Lee County was created in 1887, and like seven other counties across the country, it is named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Unlike these other counties, including those in Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina, our Lee County is the only one that offers glorious weather year-round and miles of scenic beaches, islands and protected preserves. It wasn’t until the turn of the century, however, when Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were spending their winters here, that Lee County began to bloom.
Today’s Lee County has five official cities—Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island. By comparison, the first county census in 1890 recorded a population of 1,414 residents just three years after it was formed from Monroe County.
Among the 100 fastest-growing counties in the country, Lee County attracts an average 11,600 new workers each year, and 48 percent of its population is between 25 to 64 years old. Lee County’s character is a split personality of scenic barrier islands, a burgeoning cosmopolitan River District in downtown Fort Myers, operating citrus groves, sprawling resort-like gated communities and quaint river towns. Water is a major player in the county’s ongoing development. Bays, backwaters and manmade canals provide access to the Gulf and the county’s miles-long stretch of the Caloosahatchee River.
Lee County Beach Real Estate
Of Lee County’s nearly 600 miles of shoreline, 50 miles are beaches and 20 are named beaches stretching from border-straddling Gasparilla Island south to Bonita Beach. The majority of the county’s beaches are located on barrier islands, many of which are uninhabited and destined to stay that way. Others are accessible only by boat, creating a way-it-used-to-be kind of feeling. Each of Lee County’s beaches has a unique personality. Here, we present them from north to south.
Home to Boca Grande and road-accessible only via Charlotte County, Gasparilla Island has evolved from its fishing and phosphate roots to a world-class destination for jet setters and residents. The venue of the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament, the island is protected by the Gasparilla Act, which limits allowable density and building heights. The island’s size—seven miles long and only half a mile wide—puts the beach and the waters of the Gulf and Charlotte Harbor within walking distance of almost any home. The 142-acre Gasparilla Island State Park offers five beach access points. The often-photographed Boca Grande Lighthouse is found in the appropriately named Lighthouse Beach Park.
Golf carts are the preferred mode of travel, especially in and around the quaint downtown area, where the former railroad depot has been restored to shops, offices and restaurants. Clothing stores, art galleries, antique shops, restaurants and boutiques are also found here. The historic 1913 Gasparilla Inn, with its white-washed architecture, columns and porches, recalls another time.
Homes and condos are sprinkled throughout downtown and along the water. Boca Grande Isles, a gated neighborhood of 123 waterfront properties, appeals to the avid boater with its deep water and to nature lovers who enjoy watching the unfolding natural scenery along Hole in the Wall Bay.
Lacosta Island is as far removed from civilization as one can get while so close to it. A remote barrier island between Gasparilla and North Captiva islands, the upper northern portion is Cayo Costa State Park, offering nine miles of beaches and 2,506 acres of pine forests, oak-palm hammocks and mangrove swamps. Uninhabited except for overnight campers, the island is reachable only by boat.
The scenic Sanibel Causeway, a series of islands and bridges (a new span is under construction), begins at the end of McGregor Boulevard in Punta Rassa on the mainland. Decades of careful preservation have helped to retain much of the naturalistic appeal of Sanibel. A majority of the island is under the management of the federal government at the 6,400-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Visitors and residents prefer biking to driving, especially during high season when a left-hand turn is next to impossible in this town without a stoplight. Periwinkle Way, the island’s main drag, offers quaint shopping centers and boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and even live theater. Building laws limit condos and homes to just three stories. Multimillion-dollar estates, cottages and condos share the shoreline with several beaches—Lighthouse Beach Park, featuring the island’s 1884 landmark lighthouse; Gulfside City Park; and the most popular, Bowman’s Beach. Mid-island Tarpon Bay Beach is a good spot for swimming and windsurfing. Blind Pass Beach, the official midway point between the two islands, is considered one of the best shelling spots in the world.
Captiva is separated from Sanibel by a thin swipe of water at Blind Pass. Sanibel-Captiva Road becomes Captiva Drive, along which most of the island’s multimillion-dollar homes are found. Homes are hidden behind thick foliage, but passersby get an occasional glimpse of winding, crushed-shell driveways leading to simple cottages, Spanish-Mediterranean mansions and contemporary South Beach-style getaways. Most homes have names and offer either the Gulf or Pine Island Sound in their back yards.
Venture farther north and you’ll eventually arrive at Captiva’s village, a quaint collection of pastel-hued, beachy shops, galleries and boutiques as well as steps-from-the-water homes located along sandy lanes. Restaurants like the Bubble Room, decorated in 1950s movie and TV memorabilia, and the Mucky Duck are within walking distance; golf carts and electric cars are preferred by residents who live farther away. Captiva Beach, ranked among the most romantic in the nation, is never more than two blocks away, and, some say, is the perfect spot to catch the mystical green flash. The gated South Seas Resort occupies the northern two miles of Captiva.
Fort Myers Beach
If you’re looking for a lively party, check out Fort Myers Beach, especially in March and April. Southwest Florida’s slightly tamer version of spring break hotspots Fort Lauderdale and Daytona, Fort Myers Beach has one of the hippest vibes of the region. Restaurants and bars offer toes-in-the-sand dining, dancing and drinking and an eccentric energy that keeps traffic—automobile and pedestrian—flowing 24/7 around Times Square and Estero Boulevard. Gulf-front homes, older and newer, and more than two dozen beach accesses are sprinkled among the many rental cottages and condos. Side streets offer water in the back yard—canals opening to Matanzas Pass and Estero Bay farther south—and the beach within a block’s walk. Most of the island’s commerce—seafood restaurants, bars, boutiques, beach shops and tattoo parlors—is located on Estero Boulevard and many, like the Lani Kai, offer on-the-beach musical entertainment and rooftop terraces. Walk the beach or the sidewalk on your pub crawl, or rent a bike or a scooter to get around.
The beach is the star attraction along Estero Island, and never more than a couple of blocks away. The 17.5-acre Bowditch Point Regional Park, located on the island’s northern tip, serves as a drop-in point along the newly opened Great Calusa Blueway, a 100-mile kayak trail meandering through Estero Bay and the scenic bays around Sanibel, Captiva and Pine islands.
Estero Island eventually ends around Lovers Key State Park, Florida’s most visited state park. The park spans four islands and is nestled between Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach, offering sand paths that wind through mangrove forests and around tidal lagoons to one of two remote beach access points. Canoeing and bicycling are popular here. Dog Beach Park is located along Estero Boulevard and is the only off-leash beach park for dogs in Southwest Florida.
Estero Boulevard becomes Hickory Boulevard as it traverses the Broadway Channel. Intermittent beach access provided by the county appears between condos, homes and restaurants as the boulevard travels south six miles to Bonita Beach Road and the Collier County border. Most homes here back up to water, either the Gulf on the west or the back waters of Estero Bay. Three-story Mediterranean architecture is popular; however, you will find Old Florida stilt homes, rentals and original cottages.
The two-and-a-half-acre Bonita Beach Park is found at the point where Hickory Boulevard curves into Bonita Beach Road. The county-run park has beach volleyball, a gazebo, restrooms with showers and picnic shelters.
Bonita Springs emerged slowly from its slumber as a sleepy fishing town in the late 1980s—a timetable many credit to the arrival of Bonita Bay, a 2,400-acre master-planned community. Now a bona fide city, its population increased 5.97 percent between July 2004 and July 2005. Bonita Springs has dozens of gated communities, upscale shopping centers, top-rated restaurants and a growing base of commercial activity. Neighborhoods have grown along the city’s main waterway, the Imperial River, and its major thoroughfares, the Tamiami Trail and Bonita Beach Road.
Bonita Springs clings to its past along Old 41 Road near the Imperial River, where moss-draped trees create a canopy above a city park, and older homes provide a glimpse back in time. The Everglades Wonder Gardens recalls the popular roadside attractions of the 1950s and gives visitors an up-close-and-personal look at ’gators and other indigenous Florida wildlife. The 1920s Shangri-La Springs Resort, where the hot springs reportedly attracted the likes of ?Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Franklin D. Roosevelt, is also found in this county-designated historic neighborhood. Many restaurants and stores serve the growing Hispanic population.
Cape Coral Real Estate
Cape Coral is Southwest Florida’s second largest city and the fifth fastest growing metropolitan area in the country, and its once-vacant lots are beginning to sprout homes in various stages of construction. The 115-square-mile city, created in the 1950s by brothers Jack and Leonard Rosen, who marketed the Cape as a winter retreat to Northerners, boasts 400 miles of canals, large freshwater lakes and miles of frontage along the Caloosahatchee River. Until recently it lacked the gated communities that defined other Southwest Florida real estate markets; much of the remaining undeveloped acreage was owned by a single company. Commercial development has been somewhat slow to follow.
Most of Cape Coral’s commercial and retail outlets are found along three main roadways—Del Prado Boulevard, Pine Island Road and Cape Coral Parkway, home to the city’s downtown, a blocks-long district of pastel-painted restaurants, boutiques and offices that hosts many of the city’s annual events such as block parties, arts shows and holiday parades. Dead-end side streets feature a number of smaller neighborhoods, often with still-undeveloped lots and canal frontage, offering no-bridge or one-bridge access to the river and Gulf. An active city-run parks department oversees a number of regional and neighborhood parks, including Sun Splash Family Waterpark, the Four-Mile Cove Ecological Preserve and the Cape Coral Sports Complex.
Lee County Riverfront Real Estate
Many of Cape Coral’s first homes were built in the 1950s and ’60s along the Caloosahatchee River near Redfish Point, home to the Cape Coral Yacht Club, which offers a boat ramp, a 634-foot riverfront beach, picnic shelters, barbecue grills, a fishing pier, public pool and tennis and racquetball courts. A handful of the original Rosen-built homes still stand on Flamingo Drive. New nearby gated communities—Tarpon Point Marina, built on the site of the Rosens’ Rose Garden, and the Marina at Cape Harbour—have introduced an upscale component to the Cape’s real estate market. Cape Harbour offers a public waterfront with a marina, shops and Rumrunners, an award-winning restaurant. Inland homes access the river via a thread of wide canals.
Older riverfront homes, built just 30 to 40 years ago, are being razed and replaced by larger million-dollar homes. The most expensive are found in neighborhoods facing the Fort Myers shore a mile across the river, with views of its two bridges—the Midpoint Bridge and Cape Coral Bridge.
Southwest Cape Coral
Realtors identify Cape Coral’s southwest quadrant as the new hot spot. A three-square-mile L-shaped neighborhood west of Chiquita Boulevard, the area offers existing homes, many built within the last 15 years, and vacant lots, some located on the South Spreader Waterway with Gulf access. “It’s one of Southwest Florida’s safest neighborhoods,” says Lenora Marshall, an agent with Century 21 Sunbelt. “There’s also a nice mix of families with children, young professionals, retirees and part-time residents,” adds her associate Teri Kibbe.
North Cape Coral
The Pine Island Road corridor, which links the mainland to the barrier islands of Little Pine Island and Pine Island, has grown up in the past decade. Overgrown, vacant lots on weed-choked streets, paved and platted decades ago, are steadily disappearing, being replaced by modest homes. A Home Depot recently opened at Pine Island Road’s intersection with Skyline Boulevard, and other development is quickly following. Also helping the area’s rising status are plans to improve Burnt Store Road into Charlotte County.
Estero Real Estate
New “settlement” continues to flourish along or near the Estero River—mainly new-home neighborhoods and commercial development. The scenic river leads eventually to Estero Bay and portions of it remain undisturbed, offering a glimpse back in time. Estero has several gated communities, a major outlet mall (Miromar Outlets), an ice-hockey/entertainment venue (Germain Arena), the new International Design Center, two top-flight hotels (the just-opened Embassy Suites and the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa) and Florida Gulf Coast University, the state’s newest college. New shopping centers border the town’s north and south boundaries—Gulf Coast Town Center at Alico and Ben Hill Griffin roads and Coconut Point at Coconut Road and U.S. 41.
Though still unincorporated, civic-minded and well-organized Estero residents have created self-governed review boards that make any full-fledged city envious. The boards set standards for Estero’s architectural appearance and its streetscape, among other things. They will help to guide the final design plans for the upcoming Estero on the River project, a mixed-use development that will include homes and the 500-seat, $20 million Gulfshore Playhouse Theater. Traces of Estero’s past are still visible along Sandy Lane and Broadway Avenue, where banyan trees create a canopy overhead, goats run in small fields next to older homes with screened front porches, and the sprawling champion Mysore fig tree stands sentry at the intersection of the two roads.
Fort Myers River District
Downtown Fort Myers, now officially known as the River District to reflect the 40-block area’s relationship to the Caloosahatchee River, continues its meteoric development. Two new high-rise condominiums are now open, and an ongoing flurry of activity will bring a total of 3,800 new homes in the next few years. The impetus for the development was an unused waterfront and a vision by master planner Andrés Duany, the father of new urbanism who’s credited with reviving Fifth Avenue South in Naples and South Beach in Miami.
The city is in the process of a $50 million project that will relocate utilities underground, restore brick streets and reintroduce 1930s-era streetlights into the historic district, which stretches from Bay Street to Second Street and from Monroe to Lee streets. The growing district offers retail stores, restaurants and offices and some residences on second floors.
The River District’s nightlife is quiet most weeknights but comes alive on weekends. Favorite haunts include the charming Brick Bar, which often features jazz and blues magicians, Fat Cat’s Drink Shack, the Cigar Bar and EnVie and Indigo Room nightclubs. Fine dining is available at The Veranda, Harold’s on the Bay, The Morgan House and the new Patio 33. During the day, rub elbows with government employees and attorneys for lunch at Second Street Deli. To the east of the district is historic Dean Park, a neighborhood of 1920s Victorian and Colonial homes and Florida-cottage bungalows that have been lovingly restored by new owners. To the south are the Fort Myers Skatium and the City of Palms Park, the spring-training home of the champion Boston Red Sox.
Fort Myers Riverfront
The Caloosahatchee River divides Fort Myers and Cape Coral, reaching a mile wide at its fullest. Some of the earliest development in Fort Myers took place along the river, mainly on the city’s famous Royal-palm-lined McGregor Boulevard and its cul-de-sac side streets. The winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford are found west of downtown, encircled by white picket fences and botanical gardens. The homes and Edison’s laboratory are open to guests and host a number of special events, including a holiday house and activities associated with the Edison Festival of Light, a three-week celebration of the city’s most famous resident.
The neighborhood offers diverse architecture, from older two-story brick estates and mid-1950s ranch homes to Spanish-style haciendas and Mediterranean revival homes mixed with the occasional contemporary or Old Florida (some nearly a century old). Most homes are on large lots and hidden behind decades-old landscaping and tidy hedges, and some include a sweep of river in the back yard. The area is favored by families with children because of its neighborliness—families tend to know one another and children walk to school. Many homes have been occupied by the same owners since the 1970s or earlier, and some have a storied past—once home to the first bank president or the first funeral home director. And now the next generation is returning; adults who grew up in Fort Myers want their kids to grow up in the same neighborhood they did.
South Fort Myers Real Estate
Fort Myers’ jagged city boundaries continue north until about Colonial Boulevard. Anything south of the city limits is known as south Fort Myers, an unincorporated area of Lee County that was home to nearly 50,000 people in 2000. It’s a large swath of land between Lehigh Acres, San Carlos Park and the Caloosahatchee that incorporates several distinct neighborhoods, including Cypress Lake, Iona-McGregor, Punta Rassa, Whiskey Creek and The Villas. Proximity to the beaches, the HealthPark Medical Center and a county park attract many residents to the area.
Iona-McGregor follows McGregor Boulevard en route to Fort Myers Beach, and because of its proximity to water offers some homes along canals leading to the Caloosahatchee River and overlooking Cape Coral on the river’s west bank. Located off McGregor are the sprawling Gulf Harbor Yacht & Country Club and the ungated Town and River Estates, offering older homes, some on canals. Commercial development includes restaurants, retail stores and the Tanger Outlet Center at the triangular intersection of McGregor and Summerlin. Punta Rassa is home to the Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa and a number of condo buildings. Turn from Summerlin Road onto John Morris Road and you’ll eventually find Fort Myers’ only beach, the 731-acre Bunche Beach, where natural tidal wetlands offer a look at Florida’s more wild side.
Whiskey Creek, a 1,500-home subdivision dating from 1969, borders its namesake creek off McGregor Boulevard and is north of Iona-McGregor. Selling points include an executive golf course, a mix of condos, 55-and-older multifamily housing and single-family homes, and a great location, close to the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, and a number of restaurants and shops.
The Villas, a 1,350-home neighborhood behind the upscale Bell Tower Shops, was platted in the 1950s and boasts mature landscaping, large lots and mostly older homes. The first planned residential neighborhood developed south of Fort Myers, The Villas has a community center, a two-and-a-half-acre park and a voluntary but active homeowners association.
A number of subdivisions and gated communities are found on each side of the Tamiami Trail as it heads south to San Carlos Park. Nearby Lakes Regional Park on Gladiolus Drive is a 279-acre oasis in the middle of all this development, with more than half the park dedicated to freshwater lakes for fishing, canoeing and swimming. Two of the area’s newest high-rises, Riva Del Lago, offer resort-style amenities.
Destinations in the eastern portion of south Fort Myers include the Southwest Florida International Airport, the Six-Mile Cypress Slough Preserve and Hammond Stadium, the spring-training home of the Minnesota Twins.
Once a 20,000-acre tax shelter for a Chicago businessman-cum-Florida rancher, today’s Lehigh Acres is experiencing sizzling construction activity, with 600 new-home construction permits issued monthly, taxable property values that increased 88 percent during the last year and a population of 42,400. Lee Ratner, the businessman, saw Lehigh’s potential in 1954 when he subdivided his Lucky Lee Ranch, making the east Lee County community the first post-World War II retirement community in Florida. Today the 95-square-mile Lehigh has 152,000 lots (some on lakes and canals), a mix of new and old homes and is one of the more affordable real estate markets in Southwest Florida, sought out by young families and first-time homebuyers.
North Fort Myers
Development has slowly pushed its way out of downtown Fort Myers and into North Fort Myers, where new gated communities mingle with mini farms. Waterfront (canals, lakes and the Caloosahatchee River) is often found in the mix, where multi-million dollar homes offer deep-water sailboat access. The area has a solid commercial base and a major tourist attraction—the Shell Factory and Nature Park with its Waltzing Waters. The river, Cape Coral and Charlotte County define the area’s 70 square miles.
An island just 17 miles long by two to four miles wide, Pine Island offers several distinct personalities—from the arts and fishing town of its land entry in Matlacha on Little Pine Island to the peace and quiet of Bokeelia on its northern tip and the more populated St. James City at its southern point. One thing you won’t find on Pine Island: beaches. There aren’t any, and residents are content for it to stay that way.
Home of the “fishingest bridge in the world,” Matlacha was originally inhabited by squatters, who built fishing camps along Pine Island Road. Today these small cottages are considered historic gems, and some are now used as art galleries and shops. Side streets display Matlacha’s fishing and shrimp fleet and a combination of older and newer homes, most on the canals that reach into Matlacha Pass. Residents like the area’s laid-back ambiance and its walk-to-anywhere location. There’s even a park, bait and tackle shops, a few restaurants and a bar. Pastel buildings and painted light poles reflect Matlacha’s artistic side.
Pineland and Bokeelia Real Estate
Tiny Pineland, found at the three-point convergence of Pine Island and Stringfellow roads, has amenities reserved for much larger places. There’s a post office (albeit one of the country’s smallest), a marina, a bible college, a marine research institute, an Indian archaeological site and even a golf course. Pineland also boasts a working novelist—Randy Wayne White. There’s a restaurant and hotel—the 1926 Tarpon Lodge and Restaurant, overlooking Pine Island Sound. Charters to the surrounding islands—Sanibel, Captiva, Useppa and Cabbage Key (a restaurant there is rumored to be Jimmy Buffet’s inspiration for Cheeseburger in Paradise)—are available at nearby Pineland Marina.
Bokeelia seems virtually undiscovered despite its port, restaurants (the Lazy Flamingo and Captain Cons, which serves fabulous grouper) and art galleries. Homes here embody Florida’s past—some have white picket fences, tin roofs, widow walks and wraparound porches for watching the sun set over Black Bay and Charlotte Harbor. Anglers say Bokeelia’s shallow waters are ideal for snook, trout and grouper.
St. James City
About two-thirds of Pine Island’s residents live in St. James City, accessed eight and a half miles due-south on Stringfellow and past Elks, Moose and fisherman’s clubs and co-ops. St. James City has a thriving commercial base with businesses that take advantage of its ties to the sea. There are several marinas and fishing charters and establishments like the Waterfront Restaurant and Marina, said to attract diners from 50 miles away with its burgers and grouper sandwiches, and the Double Nichol Pub, a tavern and sandwich shop, where the specialty is “the Father,” a toasted sandwich with bologna, pepperoni, salami, cappicola, provolone, jalapeños, oil, lettuce, tomato and onion.
San Carlos Park and Three Oaks
Escalating home prices, proximity to the international airport and university and a new shopping center (the mega Gulf Coast Town Center) have placed this south Lee County community on an upward spiral. Close to the major amenities of its larger neighbors—Fort Myers to the north and Bonita Springs to the south, San Carlos Park and Three Oaks are the ideal midpoint for folks who work in Naples and Fort Myers. Many residents have lived in San Carlos for five years, when homes sold in the low $100,000s and attracted young families and first-time buyers. Two recreational facilities—the 36-acre Three Oaks Park and Karl Drews Community Center—offer programs for children and adults, youth sports and playgrounds. Baseball and soccer fields at Three Oaks Park stay busy most weekday and weekend nights. Many of the vacant lots from a few years ago now have homes. Lots in San Carlos tend to lack deed restrictions and city water and sewer (a majority of homes use wells and septic tanks). Newer areas, like neighboring Three Oaks, have central water and sewer services and deed restrictions.
Rural Lee County
Even Lee County’s rural edge is changing. Gated communities along Palm Beach Boulevard/S.R. 80, once considered too far removed from the amenities of Fort Myers, are proliferating. Verandah, located along the Orange River, and River Hall, a 2,000-acre community by new-to-Southwest-Florida developer LandMar Group, take advantage of the area’s slower way of life this area affords. Far-reaching towns like Alva and Buckingham have also kindled interest from buyers who want a more rural lifestyle and larger lots that can accommodate mini ranches and horses.
Many of the homes in Fort Myers Shores, found along the south bank of the Caloosahatchee River east of S.R. 31, back into canals leading to the river. Travel farther east along S.R. 80 and signs of civilization and development loosen. Land restrictions have kept vacant property in Buckingham, the site of a World War II Army training camp for airplane gunners, fairly sizeable. Neighboring Olga is located on the Caloosahatchee. Development has followed with a new Publix-anchored shopping center at routes 80 and 31. Recreational outlets are just miles apart—a marina at Sweetwater Landing, Hickey Creek Mitigation Park, Franklin Lock Recreational Area and the Caloosahatchee Regional Park, a 768-acre facility on the north shore with two walking trails, mountain bike and equestrian trails, primitive campsites and breathtaking views of the namesake river.
Just east of the park is Alva (Latin for white), named by Danish sea captain and botanist Peter Nelson for the white flowers growing along the riverbank. As one of Lee County’s first county commissioners, Nelson platted out the village of modern-day Alva, laying out a network of streets and setting aside property for schools, parks, churches and the first library in South Florida. Today Alva’s surrounding citrus groves and pastures are being transformed into gated communities, five- to 10-acre residential tracts and grand riverfront homes surrounded by moss-draped live oaks. Alva’s quaint century-old United Methodist Church is the oldest church in continuous use in Southwest Florida.