The coastal city south of Fort Myers Beach is less hectic than its cousin to the north, with a few good seafood restaurants and some family-friendly beach fun to be had. If you’re tired of the traffic and heavy flow of tourists, head to the beaches of Bonita for some peace and quiet.
PLACES TO GO
Get a taste of an old Florida roadside attraction
The Everglades Wonder Gardens, at first called The Reptile Gardens, was established in 1936 by brothers Bill and Lester Piper to attract tourists who were making the journey down the Tamiami Trail, which was the only road connecting Tampa to Miami at the time.
The family operated the park’s wildlife and botanical exhibits for three generations, and became known for its wildlife rehabilitation programs.
In 2014, non-profit Bonita Wonder Gardens Inc. stepped in to take over for the Piper family, and the City of Bonita Springs provided a loan two years later to help save this old Florida relic from commercial development.
The site features a lush 80-year old botanical garden of orchids, bromeliads, and other species native to Florida, the Caribbean, and South America.
Watch colorful wings flap in the butterfly enclosure, enjoy the bright pink display of an entire flock of flamingos, and get a peek at rescued reptiles like Gopher tortoises and alligators.
There is also a museum of curiosities and taxidermy wonders, and a gift shop for all your souvenir needs.
The Everglades Wonder Gardens is located at 27180 Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $7 for children aged 3 to 12, and free for children under 3. Parking is free, and there is a restaurant on-site.
Call 239-992-2591 for more information.
Visit the Koreshan State Park
A pristine reserve in Estero, one of the fastest-developing areas of Florida, Koreshan State Park on the Estero River is a unique historic experience.
In 1894, Cyrus Reed Teed and his followers established a settlement here in hopes of founding what they called “New Jerusalem” in Southwest Florida.
The Koreshan Unity, as they were called, believed the universe existed at the center of a giant hollowed sphere, and Teed, who changed his name to Koresh following an electric-shock induced vision in which he was told by a divine spirit that he was the messiah, thought he had been called to redeem humanity.
At its height from 1903 to 1908, the settlement housed 250 people, had its own general store, power plant, and newspaper, and once incorporated, its 110 square miles became the fifth largest area of any city in the United States for the time period.
The movement faded after Teed’s death in 1908, and subsequent disappearance of his tomb during a hurricane in 1910.
The last follower deeded the land to the state in 1961, and it became the state historic site we know today.
Over 50 years later, visitors can learn about this intriguing community by visiting the houses that remain, which have been converted into educational exhibits.
While you’re there, you can also walk the park’s trails, fish with alligators and wading birds on the Estero River, picnic, canoe or camp overnight.
As with all state parks, the Koreshan site is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. until sunset.
The historic settlement is open daily from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., and guided tours are available each day.
The fee for parking is $5 per vehicle, limit of two to eight people per vehicle, $4 for single occupant vehicle, $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers and passengers in vehicle holding an Annual Individual Entrance Pass.
Koreshan is also a popular site for campers around town. Camping fees are $26 per night, plus a $6.70 reservation fee, which includes water and electricity.
Florida residents who are 65 years of age or older or who hold a social security disability award certificate or a 100 percent disability award certificate from the Federal Government are permitted to receive a 50 percent discount on current base campsite fees. Proof of eligibility is required.
The site is located at 3800 Corkscrew Road, Estero. For more information, call 239-992-0311 or visit FloridaStateParks.org/park/Koreshan
THING TO DO
Puppies and playtime – two of humanity’s greatest loves converge at the Bonita Beach Dog Park. It’s not the nicest beach for lounging, if that’s what you prefer, as it’s subject to extreme tides. Mud is likely, and you’ll have to pick your way through the mangroves to get to the main beach area. Be sure to check if the water is in or out before you go, and bring a beach chair to prop up in the wet sand while you watch the pups splash around the tidal flat. Dogs can run free off-leash here, but be sure to pick up after your pet to avoid degrading the water quality. There is a portable toilet and doggie shower stations, and parking is free. It’s at 8800 Estero Blvd. on the Gulf side just before New Pass Bridge on the way to Bonita Beach, and is open from 7 a.m. to dusk every day of the week.
Little Hickory Island
After the Dog Park, you’ll head south over New Pass to Big Hickory Island. If you’ve got a kayak to launch, pull off into the parking area on your right after this bridge. It’s not much of a beach, but it will allow you access to the Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail, and the parking is free.
Continue south and you’ll hit Little Hickory Island a shell-laden, white-sand beachfront park.
It’s handicap-accessible, with a ramp running from the parking lot to the sand, and the shore is wide and clean. Surf fishing is a favorite pastime for visitors here, but be sure to check the fishing regulations. Parking is $2 per hour and on-site restrooms, picnic tables and showers mean creature comforts aren’t far away.
Looking for a serene hidden gem tucked away behind a gated community of million-dollar homes?
Just off Bonita Beach Road sits 342 acres of preserve, one of the last undeveloped barrier islands in Southwest Florida. Pass through the first gate on Barefoot Beach Road and drive or bike 1.5 miles over bricked streets, marveling at mansions, til you reach the entrance to the preserve. The beach here is known for its quiet atmosphere, variety of shells, and bird-watching. Look for elusive Gopher tortoises along the trails. Park entry fee is $8. Call 239-252-4000 for more information.
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park
The Cocohatchee River’s exit into the Gulf divides this state park from Barefoot Beach to the north. The result is the tumultuous Wiggins Pass, where no swimming is allowed, but surf fishing flourishes. Watch fishermen cast nets into the water around them and pull up mullet, bait fish and more. Kayak the nearby mangroves to catch glimpses of herons, egrets, and the black-whiskered vireo. If you’ve got a boat to launch, the park has a public boat ramp at Turkey Bay. The water is clear and the shelling is good on the beach, and you’ll find picnic tables tucked into the greenery for enjoying shaded lunches. Admission fee is $6 per vehicle (limit two to eight people), $4 for single occupant, $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. Boat ramp fee is an additional $5 plus tax. Kayaks, paddleboards, beach chairs, and concessions can be bought at the shop in parking lot 4. Call 239-597-6196 with questions.