By Patti Roth
Top off the gas tank and point your car north, south, east or west. The direction really doesn’t matter, not when you’re in search of intriguing, quirky or delightful South Florida destinations that are an easy drive away.
How about a winery that uses lychees instead of grapes? What about a nature preserve with a bus tour right into the swamp? Or perhaps you’d prefer to pamper yourself in the spa at a five-diamond resort?
Whether you’re hankering for the wild and exotic or something more refined and luxurious, don’t idle. Slip the car in drive. An unforgettable experience awaits just down the road.
Naples Botanical Garden
This popular attraction is a showcase for an assortment of gardens, each focusing on a specific theme. In the Asian Garden, for example, bees land on lotus flowers, and ducks swim in the rice paddy. A wildflower meadow adds a mix of bright hues to the Florida Garden. Another highlight: The park designates select hours each week when leashed dogs are permitted inside.
4820 Bayshore Drive, Naples, 239-643-7275 or 877-433-1874, naples garden.org.
Shark Valley Tram Tours
Seeing wildlife – especially alligators sunning themselves along the paved road – is what draws many folks to Shark Valley, a stretch of sawgrass that is part of Everglades National Park. The 15-mile loop into the park is designed for bicycles and trams, which offer two-hour guided tours. At the midway point, an observation deck about 50 feet tall offers an expansive view of the wetlands.
36000 SW Eighth St., Miami, 305-221-8776, 305-221-8455, sharkvalleytramtours.com. Tram fees: $22 (adults), $19 (seniors), $12.75 (children 3-12 and members of the military). Reservations recommended. Bicycle rentals: $8.50 per hour. Everglades National Park entrance fee: $10 per vehicle.
Hyenas, bears and orangutans are among hundreds of animals at Zoo Miami, many of which are displayed in islandlike habitats, with moats that separate them from spectators. Highlights include a giraffe feeding station where visitors can hand leafy greens to the animals. Fun modes of transportation include pedaling canopy-topped Safari Cycles or hopping aboard the elevated air-conditioned tram.
12400 SW 152nd St., Miami, 305-251-0400, zoomiami.org.
and Japanese Garden
The spotlight is on Japan, with varied exhibits and events showcasing the nation’s art and culture. The garden features six spaces representing different historical eras and styles of Japanese landscaping. An on-site eatery, which earned acclaim from The Food Network, serves Pan-Asian fare on a terrace that overlooks the garden. The gift shop features Asian art, home décor and jewelry.
4000 Morikami Park Road, Delray Beach, 561-495-0233, morikami.org.
Schnebly Redland’s Winery & Brewery
Grapes – who needs them? Not the folks at Schnebly Redland’s Winery, where they produce wines with lychees, passion fruit, mangos, guavas and even avocados. The winery offers tastings, tours and music events. Also on site is a beer brewery. The round tasting bar is framed by a ring of wine barrels at the base and a treelike sculpture at the top from which bartenders reach up and pluck wine glasses, like fruit.
30205 SW 217th Ave., Homestead, 305-242-1224, schneblywinery.com. Tours on Saturday and Sunday ( $7).
Babcock Wilderness Adventures
The tour buggy, a repurposed school bus with open-air doors and windows, trundles along a state-owned nature preserve that includes four ecosystems among its 73,000 acres. At one point, the bus drives into the swamp. Guests also see the swamp from a boardwalk, offering a different perspective of turtles, fish, gators and bald cypress trees. Other inhabitants of the area include turkeys, hogs, deer, cows and an assortment of birds, including 17-inch-tall woodpeckers.
8000 State Road 31, Punta Gorda, 800-500-5583, babcockwilderness.com.
Downtown Fort Myers
This quaint historic district offers boutiques, galleries and restaurants. The preserved and restored buildings are showcased along a streetscape incorporating authentic vintage elements and replicas, such as the 11-foot-tall lamp posts. The Caloosahatchee River provides a scenic backdrop for the 54-block district. A fresh feature is the Downtown Detention Basin, which serves an environmental function and offers a picturesque park ambience. Popular dining venues include The Firestone, a historic four-story building with a rooftop lounge for martinis and a panoramic vantage point.
myriverdistrict.com; The Firestone, 2224 Bay St., Fort Myers, 239-334-3473, firestonefl.com.
Naples Zoo and Caribbean Gardens
Leopards, hyenas and fosas from Madagascar are among the exotic animals on display at the Naples Zoo. Many of the exhibits feature a glass wall between people and wildlife, offering opportunities to see the habitats up close. Boat tours glide along a set of islands where varied species of monkeys and apes reside, and often entertain spectators with their acrobatic antics.
1590 Goodlette Road, Naples, 239-262-5409, napleszoo.com.
Clyde Butcher Big Cypress Gallery
Plenty of art galleries are part of bustling urban environments. Then there’s this gallery amid the untamed Everglades landscape. It’s a perfect setting for a friendly and unfussy venue that showcases the rich beauty of nature. Clyde Butcher’s striking black-and-white photographs are on display. The work of a few other artists are also featured, including some behind-the-scenes shots of Butcher snapped by his wife.
Highway 41 Tamiami Trail Mile Marker 54.5, Ochopee, 239-695-2428, clydebutcher.com.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Perhaps the best part of this wilderness in Naples is not knowing exactly what you’ll see. This is unscripted natural theater, where graceful birds may be wading in the water or flitting around the branches building nests. Tree frogs provide the soundtrack. Your vantage point for this show is a 2¼-mile boardwalk, with an optional one-mile route, through pine flat woods, wet prairie and marsh. The 13,000 acres of pristine wetlands is owned and managed by the National Audubon Society. Souvenirs and refreshments sold on site.
375 Sanctuary Road West, Naples, 239-348-9151, corkscrew.audubon.org.
Some places to stay near the sights
With 16 suites, the hotel on Florida Bay in Islamorada offers an intimate ambience enhanced by the adults-only policy. While kids stay home, pets are permitted. Guests can enjoy breakfast on the terrace, then stroll over to a private island with hammocks, pool, bar, yoga workouts, kayaks, paddle boards and snorkeling gear.
136 Madeira Road, Islamorada, 305-664-0044, casamorada.com.
Vero Beach Hotel & Spa
This AAA four-diamond hotel with 113 rooms takes advantage of its oceanfront setting, offering kayaks for rent. Other amenities include fitness facilities, a spa, a heated pool and a pet-friendly policy.
3500 Ocean Drive, Vero Beach, 772-231-5666, verobeachhotelandspa.com.
Eau Palm Beach
The 300-room resort in Manalapan earned a prestigious five-diamond rating from AAA. Amenities include two outdoor pools, a spa, star-gazing events, oceanfront cabanas, three tennis courts and a playful attitude.
Marco Beach Ocean Resort
Located on a wide stretch of beach along the Gulf of Mexico, the all-suites resort offers rentals for an assortment of water sports. Those enjoying the outdoors will be delighted by the afternoon tradition of staff members walking around the beach and roof-top pool handing out smoothies. South Florida residents tend to take advantage of the resort in the summer, when it’s not packed with snowbirds. A highlight is Italian fare at the elegant Sale e Pepe restaurant, which scored a four-diamond rating from AAA.
480 S. Collier Blvd., Marco Island, 239-393-1400, 800-715-8517, marcoresort.com.
Gasparilla Inn & Club
The historic inn is on Boca Grande, a laid-back island without traffic lights amid the Gulf and Charlotte Harbor. Bicycles and golf carts predominate as transportation. The inn, which closes during summers, accommodates guests in 142 rooms. The property also includes cottages, which are open in the summer. Amenities include a spa and golf course with 16 of its 18 holes on a private island.
500 Palm Ave., Boca Grande, 941-964-4500, the-gasparilla-inn.com.