FORT MYERS, Fla. >>
In Hammond Stadium’s sleepy center-field seating section, I leaned back, pulled down my cap and sighed.
The sun beat the perfect amount of heat onto my shoulders during one of the Minnesota Twins’ last spring training games in Fort Myers. The Key lime cider in my hand dripped with perspiration. And the crack of the bat — and the ensuing ruffle of cheers — were the only sounds interrupting the quiet of a late March afternoon.
What else could there be?
Well, a lot actually.
If baseball is your thing, why not consider a coastal crawl? Wander north along the state’s Gulf Coast shoreline, and you’ll find nine — seriously, nine — Major League Baseball teams making their spring homes between Fort Myers and Tampa.
Beyond those sun-splashed diamonds, plenty of other entertaining options exist, from fishing for dinner off a pier in Anna Maria, to attending the opera in Sarasota, to strolling down St. Petersburg’s super-trendy Central Avenue. And if you want to stay in Fort Myers? We’ve got plenty of ideas there, too, whether you’re in the mood for sipping craft cocktails or stalking crocodiles.
Our guide will give you all the fodder you need to take a spring training trip to the next level.
For a moment, it seemed like everyone on the wooden overhang was holding their breath.
Slinking through the murky water a few dozen yards away was a slate-hued alligator with jaws big enough to swallow a watermelon. The birds in the trees perched, silent. Only mosquitoes hummed. Even a young girl on the dock was awed into a whisper.
And then, suddenly — whoosh — the scale-covered reptile exploded out of the water, teeth bared, at a low-flying bird that had gotten too curious and almost paid the ultimate price.
It was a stunning moment of nature at a preserve that’s less than three miles from the Twins’ spring stadium but feels a world apart.
Welcome to Fort Myers, an unexpected treasure trove of wildlife and the outdoors. From bird-watching near beaches to paddling with manatees, the area is packed full of options to exercise your camera, get some exercise or simply marvel at Earth’s bounty.
>> Indulge: The chef’s table at Bruno’s of Brooklyn , a relocated family operation, is the place to be for fresh pastas and meatballs; grab a drink afterward a few blocks away at the 86 Room , a tiny space serenaded most nights by live jazz or a blues guitarist. Nab the freshest stone crab at Skip One , a small and easily ignored roadside restaurant and seafood market.
>> Grab a coffee: Linger over organic coffee at Green Cup Cafe , perhaps with one of their salads, wraps or delectable vegan and gluten-free deserts.
>> Hit the beach: Sanibel Island, 19 miles from the center of town, is known for its abundant seashells because of an underwater shelf that protects the incoming currents.
>> Other highlights: Walk the elevated, mile-plus boardwalk through the woods and around a handful of ponds at Six Mile Cypress Slough and chance spotting alligators and feral pigs, among other wildlife. Plan ahead (rentals require 72-hour notice) to kayak alongside curious manatees at Manatee Park. It’s best to arrive before April because the rising water temperatures that come in summer shrink the chances of seeing the playful mammals. At Sanibel Island’s J.N. Ding Darling refuge, cotton-candy pink flamingoes wade through the water — just one of a host of bird varieties and other animals often witnessed on the grounds.
Tampa / St. Petersburg
I’d driven to the area in search of a hopping taqueria a friend had recommended — but I spotted a cute, blue-doored salon-boutique mashup nearby, so had wandered in to peruse the handbags and table full of jewelry first.
As the store clerk rang up the turquoise choker I found, she asked if I’d been to St. Petersburg before. Five years ago, I told her. She grinned.
“It’s changed a lot,” she said. “It’s not really the same city.”
I learned that for myself almost as soon as I walked out of Salty Roots, wolfed down a couple of tacos at Casita Taqueria and continued down the street. Central Avenue was once a quaint and lonely strip just north of Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays play during the season.
Now, it constitutes the booming heart of the city — 20-plus blocks of boutiques, restaurants, cafes and bars that extend from the historic Kenwood neighborhood all the way to downtown.
The rest of town is growing rapidly, too.
>> Indulge: Buya offers ramen galore along with other izakaya staples — shishito peppers, gyoza or pork belly buns, for example — and a handful of Japanese whiskeys; at Brick & Mortar, a New England-esque interior spills onto the brick sidewalk patio where veal meatballs, braised octopus and cold glasses of rose are savored.
>> Grab a coffee: Grab a pour-over, cold brew or kombucha at Bandit Coffee. Intermezzo Coffee & Cocktails serves up cappuccinos during the day, but turns into a cocktail emporium — sometimes with a pop-up oyster bar — at night.
>> Hit the beach: St. Pete Beach, 11-1/2 miles from St. Petersburg’s downtown, stretches the entire length of Long Key. Three bridges connect it to the city.
>> Other highlights: Order tacos and chips with queso blanco at the counter of Casita Taqueria and sit outside at the picnic tables; downtown’s Saturday morning market (101 First St. SE.) offers local shopping and plenty of eats along the marina; Wooden Rooster buzzes with patrons scarfing down their signature crepes in the mornings; brunch at Proper Kitchen & Cocktails is a stellar Southern-inspired affair.
The crowd packing the Sarasota Opera House sprang to its feet, enthusiastically applauding.
The season’s final show had come to its own dramatic climax, with the quintet of crooners singing of love and betrayal and revenge finally falling quiet on stage. The hundreds of viewers in the art deco auditorium could hardly contain their excitement.
The opera house — complete with three-story atrium and a courtyard where patrons sip sparkling wine at intermission — is a stunning slice of culture in the town of 50,000. But it’s hardly the only option.
The otherwise sleepy Florida getaway is also home to the Sarasota Orchestra, the Ringling Museum of Art, ballet and contemporary dance troupes and various theaters featuring cabaret, comedy and American theater — all tucked into a cozy downtown footprint rife with restaurants and shops.
>> Indulge: Lounge in the shaded backyard near the tire swing or on the wooden front porch overlooking a banyan tree at Owen’s Fish Camp, which serves up casual baskets of seafood and occasional live music.
Scoot up to the bar or one of the community tables at the light-filled Boca for a juicy burger and some zucchini fries.
>> Grab a coffee: Perq Coffee Bar might be hidden away from the main strip, but it boasts the biggest range of coffee in town, from nitro and Japanese iced coffees to pour-over variations from Ethiopia and Peru. If you buy a pastry, your barista just might suggest a specific coffee pairing for it.
>> Hit the beach: Siesta Key Beach, with its extremely fine white sand, is consistently cited as one of the best in the nation; parking may reflect that sentiment.
>> Other highlights: The Sarasota Orchestra hosts more than 100 events annually; a former London’s Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer now directs the Sarasota Ballet, which has since received national acclaim; the Sarasota Film Society shows foreign, independent and art films; watch Broadway shows and a wide range of other events at the state-of-the-art Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall; take a day trip over to St. Armand’s Circle to shop and eat spectacular Greek fare at Blu Kouzina (Lido Beach looms just beyond).
About an hour’s drive from Sarasota, Anna Maria is a tiny town strewn with beaches, wildlife and restaurant-laden piers.
Have the camera at the ready for manatee and dolphin sightings as well as views of a cascade of birds — the entire city is a sanctuary.
Fish for your dinner off the pier at Rod & Reel (rodreelpier.com) or just cozy up inside the two-story house or on the dock for an ultra-fresh grouper sandwich. After a day on the beaches, take in the sunset from the patio at Sandbar Waterfront Restaurant that spills onto the sand.