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More than young hope grows in Fort Myers

City of Palms Park in Fort Myers looked ready for Boston Red Sox pitchers and catchers to arrive next Sunday. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates look out on the Caloosahatchee River. City of Palms Park in Fort Myers looked ready for Boston Red Sox pitchers and catchers to arrive next Sunday. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates look out on the Caloosahatchee River. (Photo by Necee Regis for The Boston Globe)
By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2011

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FORT MYERS — Palm trees sway at the far end of the field where the scoreboard meets the brilliant blue sky. The paint is so fresh on the spruced-up dugout you can almost smell it. It does smell like summer, like hope, like the promise of joy. The familiar letters say it all: BOSTON RED SOX.

It’s time for spring training in Fort Myers.

Sox fans would — if they could — spend every minute of their vacation in the City of Palms Park. But when the practice games end, the batting cages empty, and the gates close, is there anything else to do?

Plenty. This is Florida, after all, and Lee County offers over 50 miles of white sand beaches, with seemingly endless opportunities for fishing, boating, and swimming, as well as hiking, birding, and wildlife viewing. Add to that mix some cultural activities — theater, arts, and history — and you’ll wish you could stay another week.

The beaches are known for their variety and abundance of shells, attracting beachcombers with a passion for collecting. There are 20 named beaches in the area, including Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel Island, Turner Beach on Captiva Island, and Fort Myers Beach on the northern end of Estero Island.

Fort Myers Beach has a fun, honky-tonk feel, with trinket shops, T-shirt joints, casual restaurants, pizza parlors, and ice cream stores clustered along tree-lined pedestrian walkways in an entertainment district called Times Square. An information booth provides oodles of choices for water activities, including fishing charters, dolphin and wildlife cruises, shelling tours, parasailing, sunset party cruises, pirate cruises (“A 90-minute swashbuckling show!’’) and leisurely schooner sailing.

For a quieter experience on Estero, drive south and cross a small bridge to reach Lovers Key State Park. Composed of four barrier islands, this 1,616-acre park offers over two miles of beaches, and eight miles of trails for hiking and biking. A concession stand and gift shop rents canoes, kayaks, bicycles, beach chairs, and umbrellas. Guided kayak tours are available and ranger programs include guided walks, birding, manatee and dolphin talks, and more. A tram service from the parking lot to the south end of the beach — where there’s a gazebo, restroom, and picnic area — provides access to visitors with disabilities.

Kayak and canoe enthusiasts should seek out the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile, marked paddling trail that meanders through the area’s bays, rivers, backwaters, and shoreline.

Heading to or from Fort Myers Beach, there are a couple of great places to stop for lunch along Fisherman’s Wharf in the shadow of the Matanzas Pass Bridge. Depending on your style, try the tidy fish house and sports bar Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille, with its entertainment license and souvenir store, or head around the corner to Bonita Bills, where dogs are welcome, “No Shirt, No Shoes, Can We Get You a Beer?’’ is printed on the menu, and they only take cash.

The renovated historic downtown, dubbed the “River District,’’ is a destination all its own. Early 20th-century brick buildings have been restored to their former glory and are home to eclectic boutiques, jewelry shops, restaurants, bars, antiques emporiums, cafes, art galleries, nightclubs, and the award-winning regional theater, Florida Rep.

An afternoon stroll along First Street should include a stop at the newly opened Franklin Shops in the former Franklin Hardware Building. The two-level space is divided into exhibition and retail showrooms for unique retailers, designers, and artists selling everything from beachy interior decor (pillows with starfish, coral bottle stoppers) to skin and beauty products to chocolates, swimwear, fine art, and jewelry.

Around the corner, Main Street Antiques and Collectibles has a similar set-up (they rent space to 20 vendors) with a funkier vibe. In the same location for 18 years, this hodgepodge of a store will keep you busy for hours, especially if you like to poke through vintage clothing, knickknacks, records, handbags, hats and jewelry. And yes, the player piano works.

Stop for lunch at the French Connection Cafe for a fresh, perfectly grilled ahi tuna salad on crisp greens — and a quick game of pool — or go for grilled panini at the chic and affordable restaurant, Delicious Things.

At the nearby waterfront, along the Caloosahatchee River, look for the new Art of the Olympians gallery and educational center. One of only five places operating as a licensed organization of the US Olympic Committee, this 10,000-square-foot space is dedicated to the relationship between art and sport.

“Both of these fields require discipline, excellence, and commitment,’’ said J.J. Cochrane, community development officer.

Rotating exhibitions on the first floor examine the history and culture of sports and athletes through equipment, films, and memorabilia. The second-floor gallery features paintings, photography, drawing, sculpture, and multimedia work by over 40 Olympic athletes, including Peggy Fleming and the late Florence Griffith-Joyner, and the gallery’s founder, Al Oerter, (1936-2007), a four-time consecutive Olympic gold medalist in the discus.

The February exhibition will feature the drawings of Liston Bochette, who competed in five Olympics (bobsled, decathlon) while bringing along his drawing paper and Prisma pencils.

“I grew up in Fort Myers, but I was always a Carl Yastrzemski fan,’’ said Bochette. “I wrote him a letter as a kid and he sent back a postcard. I kept that on my desk till I went to college. There wasn’t any baseball in the Olympics back them, but my five Olympics were inspired by him.’’

Of course, one can’t talk about inspiration in Fort Myers without mentioning the prolific inventor Thomas Edison. He first visited in 1885, eventually buying 13 acres along the Caloosahatchee to build his winter home. In 1916, his close friend Henry Ford purchased the adjoining property. Today, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates pay homage to the many technological innovations and creativity of these two men. It’s possible to tour both their homes, well-tended gardens, and the Estates Museum that’s full of artifacts relating to Edison’s inventions and businesses, as well as information about Ford, their families, friends, and Florida history.

The estate served as a workshop and a winter getaway for Edison, who set up a laboratory during World War I in order to discover a cheaper, domestic source of rubber from latex-producing plants. Peek into the lab that looks untouched from the time of his death in 1931. The smell of wood permeates the space with its high ceilings, exposed beams, and long tables with antique-looking tools.

Outside, an enormous India banyan tree could be declared a natural wonder. At the time of its planting in 1925, the tree was 4 feet high and 2 inches in diameter. Today it is an acre in diameter with 350 roots.

After a day of sports, culture, and beachcombing, make sure to reserve a table at the Veranda, a Fort Myers institution for more than 30 years. Located in an early-20th-century home in the River District, the Veranda serves Southern foods (blue crab cakes remoulade, fried green tomato salad, Gulf yellowtail snapper with crawfish) in genteel style. The stylish night crowds flock to Blu Sushi, a martini and sushi bar along McGregor Boulevard.

In the morning, it’s back to the ballpark. Check out the gift shop for team merchandise that’s only available in Florida, such as caps with the Sox logo and palm trees. For those who plan ahead to the 2012 spring training season, Fort Myers is scheduled to open a new 10,000-seat ballpark that will be a miniature replica of Fenway Park complete with a Green Monster wall.

Go Sox!

Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

What to do
Boston Red Sox Spring Training
City of Palms Park
2201 Edison Ave.
239-334-4700, 877-733-7699
www.redsox.com
Tickets $10-$46.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates
2350 McGregor Blvd.
239-334-7419
www.efwefla.org
Tour the historic homes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, as well as Edison’s botanical gardens, research laboratory, and the museum that houses hundreds of his inventions, $12-$24.
Art of the Olympians
1300 Hendry St.
239-332-5055
www.artoftheolympians.org
Doubleheader special: Bring your ticket stub from the ballpark and get two admissions for the price of one. Suggested admission $5.
Fort Myers River District
www.myriverdistrict.com
Shopping, dining, art and culture.
Great Calusa Blueway
www.greatcalusablueway.com
Paddle along 190 miles of trails through coastal waters and inland tributaries of Lee County.
Lovers Key State Park
8700 Estero Blvd.
239-463-4588
www.floridastateparks.org
Per car $8.
Where to stay
Holiday Inn
2431 Cleveland Ave.
239-332-3232
www.holidayinn.com/ftmyersdwntn
Near City of Palms Park and historic downtown; 122 rooms. In-season doubles $159-$199.
Hotel Indigo
1520 Broadway
239-337-3446, 877-834-3613
www.hotelindigo.com/ fortmyersfl
Boutique hotel in the River District; 67 rooms. In-season standard $136-$169.
Where to eat
The Veranda
2122 Second St.
239-332-2065
www.verandarestaurant.com
Elegant dining in a turn-of-the-last-century home in the River District. Entrees $29.95-$38.95.
Blu Sushi
13451 McGregor Blvd.
239-489-1500
www.blusushi.com
Martinis and sushi in a sleek, chic environment, $4.95-$12.95.
French Connection Café
2282 First St.
239-332-4443
Soup, salad, sandwiches, entrees, full bar, and pool table. Lunch $6.50-$11; entrees $12-$18.