FORT MYERS: SO MUCH MORE THAN THE BEACH

Gulf Coast City Boasts Abundance of Cultural, Historical Attractions

by Karen Rubin

The traditionally wonderful weather in Fort Myers and Sanibel Island in Lee County on Florida’s Gulf Coast does not cooperate during our visit.

"The Seminole Lodge," Thomas Edison's winter retreat © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But it did not matter – there is so much to do and explore beyond the beach.

As we set out from our suite at The Resort at Marina Village on Cape Coral room in the morning, I can swear I see snowflakes falling from the 15th floor (they didn’t make it to the ground).

We travel back over the bridge into Fort Myers, down the beautiful McGregor Boulevard flanked by the majestic Royal Palm trees, headed to the Edison & Ford Estates.

But a few blocks before, we stop for breakfast at the McGregor Cafe – charming with wood interior, coral color, booths, breakfast-lunch-dinner, outdoor seating. Julio Inglesis music is playing. It’s the sort of place you would like to just linger and read the Sunday Times as you savor an omelette with cheese, homefries prepared with onions, and toast ($7.50).

It’s good we fueled up – because we wound up spending the entire day, focused on another century which is interestingly like our own.

Edison & Ford Estates

More than a home, visiting the Edison-Ford Estates- Seminole Lodge and the Mangoes – provides a window into the inventive minds that shaped the 20th century, a period of incredible innovation that positioned the United States to become a superpower.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were dynamos of the Industrial Revolution. You feel like you step back into history, and it makes you want to measure what it was about the environment for innovation then versus the climate for innovation today, when we are at a similar juncture.

The task in front of Thomas Edison was how to introduce a new source of power on a grand scale. Gas-powered lamps in cities were incredibly dangerous and impeded growth of cities. There was a race on to solve the problem of an electric light bulb. (That sounds so familiar as we confront how to transition away from fossil fuel to renewable energy.)

Edison had already become famous and rich when he first came to Fort Myers to vacation and build a botanicals research laboratory. He chose this site, in 1885, because of the green bamboo he saw growing, and paid $2500 for 17 acres – well above the market rate of $25 an acre.

Now a National Register Historic Site, Florida Historic Landmark, and National Trust for Historic Preservation Partner Place, the site was donated to the City of Fort Myers in 1947 by Edison’s widow, Mina, but is operated by a nonprofit organization. Over the years, the presentation and the museums have gotten ever more engaging.

Through the actual inventions, videos (including a phenomenal presentation of the first motion pictures filmed by Edison, himself, and others), photographs, artifacts, and the homes themselves (Edison’s home even has the family’s furnishings), the setting provides context as well as content.

Edison's Botanic Research Lab is where you feel his presence most vividly © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You learn that Edison only attended formal school for three months; when he was eight, his mother, who was a former teacher, started teaching him at home. At 16 years old, in 1863, he began a five-year period as a telegraph operator – that provided him the basis for his first invention to earn him money.

But his first patent was in 1869 for a vote reader didn’t make any money but taught him a valuable lesson: to only focus on what was marketable.

Indeed, one of his most significant contributions to innovation was the Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory – the first research and development center. There, the lab produced a minor invention every 10 days and a major one every six months.

It was a Menlo lab that his team developed the first practical electric light bulb; they tested 3,000 materials to find one that would produce the incandescent glow without burning, and be economical.

Edison realized that electricity would require infrastructure- a workable, saleable system – of wiring and lights, sockets, switches, meters – that gives rise to a whole new field, much as the dot-com industry emerged in the 1990s.

After the light bulb, Edison realized he needed to develop an efficient and reliable power source to make it practical for everyday use, so, in 1879, he developed a Dynamo electric motor drive, powered by steam engine and water power.

He raced to beat the competition to create practical lighting system. He announced he would illuminate an entire New York City neighborhood – as much to scare off competition as well as spur his own lab team – in a one-square mile district in Manhattan around Pearl Street (near Edison’s financiers).

They built the generators, dug up the streets to lay the wiring, all to power 1,000 light bulbs in the district. Two years later, there were 11,272 light bulbs in 500 premises.

He also invented an electric pen became the basis for the mimeograph machine; a repeating telegraph which combined elements of the telegraph with Bell’s telephone; the phonograph, and the most bizarre: a talking doll (in 1890; it didn’t do well, imagine that).

Among Edison's inventions on view, the motion picture camera © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I was amazed to learn of the non-electric things that Edison devised – he purchased a wood products company to make wooden cabinets for the phonograph he invented, and then became the leading manufacturer of nursery and juvenile furniture, Edison Little Feet Furniture Co. (it was sold in 1966 to Simmons Co, and in 2007 to the Delta Furniture Co.); and the Edison Cement Company which had 48 patents related to the production and uses of cement.

In all, Edison amassed Edison 1,093 United States patents, the most issued to any individual.

He was the Steve Jobs of the Industrial Age.

You come away thinking that the time at the turn of the last century was very similar to this one, with a radical new approach to power and light in the works but blocked by the entrenched powers that be, and a mad scramble to beat out competition that had an alterantive system.

Start with the guided tour of Edison’s Seminole Lodge, built in 1886 and where he vacationed until his death in 1931, and riverfront grounds where Edison loved to fish for tarpon (his son recalled that it was the one day he bested his father, catching the bigger tarpon), and then continue on your own with an audio player to visit the Edison Little Office and Moonlight Garden.

Linger in Edison’s Botanic Research Laboratory, where Edison, Ford and Firestone worked to find a domestic source for natural rubber using local botanicals (the green bamboo on the property is what drew him to it, in the first place). Here is where you feel Edison’s presence – there is the cot he used for his catnaps, the drafting table, his desk, original equipment and apparatus. He worked here until June of 1931; he returned to New Jersey and died in October, at the age of 84.

Leave plenty of time to explore the museum which has superb exhibits, hundreds of Edison and Ford inventions on view that will be engaging to young and old.

The section on Thomas Edison as a boy is especially geared to children and most inspiring; there, you can sit with your child at a small desk and watch an animated show of his invention of the Light Bulb, which I found to be one of the most illuminating presentations there (I watched it twice). The museum also shows a full-length video of History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” segment on Edison that held me entranced for about 40 minutes.

I learn from all of this that Edison was the first to bring together scientists and inventors in a Research & Development laboratory. But learning that Edison was home-schooled and never had formal scientific training, I wonder whether that is why he brought together the scientists – to basically make up for the expertise he lacked. His true genius, though, was in marketing, obtaining financing, and the ruthlessness with which he dispatched of competitors, like Nicolas Tesla and George Westinghouse who were advocates of Alternating Current system of electricity (Westinghouse harnessed the power of Niagara Falls), while Thomas Edison was pushing Direct Current (he never actually embraced AC, but his company ultimately did).

To swing public sentiment, I learn, “Edison campaigned for Alternating Current electric chair to discourage use of AC in homes…The press echoed what Edison told them.”

One of the most interesting areas allows you to watch early movies that Edison made (he also invented the motion picture camera and had a passoin for making documentaries) – basically taking what was known about the kinescope and putting it on film (he invented 35 mm film). He filmed the first motion picture in the “Black Mariah” – a small scale studio which moved to follow the sun and he could control light.

Ford Model T cars belonging to Henry Ford, a frequent guest of Edison's and eventual neighbor © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

He was also working on an electric car, powered by a battery he was inventing, and apparently recognized early on that fossil fuels were a limited commodity.

When Edison died in 1931, Congress ordered that lights be dimmed for a minute in his honor

There is so much to do, it is good thing there is a pleasant snack bar on the premises, because you will want to be able to spend a lot of time wandering the 17-acre complex including Ford’s house, “The Mangoes” and garages with his famous Model T cars.

The museum also has an area devoted to Ford, who (I suspect) was a bit of an opportunist in seeking out Edison when he was very young, befriending him and coming down to share vacations with Edison, staying at the guest house until Ford was able to buy the house next door, in 1916. Ford rarely, if ever, came to “The Mangoes” again after Edison died.

There is a fascinating video about Ford’s life. Ford’s major contribution was not the invention of the automobile – that had already been done. But much like Edison’s major innovation was the development of the modern research laboratory, Ford’s crucial innovation was the assembly line factory process.

This process brought down the cost of the car (he produced the Model T for 20 years without making a change), so that it was affordable to average families. “The Model T ended the isolation of rural families, and was the first car used to traverse and explore the wilderness, and according to the Ford Times, ‘remodeled the social life of the country’.”

Ford, though, was a guy that liked “an older America” and actually wasn’t happy with the changes that he helped bring about in American society, the presentation notes.

The Model T celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008; several are on view.

Edison & Ford Estates are open daily, year-round (except Thanksgiving and Christmas), 9 a.m. -5:30 p.m., there are special Holiday House evenings in December.

We easily spent 5 hours and could have stayed longer but we were kicked out at closing; you need at least two hours.

(Edison & Ford Winter Estates, 2350 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, FL 33901, 239-334-7419, www.efwefla.org; open daily, 9 am.-5 p.m.).

All Aboard the Mystery Train

A statue of Edison beneath the Banyan tree he planted (now the largest in North America), near his Botanic Research Laboratory. His presence is very much felt at his winter home, now a museum (© 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com)

It’s more Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis than Agatha Christie but the Mystery Dinner Train in Fort Myers, Florida, presented by the Fay Family for two decades, is a rollicking, rolling fun evening that comes with a surprisingly fine meal. Set aboard the Seminole Gulf Railway’s four vintage train cars from the 1930s and 1950s (the bathroom has been redone) accommodating up to 200 passengers, even the wait staff has amusing banter – and their service is incredibly attentive.

Departing from Ft. Myers’ Colonial Station, the trip incorporates what is best about the “golden age” of train travel – the elegant dining car, the rumble and clack-clack of the train on the tracks, the whistle that fades on the air .And even though it is nighttime, the train’s exterior lights, low to the track, let you see some of the scenery, though the glow of the city in the distance and some reflection on the canal adjacent to the tracks offer the most scenic views.

The meal is first-class, starting off with cheese and crackers and fresh fruit, a soup (the mushroom barley was delectable), a choice of salad (very fresh ingredients) or fresh fruit cup, and a choice of entrée- the prime rib was perfection, the Shrimp Dijon extremely tasty and the Chicken Francesca done with flare, ending off with a dessert. Drinks including a fine selection of wines and beers (even soda, iced tea and coffee) are extra.

The “murder mystery” comes in the form of a theatrical entertainment with four or five characters, who come in to the car between courses to perform scenes. They perform in the aisle, engaging passengers in the play. The cast was extremely professional and personable. At the end, one person in each car who solves the mystery and gives the best rationale, wins a prize.

Altogether a delightful night at the dinner-theater-train. Murder is on the menu on Wednesdays-Sundays, boarding at 6 p.m. return at 10 p.m. ($59 pp); an educational 1 1/4 hour excursion is also available.

The Seminole Gulf Railway also offers RiverRail Explorer daytime excursions to the Caloosahatchee River( January through April), giving passengers a unique water view and narrations on history of the rails. Costs: $19.95 plus tax for adults, $11.95 for children. The 1-3/4-hour trip departs at 11 a.m. and on Wednesday and Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. Snacks and drinks are available. Holiday Jingle Bells Special runs Nov. 25 – Dec. 27. Reservations required.

Seminole Gulf Railway, 2805 Colonial Boulevard (3 miles west of I-75, exit 136), Fort Myers, FL 33966-1012, 239- 275-8487, 800-SEM-GULF (736-4853), www.semgulf.com.

Resort at Marina Village

It’s about 10 p.m. when we make our way over the bridge and through Cape Coral, a residential area, to The Resort at Marina Village at the Tarpon Point Marina.

Seminole Gulf Railways's Mystery Train serves up a fun evening of fine dining, humorous intrigue on vintage cars © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

A SunStream Hotels & Resort property, the resort is the first luxury resort in Cape Coral and offers guests 19 stories of views of the Caloosahatchee River, San Carlos Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

The resort is ensconced within a gated community. It will be a massive complex, judging by the seven-story garage next door. The resort had only been open a couple of months when we visited.

The resort offers fabulously luxurious 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom residences (available for fractional ownership starting at $74,000 for 1/12th) up to 2,225 square feet. Guest rooms combine hotel and residential living with grand rooms, master suites, guest suites, dining terraces and access to amenity decks (some of the units are pet-friendly).

This is a high-rise – the entrance to the suite is from an exterior walk, like an apartment.

Our suite is stunning – elegant furnishings such as you would have in your home – fine wood dining table and chairs with leather, a gorgeous kitchen with granite counters and modern appliances , a washer/dryer, spacious rooms, plasma TVs in the bedroom and living room, high-speed internet, and an enormous wrap-around screened-in balcony with a view over the Bay.

The resort is ideal for meetings and events, such as weddings (there is a beautiful gazebo in a small lawn area).

Amenities include boat slips, waterfront dining and a shopping promenade – it is delightful to walk around. On property is Marker 92, a waterfront bar and bistro open for breakfast, lunch and dinner; the Nauti Mermaid Dockside Bar & Grill and the Silver King Market & Deli.

There is also an 3,657-square-foot Esterra Spa & Salon, SunStream’s signature spa, a fitness center accessible by guests 24 hours a day, a tennis facility, bocce ball, and a beautiful heated pool.

Tarpon Point Marina also offers boat rentals, kayak rentals, fishing charters, shelling excursions, dolphin sightseeing and a 1 1/4-hour sunset cruise (that is $20 pp).

The Resort at Marina Village is its own private residential club © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The resort makes up for its relative isolation (which could be a good thing) in its own residential community with a complimentary water taxi service aboard the Silver King Express to Snug Harbour on Fort Myers Beach across the bay. The small beach town offers shopping, dining and sugar-white sand beaches (free for hotel guests but you need to make reservations).

(The Resort at Marina Village, 239-765-7654 orwww.marinavillageresort.comwww.TarponPoint.com, 239-541-5025, 800-446-3641.)

Much to Do in Fort Myers

The Southwest Florida Museum of History: Located in historic downtown Fort Myers, the museum is housed in the former Atlantic Coastline Railroad depot and houses the history of southwest Florida. Paleo Indians, the Calusa, the Seminoles, Spanish explorers, and early settlers are just a few of the people visitors meet while viewing the exhibits. An authentic replica of a pioneer “cracker” house, a 1926 La France fire pumper, and a 1929 private Pullman rail car are also part of the tour. The museum also houses an extensive artifacts collection detailing early civilization, the Fort, the first settlers, the cattlemen, turn of the century, the military and agriculture, boating and fishing industries in Fort Myers. There is also a display of 1,200 pieces of depression and carnival glass. Walking tours of historic downtown Fort Myers are offered at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, January through April, and upon request for groups throughout the year. (Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Adults/$9.50, Seniors & Children 3-12/$8.50; 2031 Jackson Street, 239-321-7430, www.cityftmyers.com/museum.)

Sun Harvest Citrus: Squeeze in a visit to this 27,000-square-foot packinghouse and retail store that offers in-season Indian River citrus fruit, five varieties of freshly squeezed juices year-round, and in-season gift fruit shipping. Enjoy soft-serve ice cream, fruit smoothies, key lime pie, and fresh baked goods. There is also a wide selection of distinctive Florida foods, candy, and unique gifts. Enjoy free samples of juices. (Open year-round, Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.- 7 p.m., Sundays, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.; Southwest corner of Six Mile Cypress and Metro parkways. 14810 Metro Pkwy., Fort Myers, FL 33912., 239-768-2686 or 800-743-1480,www.sunharvestcitrus.com.)

Adventures in Paradise: These popular excursions have been teaching the eco-heritage of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel for 23 years. Trips include backwater fishing, sea life encounter excursions, tropical sunset cruises, lunch cruises, afternoon dolphin watching, power boat rentals, private fishing guides, shelling and snorkeling the outer islands and canoeing and kayaking. Shelling and lunch cruise to outer islands and Cabbage Key takes place on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Prices: $55 for adults, $19 for children, 3 and under are free. Location: 14341 Port Comfort Road, Fort Myers, FL 33908. Call 239-472-8443 or visit www.adventureinparadiseinc.com.

The Resort at Marina Village, with its gazebo, is ideal for weddings and events © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Classic Air Ventures: Relive a golden era in aviation in an open cockpit bi-plane! Don a leather jacket, helmet and goggles to enjoy airborne sightseeing in a 1941 WACO UPF-7. Two passengers share the thrill of an authentic, scenic bi-plane ride, leaving Page Field in Fort Myers Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., October through May. Several flight choices are available including the popular 45 minute flight. Cost: $270 with no charge for second person. Call 941-505-9226 or 888-852-9226 for information or visit www.coastalbiplanetours.com.

Fort Myers and Lee County also encompasses the incomparable Sanibel Island, with the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, CROW (Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife) and Sanibel Historical Museum & Village (See also Discovery, 6/4.)

Traveling to Fort Myers International Airport is convenient on Southwest from Long Island’s MacArthur Airport out of Islip.

For more information about all of these attractions and the latest information on packages and special vacation values in Florida’s unspoiled island sanctuary, visit The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel Web site atwww.FortMyersSanibel.com.

See also: The Natural Wonders of Florida’s Lee County

Thursday, 10 June, 2010

 

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© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

This entry was posted in U.S. Travel by Travel Features Syndicate. Bookmark the permalink.

About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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