Bonita Springs, Estero has something for everyone
January 14, 2009
Lee County’s southern communities offer an enticing array of things to see and do. From its beaches and historic sites to its unmatched shopping malls and professional sports venues, south Lee offers something for everyone.
Folklore has it that the area was named Survey after the engineers who camped on Surveyors Creek to make early maps. That creek today is named the Imperial River and provides a backdrop for some of the most expensive real estate in Florida. Even further back, in the late 1800s, promoters interested in selling Florida real estate discovered the Bonita area. Early industries included pineapple and citrus farms, according to the Bonita Springs Historical Society.
As the area began to see permanent residents, the first elementary school was built in 1921 and enlarged six years later. The Tamiami Trail from Tampa to Miami was blazed in the late 1920s. Today, it's known as Old 41 — "new" four-lane Highway 41 was not built until the late 1970s while Interstate 75 finally came through in the early 1980s. Volunteer fire and ambulance service arrived in the 1950s and a fire-taxing district was approved in the mid-1960s. The first Lee County Sheriff's Office substation was built in the 1970s. Today, Bonita Springs is home to the sheriff's office south district.
Bonita has been home to a number of well-known establishments, notably the first Shell Factory built on the northwest corner of Terry Street in the late 1930s to provide shells and trinkets for a growing tourist trade. The Shell Factory burned in 1952 and was moved to North Fort Myers, where it is today.
On Dec. 31, 1999, Bonita Springs became a city for the second time. It had been incorporated in the 1920s, but facing a $7,000 bill from FPL for street lights, city fathers surrendered the charter as a swap for Lee County's paying the tab.
Spanish for estuary, Estero has been slowly transformed from undeveloped land that was once little more than a remote home for a newfound religious sect and habitat of the Estero River — still there for visitors and residents to paddle. To keep growth under control, residents have banded together to persuade the county to only allow Mediterranean-style architecture and top-of-the-line stores. Even gas stations must conform to the look of luxury.
Bonita Beach is low-key with new, upscale residences mixed among those from years past. On Big Hickory Island, the beaches are the main attraction — with good reason. Vast and clear, they are a big favorite for endangered sea turtles during nesting season, May through October.
Parking is plentiful, with ample beach accesses from the main road. But still, it may be wise to arrive early to beat the crowd and don’t forget plenty of beverages to keep cool in the sun. Boat rentals and personal watercraft rentals are nearby, as are many restaurants and lounges, restroom facilities, picnic areas and volleyball courts.
One professional sport team, the Everblades, calls Germain Arena at 11000 Everblades Parkway home. The arena also is open to the public for a cool ice skating or hockey treat, plus major concerts and other events are held there all year. Florida Gulf Coast University is home to college athletics, including men’s and women’s basketball and hockey, all of which play at Alico Arena on campus.
Fall in love with Lovers Key State Park, which was voted one of the top 10 parks in Florida by the Travel Channel.
It’s said the Key, once only accessible by boat, was only visited by lovers for its quiet, white-sand beach and shallow, tranquil waters.
Times have changed, and while plenty of lovers still frequent the little island, the location of picnic tables under gazebos, barbecue grills, a playground for the little ones, canoeing, kayaking and eco-tours make this a great place for the whole family.
For boaters, the Key has a boat ramp with a concession that sells bait and snacks. Kayak and bike rentals, as well as fishing supplies and snacks, are available at the stand. Other amenities include restrooms, rinse-off showers, a boat ramp and picnic areas. The park is ADA accessible.
Entrance fees are $4 for one person in a vehicle, $8 for 2 to 8 people in a vehicle, more than 8 in a vehicle costs an additional $2 per person; walk-ins and bicycles are $1 per person. The park is open 8 a.m. to sunset daily. Call 463-4588.
Dogs have their own beach recreation on the Gulf side of New Pass, right next to Bonita Beach. Here, dogs can run leash-free and enjoy the surf. The founders of Dog Beach pride themselves on this critters’ paradise and make sure it stays clean for all to enjoy.
Little Hickory Island
Near Bonita Beach, this South Lee County spot is a shell-laden, white-sand beachfront park. A ramp runs from the parking lot to the sand, allowing handicapped access, and the shore is wide and clean. Surf fishing is a favorite pastime for visitors here. Check the fishing regulations and then cast away! Parking is $1 per hour and on-site restrooms, picnic tables and showers mean creature comforts aren’t far away.
Heading south through Lovers Key State Park, Collier County, and the island of Bonita Beach, Barefoot Beach is another little-known hidden gem off of the well-traveled path of Bonita Beach Road. Park entry fee is $8. Call (239) 252-4000 for more information.
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Recreation Area
Head south from Bonita Beach Road on Vanderbilt Road and make a right onto Bluebill Avenue. Here you’ll discover a natural barrier island, thick with mangroves and native vegetation and wildlife. See “old Florida” as the ancient Calusa Indians did when they fished the pass, hunted and gathered wild plants.
After the fun in the sun, just cool off in the showers, visit the concession for some refreshment and go home to show off the day in the tropics.
Kayak the Estero River
Kayaking has become eco-tourism’s shining example of how nature’s beauty can be enjoyed without fuel, noise or pollution. There’s no better place than Estero River to take it all in by kayak. Kayak rentals at Estero River Outfitters offer a secluded glimpse of the Estero River’s charms: a canopy of mossy trees and meandering cumulus clouds. The river’s still water carries lazily fallen lemon-hued leaves and jutting branches flirt with the rippling waterway casting darting reflections on the silvery water. Grassy banks cradling the winding river.
While gliding west, the engines of careening cars on 41 grow faint, replaced by creaking bamboo trees and the echo of dripping paddles under a defunct cement overpass. Turtles rest on gnarled tree roots and squirrels scamper to the water’s edge.
“On the Estero River, you can see otters, raccoons and birds,” said Paula Stuller, owner of Estero River Outfitter.
The river, a portion of the Great Calusa Blueway – a water route developed by Lee County Parks & Recreation that connects bays, rivers, backwaters and shorelines of South Lee County – is a great spot to see roseate spoonbills and other birds not often spotted.
Estero River Outfitters offer day rentals or two-hour rentals starting at $17.50. Water adventurers can choose between a kayak or canoe. Kayaks range in size from 9 to 16 feet and double-seat kayaks are also available. Stand-up paddleboards are also available.
Stuller calls the Estero River “user friendly” and welcomes beginners.
“We have a lot of first-time paddlers. This is a great place for people to pick up some kayaking skills,” she said.
Kayak novices receive a quick tutorial on paddle strokes and changing direction from Stuller or her three sons, who help run the family business, before launching from the pier.
Kayakers can paddle east to the river’s end or venture under the 41 overpass traveling west, paddling parallel to the 19th Century Koreshan State Historic Site and eventually to the river’s mouth Estero Bay.
Estero River Outfitters is at 20991 South Tamiami Trail and open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For more information, visit esteroriveroutfitters.com or call 239-992-4050.
If the great outdoors suit your nature best, there are three Florida state parks in the area, including the Koreshan State Historic Site that commemorates the 1894 settlement of the somewhat peculiar followers of Cyrus Reed Teed. At least two outlets rent kayaks and canoes to allow exploration of some of these preserved areas, including a newly acquired 104 acres adjacent to Koreshan Park on the Estero River.
ATTRACTIONS: Koreshan State Historic Site