Our feature on the lesser-known parts of Florida continues, as Gabrielle Sander discovers the canal-networked Cape Coral, rubs shoulders with Thomas Edison, and samples some ‘wicked’ craft brews…
If we hadn’t been told about The Prawnbroker restaurant and fish market, on McGregor Boulevard, we’d likely have cruised past without giving it a second look. Great name, but exterior appearances don’t exactly shout out ‘great food to be found within’. When you walk in and sit down, it doesn’t do much either. But then, the jolly waiter comes over and makes you laugh, you relax into one of the excellent martinis, served with a little carafe of gin to top up your glass; you slip down a couple of Gulf Oysters, look around and appreciate its charm. And then the main meal arrives, and it’s delicious.
Prawn by name, and seriously good prawns by nature. The Triple Shrimp Platter, was a $22 feast of the freshest, giant prawns cooked to perfection, three ways: grilled, stuffed with crab meat, and breaded, with a roast sweet potato and salad on the side. The potato topped with a generous scoop of butter and brown sugar. Yep, a generous spoonful of actual brown sugar. When the waiter asked if I’d like ‘butter and brown sugar’ in a way that suggested it was the most normal, obvious addition in the world, I accepted, but still didn’t expect to see it. Only in America! That quirky addition aside, their strapline: ‘serving the finest seafood in Fort Myers since 1982’, is a plausible statement.
For something sweet, there’s prime, freshly-churned gelato and crepes at Artisan Gelato by Norman Love, on Lindbergh Blvd and the award-winning Norman Love’s Chocolate Salon next door. This shop and backroom production line makes and displays a fantastic array of gem-like, intricately-decorated, high gloss, filled chocolates handmade onsite daily, with flavours inspired by American comfort foods and childhood favourites. During peak times, such as Valentine’s Day, it’s been known to attract 100-strong queues of people out the door for eight hours straight. Norman Love, who looks like a young Robert De Niro, with a gentle manner to match, was the first person to be inaugurated into the Chocolatier’s Hall of Fame. He’s hands on and clearly passionate about what he’s doing, setting up shop in 2001 after fifteen years overseeing global pastry and baking operations for The Ritz-Carlton.
Joining Norman Love in the area’s growing artisan producer scene are a craft ale brewery and rum distillery, both within close proximity. The newest kid on the block in downtown Cape Coral, is Big Blue Brewing, which opened in October 2016, with wine sommelier-turned-head brewer, James Retzler, single-handedly producing the four permanent ales on tap – Amber, Golden, IPA and Honey Brown – and seasonal specials such as the moreish pumpkin ale I sunk a pint of – it being fall, and all.
Wicked Dolphin Rum, a family-run distillery making handcrafted liquor using all-natural flavourings and sugarcane grown less than an hour down the road (over half of the sugarcane produced in the US is produced in Florida), is a relatively small set up producing around 45,000 bottles of rum a year, and recipient of a multitude of international awards. Highlights from a tasting session, include a delicious spiced rum, freshened up with an infusion of hand-peeled oranges; an apple pie rum that tastes impressively authentic, with a warming hint of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a coconut, I couldn’t leave the distillery without buying, made with a good dose of real coconut fruit and water.
When we weren’t sampling the local consumables, we thoroughly explored the area. Cape Coral boasts more canals than Venice. Man-made, and not quite as charming as their Italian counterparts, but pretty all the same, with every home boasting waterfront views, and most with a boat docked and ready to pop over to one of the nearby keys. There’s a ban on street lights so as not to disturb the turtle breeding, making it great spot for stargazing in the huge stretches of uninterrupted open skies. The area is also designated a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists, for its 90 miles of interconnected cycle routes. A 5km cycle and running route from the hotel to Rotary Park and back (pick up a card from reception), is a good way to work off breakfast and make way for lunch, with a butterfly sanctuary mid-point, and novel road signs warning of potential turtles, aardvarks or snakes crossing.
To fit in a good dose of Cape Coral and Fort Myers (as well as obligatory ventures to surrounding areas of Captiva and Sanibel) a car is a must. The neighbourhood feels typically, straight from a TV sitcom, suburban America, with flagged mailboxes, impeccable lawns, basketball hoops, hand-scrawled signs for garage sales, and sprawling bungalows with Back to the Future-style front porches. Lycra-clad power walkers pound the flat routes bordered by an interesting mix of parks hosting farmers’ markets, juxtaposed with routes dominated by more 24hr drug stores than one town could possibly need, little shops with neon signs for ‘guns and ammo’, fast food chains, and multi-lane traffic dominated by steroidal pick-up trucks. It all makes for an entertaining ride.
One of the main strips connecting Cape Coral to Fort Myers, is McGregor Boulevard, a wide road lined with Royal Palms. These towering trees were an addition initiated by inventor and former resident, Thomas Edison, who wanted them lining the route from his house to town. It led to other streets throughout being decorated with the trees, giving Fort Myers its nickname, The City of Palms. Edison and great friend Henry Ford, both had homes in the town, right next door to each other, within over 20 acres of property and gardens, known today as the Edison and Ford Winter Estates – one of the top 10 most visited historic homes in America.
A grand banyan tree stands at the entrance, with a canopy of almost an acre. Only 4ft tall when Edison planted it in the 20s, it’s now one of the largest banyans in the continental United States. The clapboard manor houses are impeccably maintained, with a view into the life of Edison and Ford families’ lives glimpsed through the open windows. Next door, Edison’s laboratory looks like he’s just stepped out for a moment, with Bunsen burners, test tubes and the like laid out on long wooden tables; the adjacent museum housing a lovely collection of vintage Ford motors. The gardens are filled with rare plants of various worldly origins, citrus and mango trees draped with hanging pots of orchids, and a picnic-flat stretch of green edged by the Caloosahatchee River, where Edison indulged his hobby of fishing for Tarpon (the area is still regarded as one of the best places to fish for Tarpon).
After a morning wandering the estate, we drove over to Captiva Island, where more pretty clapboard houses, mingle with colourful restaurants and quirky signage; residents mill around in golf carts and shell enthusiasts comb the long stretch of soft sandy beach for souvenirs; the stance they adopt, known as the ‘Sanibel stoop’ (here and nearby Sanibel attracts hoards of shelling enthusiasts, and both spots are considered the best in the US for shelling). There’s a place called the Bubble Room, where ‘every day is Christmas day’ and monster cakes are served among scenes made up of 50s fairground memorabilia and vintage Christmas decorations. An ‘English Pub’, the Mucky Duck, where we played many a game of Cornhole and watched the sun go down over the sea. And just down the road, McCarthy’s Marina, where we caught the boat over to Cabbage Key, and this story began.
“There is only one Fort Myers,” so said Edison, “and 90 million people are going to find it out.” Venture off the obvious Florida track of Orlando and Miami, I say, and follow his lead to South East Florida, to this lesser-known gem, where there’s no bad time to visit and everyone is seemingly full of the joys of the Florida sun. Where nature reserves meet crystal seas, pristine beaches meld into dolphin-tipped mangroves; unassuming restaurants serve delicious and well-priced must eats… and the possibility of bumping into an alligator keeps you on your toes.
To plan your trip to The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, go to www.fortmyers-sanibel.com. A week’s stay at Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village starts from £150 per night based on two sharing a one bedroom suite: www.westincapecoral.com.