The Florida Cultural Odyssey – Fort Myers and Sanibel

Peter Morrell continues his journey in Florida and on the third leg has the perfect combination of culture and relaxation

Lovegrove Gallery and Gardens

Lovegrove Gallery and Gardens

Leoma Lovegrove

Leoma Lovegrove

Lovegrove Gardens

Lovegrove Gardens

Model T Ford

Model T Ford

Edison Ford Winter Estate

Edison Ford Winter Estate

First Street Fort Myers

First Street Fort Myers

Art of the Olympians

Art of the Olympians

Hibiscus House

The Hibiscus House

Road to the Beach Captiva Island

Road to the Beach Captiva Island

Captiva Island Beach

Captiva Island Beach

The Mucky Duck Captiva Island

The Mucky Duck Captiva Island

Pelicans Diving at Captiva Island

Pelicans diving at Captiva Island

After a hectic time in Sarasota I was on my way to the Fort Myers area, about a 90-minute drive south. Leaving the freeway the last half an hour of the journey took me through fields of cattle, reminding me of the little known fact that cowboys originated in Florida. They first arrived in 1763, and were known as Crackers. This is either because of the sound their whips or the fact they were entertaining or had the ‘Craic’, whatever the reason their tradition and the industry lives on in the State.

My first stop was Matlacha (Mat-La-Shay) a tiny fishing village and very ‘old Florida’. The village is the gateway to Pine Island, and is very laid back and picturesque, just perfect for a thriving community of artists. Driving over the small bridge onto the island it was impossible to miss a house painted purple, green and blue, which is the gallery and garden owned by the community’s best known ambassador, Leoma Lovegrove.

Leoma is a larger than life character, sporting a pair of signature funky white glasses, and with her hair plaited in multi-coloured braids.  A really extrovert artist, she has even painted designs on her jeans and shoes and her gallery is a must visit. The garden is a riot of creativity and colour, and is like stepping into Alice Through The Looking Glass. I was particularly inspired by the trees made from inverted blue bottles. And inside there are fabulous paintings and just about every surface is covered in artwork.  Leoma has an incredible knack of capturing someone’s likeness and the Virgin offices in London are graced with her painting of Richard Branson. As she takes us on a tour of this unspoilt village I felt a real sense of community here where the social life revolves around Bert’s Bar and the seafood restaurants. Matlacha was the inspiration for the 1959 book by Richard Powell called Pioneer, Go Home! about squatters on piece of land created to support its bridge. This true story was eventually made into the Elvis Presley film, Follow that Dream.

It would have been good to spend longer with Leoma and the village but downtown Fort Myers beckoned. My first stop, on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, I paid a visit to the estate where the winter homes of Thomas Edison (Seminole Lodge) and Henry Ford (The Mangoes) were built. The estate, divided by a road which used to be a cattle drive, has Edison’s laboratory/workshop and an exhibition on one side and the houses of the two industrialists on the other.

The exhibition is a fascinating insight into the lives of two men who shaped the 20th century. Apart from the Model T Ford there are lots of Edison’s inventions on display. One rather poignant exhibit is a prototype phonograph in a wooden frame that is indented with the Edison’s teeth marks.  He was profoundly deaf and biting the frame was his way of ‘hearing’ the sound.

Across the road, on the Caloosahatchee, are the two very attractive but relatively modest wooden houses where the men, with their families stayed in the winter. The knowledgeable guide kept the visitors amused with anecdotes about Edison, Ford and their good friend Harvey Firestone (of tyre fame) who accompanied them on camping trips to the Everglades. Although modest in size the houses were very well appointed and, as I was fortunate to be there in December, were beautifully decorated for Christmas.

Back in Fort Myers proper and First Street was buzzing with bars, restaurants where the locals were enjoying Saturday afternoon alfresco dining and a jazz band was playing. A short walk away on the river is a smart new building that’s home to the Art of the Olympians. Founded by gold medal discus thrower Al Oerter the gallery is dedicated to all forms of art created by Olympic athletes. Sadly, Al is no longer with us but his dream lives on and the gallery continues to thrive and expand under the management of his widow Cathy and Bob Beamon, gold medal long jumper winner at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

After a leisurely tour of the gallery which features some very impressive works, it was time to find my lodgings for the night, The Hibiscus House sits conveniently between the Edison Ford estate and Main Street, this charming B & B is a wooden house typical of the area. The owners David and Pam McCurrach, who recently moved from Tennessee, have refurbished the property to a very high standard with a combination of Pam’s interior design flair and David’s practical skills. The welcome is warm, the rooms are extremely comfortable and the breakfast will set you up for the day.  Nothing is too much trouble and David had even bought us a teapot (apparently no easy task in Florida) to make us the perfect English brew.

There was just time for a brief rest before heading back to downtown for an early dinner at the historic Veranda Restaurant. Originally two houses which were built in1902 by early settlers, the joined building are now a fine dining venue serving culinary gems featuring fresh seafood and meat and accompanied by some fine wines.

It was tempting to stay longer in the convivial atmosphere of the Veranda but there was still more to look forward to, I was off to see a play. A stroll from the restaurant is the Arcade Theatre, home of the Florida Rep, one of the State’s leading companies. Built in 1908 as a vaudeville venue, the theatre was frequented by Edison, Ford and Firestone who went to watch a new form of entertainment – the movies.

Rescued from dereliction in 1991, the building became the permanent home of the Florida Repertory Theatre in 1998. When I arrived the audience all seemed to know each other and I got the feeling that, like many other places in Florida, there was a real community spirit. I saw the Pulitzer Prize in Drama winner, Talley’s Folly, a lyrical romantic comedy that follows the unlikely courtship of young Sally Talley and her much older suitor, Matt Friedman. Set in 1944, the play unfolds in a Victorian boathouse on the banks of the Missouri River. The play was well acted to a very appreciative full house.

After a breakneck schedule since arriving in Florida the next day promised some relaxation.  I was on my way to the two barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva which hook around the seaward side of Pine Island, where I had met Leoma Lovegrove the day before. The long causeway across the edge of San Carlos Bay took me to the single road which runs up the spine of Sanibel.

Along this road and hidden by the lush vegetation are shops, bars and restaurants where you can spend time browsing, eating and relaxing. As with Pine Island it is an ideal environment for artists, calm, peaceful and with the most amazing quality of light. 

Pottering around some shops I stumbled on an interesting art gallery called Island Style. Inside was an eclectic range of paintings, crafts and jewellery made by a range of local and other artists. If you wanted to buy an everlasting memento of your trip then this would be the ideal place.

A short drive and a hop over a tiny bridge brought me to the tiny island of Captiva. This, like Sanibel, is a verdant sub tropical paradise, and nestling amongst the palms and banana trees is the Captiva Island Inn, a picture book hotel and the perfect place to stay. The property is made up of cottages, suites and rooms, all beautifully appointed and each with their own character. My accommodation had a first floor balcony overlooking the swimming pool and I could almost imagine Ernest Hemingway suddenly appearing from the bushes.

A short walk from the hotel was a stunning long white sand beach and perched cheekily on it, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico was The Mucky Duck, an English Pub. Sipping a pint, with a cloudless azure blue sky above, while watching the Pterodactyl like silhouettes of Pelicans diving for fish, seemed just about as close to heaven as you could get.

After five days of museums, art galleries and live performances this rest was ample reward. I reflected on my time in Fort Myers and Sanibel. Although not well known to the UK visitor it is well worth putting on the list of destinations as there’s plenty to do here.  I had really enjoyed the atmosphere in Matlacha, learnt a lot about Edison and his achievements, saw the realisation of Al Oerter’s dream, appreciated some good theatre, relaxed in the peace of the islands, and was impressed with the friendliness of the people and the sense of community.

The next morning a walk along the beach and a deep gulp of sea air finished another unforgettable two days of my cultural odyssey. It was time to say goodbye to the Gulf and head east across the Florida peninsula to Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Useful Links

Fort Myers and Sanibel www.fortmyers-sanibel.com
Florida Information www.visitflorida.com
Hertz Rent a Car www.hertz.com
The Florida Cultural Directory www.theculturalvoyager.com/culturalflorida
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