The best way to tour southwest coastal Florida is definitely by bike. Check out the alternative!
Heading north out of Naples along the ocean is a string of towns and small islands; Bonita Beach, Little Hickory Island, Bay’s Island, Big Hickory Island, Long Key which is home to Lovers Key State Park, and Estero Island and the town of Fort Myers Beach. Each of the islands has a single main road running the length of the island with an entry and exit point at either end. This makes for a traffic nightmare for tourists of the car-set, but not so by bike. Bike paths or bike lanes run parallel to the main roads and offer an easy and safe travel alternative.
It’s a 60 kilometer ride for us, starting at the corner of Vanderbilt Drive and Immokalee Road, out and back with plenty of points of interest along the way, making it a super pleasant riding day. There are enough things to see and do that it is possible to make this ride many times and have a different experience each time.
The first ten kilometers run along Vanderbilt Drive through north Naples and onto the city of Bonita Springs. This is an easy ride, supported by bike lanes and paths the entire route.
First stop is Royal Scoop Homemade Ice Cream, the oldest ice cream shop in Bonita Springs. They have been “churning out” (very clever, no?) ice cream since 1979. You might have to elbow your way in, but make sure to enjoy your ice cream in the “Cow Chair”. If you think it’s too early in your journey to indulge in ice cream, no worries. They have a second location, another 15 kilometers down the road in Fort Myers Beach.
Continue along Vanderbilt, until you reach Bonita Beach Road. Turn left to head toward Little Hickory Island. The next five or so kilometers are a little tricky. Riding on Bonita Beach Road is a little dangerous. With a shoulder about a foot wide (no exaggeration) and constant traffic, opt instead to take the sidewalk until you reach Barefoot Beach on Little Hickory Island, where the shoulder widens to include a dedicated bike path.
Little Hickory Island is chocked full of private homes and condominiums. On these narrow barrier islands, nearly every square inch of land is developed. Mid-century cottages butt up against new three-story homes built to maximize square footage on very pricey ocean front property.
A popular spot on Little Hickory is Doc’s Beach House, right on the Barefoot Beach. A car parking nightmare but no problem on a bike. Save your visit for the trip home though, when you can enjoy a beer and a fish fry, while watching the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.
Leaving Little Hickory, the miles clip along easily on Bay’s Island, Big Hickory Island, and Long Key. These islands are virtually undeveloped except for the main road and some parking areas to access Lovers Key State Park. The shoulder is wide and safe for riding. Just be sure to keep an eye out for glass and other debris on the shoulders. It seems to be a favorite spot for drunken revelers.
Crossing from island to island, the rider is treated to some beautiful views of the ocean to the west and the mangroves, inland to the east. The ocean vistas also offer a cooling breeze, welcome on a hot afternoon.
The final bridge to cross before arriving on Estero Island and Fort Myers Beach, crossing Big Carlos Pass, has a drawbridge. Be mindful of the metal grating at the top of the bridge where the drawbridge opens. It can be a little slippery and a little tricky on skinny bike tires.
Fort Myers Beach is a quintessential old Florida town, dotted with lovely old cottages painted in pale pinks, blues, greens and corals. An interesting architectural detail found in FMB is that many old cottages are built on stilts. All of the living space is a full story off the ground as a protection from storm surges during hurricanes. A little scary to think about.
Along Fort Myers Beach, check out the Matanzas Pass Preserve with boardwalks through the mangroves ending at the inland waterway. (It is marked by signage along Estero Boulevard, which is the main street on Estero Island.) There are early cottages open for tours on Wednesday and Saturday. An interesting piece of memorabilia is a cistern used to store rain water, before the advent of modern water supplies.
Also worth a stop is the Mound House, the oldest structure on Estero Island, soon to be listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places. The Mound House, built in 1906, expanded in 1909 and 1921, is built atop a Calusa Indian Mound. Indian mounds are found throughout Florida and the southern US and are constructed of shells, fish and animal bones, and pottery shards. Historical and architectural tours are currently offered on Wednesday and Saturday through the tourist season. The home sits along the inland waterway and provides a cool, shady stop along the route to rest and have a snack. My host during my visit was Ceel, formally of Boston, fully decked out in green, eagerly awaiting St. Patrick’s Day. (I was there March 12th!)
Continuing along, two of my favorite stops are Heavenly Biscuits and Yo! Taco, both on your right hand side when heading north. Heavenly Biscuits is only open until 1:00 p.m., serving breakfast and lunch fare, most famously, their homemade cinnamon buns. They are closed on Mondays, which seemed to be the day we most often rode this route. After almost three months of trying, I finally sampled their cinnamon buns this past weekend.
Yo! Taco, almost at the northern end of Estero Island is a popular stop for the famous Florida spring break crowds. Expect to see lots of girls in bikinis and guys in surfer shorts. When I was there, two university-aged women showed up, one of them sporting, overtop her bikini, a Camelbak Insulated Water reservoir into which she promptly emptied a giant bottle of Orange Crush. Vodka and Orange Crush? Gin and Orange Crush? She also unceremoniously plopped her bottle of Advil Ibuprofen on the counter, while she waited for her lunch to arrive. Oh my! What would her mother think?
At the end of the road, thirty kilometers from our start, is the “Times Square” of Fort Myers Beach. Check out the pier, the beach and the tee-shirt shops. It’s a quaint place, worth a wander.
After 30 kilometers of riding, it’s time to head home, perhaps with a stop at Doc’s Beach House for a well-deserved beer or the Royal Scoop for an equally well-deserved ice cream, or perhaps, both!
A great day.