Florida: Some bright ideas for the Sunshine State

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford lead the way for today's tourists, says Chris Leadbeater

Thomas Edison was full of bright ideas. He was, after all, the American genius who spun invention from sparks of inspiration in the questing atmosphere of the late 19th century.

His achievements included, among other things, the voice-recording miracle of the prototype phonograph and the great-leap in illumination of the first long-lasting light bulb.

And yet, standing on his porch, enjoying the heat of a March day, I am half convinced that Edison’s most brilliant brainwave was to purchase a holiday home in western Florida.

In 1885, boosted by the success of his Menlo Park research centre in New Jersey, this navigator of technological tides bought Seminole Lodge as a refuge from the winters of the north-east. Edison owned the property until his death in 1931, spending so much time in its rooms on the edge of the River Caloosahatchee that, in 1916, his close friend and co-visionary Henry Ford acquired the next-door mansion – certain, as ever, that his ally was on to something.

He was. In 1885, Fort Myers – the town in which the two houses are sited – had scarcely emerged from the swamps. But the arrival of the railroad in 1904 meant trains of tourists and a new status as a sun-framed destination. More than a century on, it has barely moved away from this game plan, basking in a near-year-round glow a quarter of the way up Florida’s Gulf coast, 155 miles from both Orlando (to the north-east) and Miami (to the south-east).

Fort Myers called to Edison as an enclave where he could draw breath. Strolling around his former possession – the Edison and Ford estates are now preserved as one museum – I can only agree with his thinking. The scientist’s laboratories are still here, caught in the shadows of bougainvillea bushes and banyan trees – breezes sighing in the branches, the river flowing to the Gulf of Mexico beyond. Here, maybe, you could invent anything.

A mile away, the centre of town is a vision of the US at its quaintest, with restaurants laid out near the water – The Veranda serving herb-crusted fish fresh from the sea, Ford’s Garage tipping its hat to the Michigan car mogul with giant burgers and mechanic-shop decor. It is a wholesome image – the Florida spring without the shrieks of Spring Break.

The scene becomes even more picturesque when I drive 20 miles south-west in search of the town’s island neighbours. Tucked just  off-shore at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee, Sanibel and Captiva kept the mainland at arm’s length until the construction of a three-mile causeway in 1963 and, in many ways, still like to maintain their distance. Strict regulations keep an eye on too-exuberant development and those who wish to visit must pay. A $6 (£3.50) fee is levied on those forging west across the trio of soaring interlinked bridges that transport you over San Carlos Bay.

The first evidence of this determination to be different is a police officer conducting cars through the crossroads at the end of the causeway. It takes me four minutes to make it past his beckoning hand and on to the Sanibel Inn, which snoozes on the lip of the Gulf. I fall asleep to the glorious sound of waves crashing and wake to a world of activity – joggers moving manfully; a yoga class on the sand; seagulls dive-bombing for breakfast.

It is an infectious example, impossible to ignore. And with the Florida sun staring down benignly – woken from its winter coma, but not yet imbued with the ferocity of summer – I hire a bike from an outlet on the main drag, and head off to explore.

It soon transpires that Sanibel is large – a narrow crescent, but one which ebbs 12 miles from tip to tip. Plenty of this is given over to the wild – not least the 5,200 acres of the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. An unwieldy title for a pocket of wetland and seagrass this might be – Jay Norwood Darling was a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist before turning to conservation – but the words above the gate are of no concern to the pelicans that splash down on the brackish waters, nor the herons that glide over them, elegance embodied, their motion effortless. There are 272 species of bird in the Refuge. By the time I have pedalled the four-mile loop within, I am sure I have spotted them all.

Smaller than its colleague – a powdery sliver that tapers into the Gulf after five miles – Captiva lies at Sanibel’s west end. Riding across the hump of road that links the two, I pass through the looking glass and into a realm of the quirky.

Perhaps it is the youthfulness of the season – but there is a giddiness to the island’s lone hamlet. “Merry Christmas!” cackles the sign outside Bubble Room, a gaudily painted restaurant where permanent festive decorations take a stopped-clock approach to the calendar. It has company, too, in The Mucky Duck, a drinkery which declares itself to be an “English pub”, but which – with its burble of local accents, house margaritas for $5 and portions of Gulf shrimp listed as the catch of the day – could not be more American.

It does not matter. It’s still a snapshot of Florida far removed from a gaudy Spring Break free-for-all. With frothy breakers rolling in behind and the week’s sunset times pinned to the wall, the afternoon sticking to its promise of warmth, it would be difficult to find anyone who is too worried about Anglo-Saxon authenticity. Not even the light bulb pioneer. Edison would not recognise the 21st-century party spirit, but he would surely understand the appeal of it all.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) flies to Orlando (three hours’ drive from Fort Myers) from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow, and from Heathrow to Miami (three hours’ drive). American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) also serve Miami from Heathrow. BA flies to Orlando and Tampa (two hours’ drive) from Gatwick.

Touring there

A seven-night fly-drive package, including return flights  to Orlando from either Gatwick  or Manchester, plus car hire, costs from £699pp based on two  people sharing through Virgin  Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk).

Staying there

Sanibel Inn, 937 East Gulf Drive, Sanibel (001 239 481 6124; sanibelinn.com). Doubles from $211 (£127), room only.

Visiting there

Edison & Ford Winter Estates, 2350 McGregor Boulevard, Fort Myers (001 239 334 7419; edisonfordwinterestates.org). Daily 9am-5.30pm. Admission from $12 (£7.20).

JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel (001 239 472 1100; fws.gov/dingdarling). Daily 7am-7pm except Friday (shut). Bicycles $1 (60p), cars $5 (£3).

Cycling there

Billy’s Rentals, 1470 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel (001 239 472 5248; billysrentals.com). Cycle hire from $15 (£9) per day.

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