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Greetings from sunny Florida

Bryan and Beth stand on the grounds of the Edison-Ford Winter Estates, once the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, now a museum, in Fort Myers, Fla.2 / 8
Key Lime Pie3 / 8
Palm tree4 / 8
Edison Pier at Edison-Ford Winter Estates5 / 8
Farmers market in Fort Myers, Fla.6 / 8
Flowers crafted from seashells at the Sanibel Shell Festival7 / 8
Minnesota Twins spring training game8 / 8

Palm trees intrigue me.

Since they don’t exist in our northern clime, I had never given them much thought before. But on our recent trip to Florida — an almost 4,000-mile road trip in our four-door Jeep Wrangler — I discovered that there are many varieties of palms — some 2,600 or so, according to an Internet source.

Previously, I thought all palm trees looked the same, perhaps just in different sizes. That is not the case. I was particularly enthralled by a squat variety with fan-shaped leaves in a silvery pale green.

Palm trees were just one of many things that Hubby Bryan and I enjoyed about southwest Florida on our two-week sojourn. We undertook the adventure with the excuse of visiting sister and brother-in-law Margaret and Don Hinchey, who are temporarily living in Fort Myers while Don, a retired Lutheran pastor, helps out at a church there. The reasoning behind driving was several-fold: It provided the opportunity to see part of the country we had yet to explore; gas prices were cheap at the time we made the decision; and it was a good excuse to take two weeks of vacation, rather than just one, giving us both a longer break from our respective jobs.

Travails of travel

Day one into the trip, we began to question the wisdom of driving. We changed our route to circumnavigate the worst of a winter storm, but drove into the edge of it at Kansas City. The bypass around the city was filled with heavy truck traffic, which slowed to a steady crawl. When visibility reduced to almost nothing, we stopped for the night much short of our intended goal.

The second day started off much better weather-wise, but just after we crossed the Mississippi River from Missouri into Illinois, a loud bang drew our attention. A blown tire, resulting from a hole the size of a 50-cent piece in the tire’s sidewall (the cause of which is still a mystery), stopped our forward progress. Thanks to the help of a Good Samaritan who stopped to help, the tire was changed quite quickly. The Wrangler has a full-size spare, but the hole was irreparable, so we continued on our way with a bit of trepidation, knowing we were now without a spare should another incident occur.

The next morning found us in Tupelo, Miss., where, unfortunately, the correct tire size could not be located. But there was one in Meridian, Miss., a couple hours south — a bit out of our way, but a necessary detour for our peace of mind. After several hours waiting at the tire store (in our experience, people in Mississippi seem to operate at one speed — slow), we were finally on the road again.

Our first view of the Gulf of Mexico came at Mobile, Ala., and our trek along Florida’s panhandle provided fleeting glimpses through dense fog the next morning. We stopped in Gainesville to see niece Alexis, who is pursuing a master’s degree in special education at the University of Florida, before finally making it to Fort Myers, where we were greeted by our hosts.

Like many snowbirds, Margaret and Don are renting a furnished unit in a condo complex, which boasts a pool and tennis court. We spent a bit of time lounging around the pool, but most of our stay were on the go, trying to fit in the many excursions on Margaret’s planned itinerary. (We call her “The Director” for a reason.)

Winter Estates

Did you know that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were good friends? Edison became a mentor to Ford, and the two bought adjacent properties along the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers, where the two families spent winters in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Edison’s wife, Mina, deeded their property to the city of Fort Myers in 1947, and the city later acquired the adjoining Ford property.

Edison & Ford Winter Estates is a 20-acre property that encompasses the homes, gardens, Edison laboratory and a museum documenting the life of the two American inventors and entrepreneurs. Since Margaret and Don had previously done the guided tour, we chose the audio option, giving us ample time to wander around the lush gardens and marvel at the unique forms of the banyan trees, which Edison planted in his research to find alternate sources of rubber.

The grounds are indeed a marvel, and the historical displays were interesting and educational.

Prior to our estate visit, we had lunch at Ford’s Garage, a downtown Fort Myers eatery with an automotive theme. The food was delicious, and we got a chuckle out of the bathroom fixtures — sinks and faucets fashioned from tires and gas pump spouts.

Beaches

We bookended our visit with visits to two beaches, both state parks. Our favorite by far was the last one we visited, Lovers Key, made up of four barrier islands.

A tram from the parking lot made it easy to haul all our gear, and the nice, wide beach had ample room for its many visitors. An osprey kept watch over the beach from its nest while we combed the sand for shells and spent a couple hours soaking up the sun.

Cheering on the Twins

Bryan and I have long talked about wanting to attend the Minnesota Twins spring training, so tickets to a spring training game were a must on this trip.

We were able to take in a Sunday afternoon match against the Baltimore Orioles at the newly renovated CenturyLink Sports Complex, a beautiful facility that seats 9,300.

The experience wasn’t much different from a game at Target Field — just on a slightly smaller scale. (Beers and hotdogs were just as pricey as at the Minneapolis ballpark.)

It was especially fun seeing Torii Hunter back in a Twins uniform, and the best part is, the Twins won. The sun was shining, the crowd was enthusiastic, and it was just a great day to take in a ballgame.

Sanibel, seashells and citrus

Sanibel Island, located just off the coast at Fort Myers, is one of those must-go tourist destinations, if for nothing more than to ogle the fabulous homes that line its shores.

On the day we crossed the bridge, we happened upon an unexpected event — the 78th annual Sanibel Shell Festival, which features shells, shell crafts and artistic and scientific exhibits. It is hosted each year by the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club, which includes both casual beachcombers and avid shell collectors.

The most amazing part of the festival was the shell art — bouquets of realistic-looking flowers composed entirely out of shells. I can’t imagine the time and patience required to craft such lovely arrangements.

While on Sanibel, we also drove through the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a 6,354-acre park that is home to 220 species of birds, more than 50 types of reptiles, and 32 different kinds of mammals. We spied a number of birds but had no reptilian encounters.

The highlight of Sanibel, at least for me, was a piece of pie. Key Lime Pie, of course, served at an outdoor eatery appropriately called Key Lime Bistro. The four of us split the dessert, which had a cream cheese layer topped by the tart lime layer and surrounded by a pool of strawberry and lime sauces. My mouth waters just writing that description.

We ate well throughout the duration of our stay, indulging a couple times in fresh seafood. (Alas, Bryan had to abstain, as he has developed an allergic reaction to shrimp later in life.)

We also spent one morning at a farmers market, where the abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits and seafood was enticing. We were tempted to buy all sorts of produce, but were afraid they wouldn’t survive the long trip home.

However, we did purchase a couple sacks of citrus to bring home with us, as well as a couple jugs of freshly-squeezed juice that made the trip back in our cooler. We made two stops at the citrus center that was nearest Margaret and Don’s abode. There, you can see workers processing the fruits into juice, sample both fruit and juice varieties (our favorite was the strawberry-orange) and order fruit to be shipped back home. As they check out, most shoppers also order a twist cone (orange, lime, lime-chocolate) and eat it while sitting in one of the chairs perched just outside the door. It’s a lovely — and tasty — ritual.

Our two-week sojourn passed by more quickly than we could ever have imagined, and we were sad to leave behind the sun, sand, surf and lush greenness of southwest Florida. The drive home was much more uneventful than the drive south — no bad weather, no vehicle malfunctions — but our melancholy grew as the landscape turned more and more brown the farther north we drove.

I still miss seeing palm trees.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  

(507) 376-7327
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