In 1885, inventor Thomas Edison—the creator of the electric light bulb, the phonograph and motion picture camera among other things—was looking for a place to escape winter and improve his health. He chose Fort Myers, Florida. The small town on the state’s southwest coast had the warm weather and unspoiled natural environment he needed to relax, recharge and innovate. Today, it does the same for groups.
The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel are part of Lee County, which sits on Florida’s Gulf Coast between Naples and Sarasota. With a total land area of 652,000 acres, it offers 590 miles of shoreline, 50 miles of white-sand beaches, more than 100 barrier and coastal islands, some 90 golf courses, and more than 25 spas. The region also has a 12,000-room hotel inventory and an international airport (Southwest Florida International Airport). The net result, I learn on a Visit Florida press FAM, is an easy-to-get-to destination that offers up-to-date accommodations and meeting facilities as well as ample opportunities for visitors to experience Florida’s unique eco-systems. Here we take a look at five of the area’s leading properties and some of its unique venues.
Our FAM group’s home-away-from-home, this 454-key property is set on 26 tropical acres in Bonita Springs. With 82,000 square feet of event space, it can accommodate up to 1,500 people. Its seven outdoor venues include the secluded Royal Palm Courtyard; the Cypress Courtyard which can be paired with the Waterfall Pool Deck; the private, intimate Banyan Courtyard (cap. 100); and of course, the beach. Its 40,000 square feet of indoor conference space is comprised of two large ballrooms and 12 meeting rooms, many with their own patios. A standout space in its roster of restaurants and bars is The Cove at Tarpon Bay, a private dining room with minimal modern, coastal décor and a display wall that houses a flat screen monitor for presentations and converts to an illuminated wine bottle showcase once the meeting has ended.
In their downtime, attendees can enjoy the resort’s poolscape (the largest south of Orlando). Recently given a $7 million-dollar expansion, it includes five waterslides (a tandem slide is great for racing), four pools, a lazy river and hot tub. They can also hop on the resort’s trolley for a quick ride to the launch that will take them across Estero Bay to Big Hickory Island, where they spend a day at the beach, looking for shells and spotting dolphins. More adventurous types can pay a visit to Estero Bay Preserve State Park, which borders the resort. There they can enjoy cycling, kayaking, hiking, fishing and wildlife viewing.
The group viewed some wildlife the next day when it travelled to Captiva Island for a site tour of South Seas Island Resort, a popular incentive travel property. As we stood on the beach’s sunset luau area, where groups can hold volleyball tournaments, Beach Olympics, Iron Chef competitions and more, two dolphins appeared in the waters just offshore—an Insta #loveflorida moment. And it was far from the only one.
South Seas is picture perfect. Sitting on 330 acres at the tip of the island, it has 2.5 miles of private, white sand beaches, a golf course, sailing school, and 471 rooms, villas and cottages in a plantation-style village. It also has more than 31,000 square feet of indoor meeting and event space, including the 5,000-square-foot Captiva Ballroom with its 3,500-square-foot foyer. The newest addition to its line-up of event venues is the Gulfview Tent (cap. 185), which faces west making it easy to capture shots of the area’s spectacular sunsets.
On our way back from Captiva Island, we stopped at Sundial Beach Resort & Spa on Sanibel Island. Offering condominium accommodations, its 23,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space includes the Waterview Room, a multipurpose space with floor-to-ceiling windows, and the Sundial Room, which has a full terrace overlooking the Gulf. Its recreational facilities include a pool, bicycles and 12 pickleball courts. A Florida Green Lodging Property, it also has a “sea school” where children and adults can learn about the Gulf’s eco-system and conservancy projects to protect sea turtles and the area’s other original natural inhabitants. Guests are also given a shelling bag and encouraged to hit the beach to collect some of the millions of shells that wash ashore each day.
We made two more stops on our return journey. First, we visited The Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa, a 347-room property situated on the Punta Rassa, an 85-acre peninsula on San Carlos Bay. From our lunch table on the verandah of the Tarpon House restaurant, we were able to watch cars cross the Sanibel Causeway and boats journey out to the coastal islands and the Gulf of Mexico. While the property isn’t beachfront, it does have a small Cove beach, three pools and quick access to the beaches on Sanibel and Captiva islands. It also works with local suppliers to offer outdoor activities (hiking and cycling nature trails) and water sports (kayaking, sailing, etc.) to guests and groups.
The latter also benefit from its more than 30,000 square feet of event space, all of which was revamped in 2015. It has four ballrooms and up to 24 breakout rooms as well as several outdoor spaces. One of its most unique rooms is the octagonally-shaped Island Room (cap. 120/banquet, 150/reception). Styled after a Victorian-era gazebo, seven of its walls are floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Sanibel and Captiva Islands. For groups that want to get out on the water, the resort owns and operates the Sanibel Harbour Princess, a 100-foot luxury yacht with an outdoor observation deck and two indoor, air-conditioned salons. Fully accessible, it accommodates up to 103 guests.
Situated on the waterfront, accommodations (guestrooms to one-, two- and three-bedroom condo-style hotel suites) at this 293-key, AAA Four-Diamond property deliver views of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caloosahatchee River and mangrove forests. The hotel also delivers a full roster of amenities: on-site marina, spa, salon, tennis courts, kayak rentals, nature trail, three outdoor pools, an amphitheatre, restaurants, bicycle rentals and shopping. But the property’s big news for the MICE industry was the July 2018 opening of its new convention centre. It offers planners a choice of 13 meeting rooms, including the new 12,250-square-foot Tarpon Point Ballroom (capacity: 1,400), and the 3,150-square-foot Rosen and Grandville ballrooms (capacity: 150-200). Outdoor options include landscaped Gazebo Lawn, which is a 4,000 square feet with a gazebo centrepiece (capacity 100-200), and the third-floor Tarpon Terrace, which is decorated with string lights and has a built-in bar. Smaller groups—up to 50 people—can also use the resort’s private waterfront dining room.
Three unique venues to consider for a Fort Myers-based program.
Since this upscale Italian eatery opened in Bonita Springs in 2008, it has racked up awards from Wine Spectator magazine, OpenTable, Gulfshore Life and more. Its menu features housemade pasta and dishes showcasing ingredients sourced from local farms (Circle C Farms, Farmer Mike’s, etc.). Available for buyouts (275- person maximum including patio), three of its six dining rooms have AV capabilities. The semi-casual Garden Room seats 35, the ornately decorated Red Room accommodates 50, and its private dining rooms (“PDR”) comfortably holds 24 guests. Don’t miss the butternut-squash ravioli!
This unique property began life in 1921 as a hotel for homeowners waiting to move into houses being built nearby. It had a succession of owners before being purchased in 1998 by a pair of long-time conservationists and is now operated through a trust, guaranteeing its protection as a historic landmark. Dedicated to well-being (it is bracketed by the springs that give Bonita Springs its name) and the arts, it houses a full-service organic spa, indoor and outdoor event spaces, and a dining room serving dishes made from local organic ingredients including produce from its own certified organic garden and orchard.
Thomas Edison purchased 13 acres on Fort Myers’ Caloosahatchee River, built a home and began wintering there in 1886. Over the years, he and his wife hosted captains of industry, athletes and politicians. One of those VIP guests was Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. Ford, who regarded Edison as a mentor and friend, bought the adjacent property in 1916, forming a sort of winter colony of adventure and innovation. Today the Edison and Ford Winter Estates offer a total of 15 historic buildings including a museum, laboratory and shops. Group tours and private events are welcome.