When American inventor Thomas Edison paid a visit to Fort Myers, Fla., in 1885, he became so enamoured with the place that he bought a winter home there and, over the ensuing decades, played host to a number of noteworthy friends, including tire baron Harvey Firestone and automobile magnate Henry Ford (who eventually bought the house right next door). The charm of the area, even back then, was undeniable. “There’s only one Fort Myers,” Edison once said, “and 90 million people are going to find out about it.”
It turns out the city’s most famous snowbird wasn’t far off. The balmy weather (December’s average high is 25°C) draws millions to Fort Myers every year, mostly to experience its pristine beaches and great fishing. But, thanks to an award-winning, US$66.5-million revitalization project, the city is also drawing more and more people to its historic downtown region.
The area, known as the River District because of its position on the Caloosahatchee, is now bustling with galleries, shops, public art installations and monthly art and music walks—all set against the backdrop of old-fashioned, brick-paved streets, narrow alleys and colourful buildings with Mediterranean revival-style facades.
Here’s how to make the most of your time in downtown Fort Myers.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates
Take a trip back to “old Florida” with a visit to the adjacent winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. During the holiday season, Christmas lights and pretty, handmade decorations grace the botanical garden, Edison Ford Museum and nine historic buildings that are all part of this sprawling site. (edisonfordwinterestates.org)
This 10-acre riverside park boasts a fishing pier, a playground, paddleboat rentals and tons of sculptures. Take a self-guided art walk and look for the racing baby and turtle, the lifelike gator, the massive red abstract Fire Dance and the Uncommon Friends monument, which is a tribute to Edison, Ford and Firestone.
Hotel Indigo Ft. Myers Downtown River District
The building and the lobby are historic, but the 67 spacious rooms in this lovely hotel are wonderfully modern. Each one features cool-blue hues, hardwood floors, spa showers and artwork from local artists. Check out the rooftop pool for panoramic views of downtown. (US$119/night)
Blake’s Barber Styling
This “tonsorial parlor” (old-timey speak for barbershop) has been around since the 1920s and still looks the part. Pop in for an old-fashioned cut or a classic straight shave—it will only set you back about US$20.
This cool, four-level restaurant offers a fantastic menu and a variety of dining options. Try a Firestarter martini (with vodka, olive juice and Sriracha) in the Firestone’s colourful martini bar, enjoy great sushi in the Sky Bar, then feast on a flamed-grilled steak or Gulf Coast grouper in either the Grille Room or The Loft.
It may look like a service station with its Ford Model T propped above the bar and its gas-nozzle door handles, but it’s actually all about the food. Try one of the 17 burgers with piston onion rings and the root beer float made with whipped cream vodka.
Opt for the three-hour Caloosahatchee river cruise in a triple-deck paddlewheel boat. Not only will you get unparalleled views of the River District, it’s also likely you’ll spot some dolphins and manatees while you’re out on the water. Music, dancing and a buffet are all included in the US$38 ticket price. (jccruises.com)