach towns, bastions of sun and surf for snowbirds and tourists alike. With beaches closed and without facilities—possibly for the foreseeable future—I found myself seeking other entertainment options, and I wasn’t disappointed.

There are still museums, island cruises that have just started up again, hiking, canoeing, boat excursions, flea markets, and historic sites, but these three unusual attractions don’t often appear on a must-see itinerary.

Shangri-La Springs Resort, whose name usually conjures up a fantastical paradise, is where the springs that give the city of Bonita its name were first discovered by the Calusa Indians. It was the first mineral springs spa in North America, and the hotel oozes history and healing inside and out.

At the Harvest and Wisdom Restaurant, I felt my mind expand even as I was being seated. Architecture, landscape and gardens provide extensive farm-to-table offerings. With only regenerative farming practices used, the 100 percent organic, sustainable products preserve the natural state of the plants. Here I learned about essential oils, natural yeasts and beneficial bacteria and ate vegetables that were extremely fresh.

At this boutique hotel impersonating an art gallery, Asian art is everywhere throughout the property; even the lobby aquarium has tiny Asian sculptures in it. The fish, I assume, were local.

The springs themselves resemble a small river floating under extensive tree canopies, and the grounds bring to mind a mini botanical garden proffering a quiet, restful ambience accentuated by streams, fountains and sculptures.

So, from the sublime to the ridiculous: I tend to avoid tourist attractions, but the world’s largest Shell Factory and Nature Park in Fort Myers beckoned despite my mental protestations. They should have put “amusement park” in the site’s name because these are the activities I first noticed: a carousel, mini-golf, zip-line, climbing wall, gem mining, paddle and bumper boats, arcade games, a performance arts center, and two restaurants. There is also a shop that sells shell necklaces and quite a bit more. This truly is the World’s Largest Shell Factory, and it has the country’s largest gift shop.

A sign in the World’s Largest Shell Store in Bonita, Florida, gives a clue about the number of products they carry. (Photo courtesy of Victor Block)

This place is so big that it warrants its own ZIP code and, no surprise, they have their own post office to accommodate it. Inside, in addition to those aforementioned shells, there’s a fudge factory, a Christmas store, ice cream bar, T-shirts galore, more greeting cards than in a Hallmark warehouse, and miles and miles of quirky items you never knew you wanted until you tripped over them. A sign in the store states, “If you can’t find something in this store, they just don’t make it!”

Fudge-makers at the Gulf Coast Fudge Co. create tasty treats for visitors to the World’s Largest Shell Store in Bonita, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Victor Block)

And did I mention the nature park? Some 450 animals range from the expected alligators, tortoises, and peacocks to lesser-known lemurs, camels, and reptiles to virtually unknown tayras, caracals, and a huge Eurasian eagle-owl. And, of course, a petting zoo with goats, alpacas, and an ox. Although the animals seemed well taken care of, some of the habitats felt a little cramped and I wasn’t sorry to leave.

But the Everglades Wonder Garden in Bonita Springs—a sort of hidden gem—was a place I didn’t want to leave. Though a step back in time to a mainstay of Florida tourism, this roadside attraction—which often conjures up an image of unhappy animals in an unsavory environment—evokes a totally different mindset.

Scarlett, Calypso, Rudy and Murphy act as a loud and colorful welcoming committee. These parrots are in luxury outdoor accommodations. Visiting the various rescued animals over three very airy and well-signed acres—alligators to tortoises, flamingos to lorikeets, over bridges and walkways, alongside streams and splashing waterfalls, amid an avalanche of tropical plants—the feeling is one of expansiveness and immersion in nature, with an appreciation of what a wonderful home these animals have. I suspect many of them think they are still in the wild.

Whether it’s an exotic plant, animal or waterfall, there’s something to gawk at around every turn. My personal favorite? A giant orange and black iguana straddling a tree. Squawks, shrieks, yelps, and tweets (no, not THAT kind!) reinforce the jungle atmosphere. Even the few cages on the property are large enough that they resemble the same jungle impression prevalent outside of them.

Much of Lee County involves a natural habitat of sorts. So yes, Bonita Springs and Fort Myers may be all about beaches, but they are, thankfully, all about nature, too.

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