Between Fort Myers and Naples, the city of Bonita Springs has some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in Southwest Florida.
On the gulf is a chain of barrier islands, each trimmed with sumptuous beaches. Between these and the mainland is the back bay, with mangroves and sheltered waters that could have been designed for kayaking.
You might share a beach with an ibis, paddle past a lazy manatee, or have to wait on a trail to let a gopher tortoise pass by.
In 2022, Hurricane Ian made landfall in this part of Southwest Florida, but many of the places in my article had bounced back when I visited.
1. Barefoot Beach Preserve
Bonita Springs’ shoreline includes one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on Florida’s southwest coast.
What you get at Barefoot Beach Preserve is more than 340 acres of unspoiled coastline. The long white sandy beach is traced by nothing more than dunes and mangroves.
There’s a boardwalk over the dunes from the parking lot to the beach, where there’s ample space for everyone.
May through October, Barefoot Beach is a nesting site for sea turtles, and sections will be roped off at this time of year.
In fact, you’re never far from wildlife here, with curious gopher tortoises ambling around, and dolphins playing in the surf. I endured the mosquitoes and stayed until the evening to watch the sun go down.
2. Bonita Beach Park
Travel west from downtown Bonita Springs, and you’ll soon reach this slice of paradise.
Bonita Beach Park is part of a long line of beaches without much human encroachment. Instead, you’ll find a long ribbon of enticing white sand sloping gently into the Gulf of Mexico.
This is the best beach in the area if you want to be active. Indeed, you can rent paddleboards and kayaks, while jet ski and parasailing adventures are available.
Head north on Hickory Blvd and there’s a series of numbered access points. For extra seclusion I’d head to Access #10, at the unfrequented Little Hickory Island Beach Park.
3. Riverside Park
Off Old 41, Riverside Park has a beautiful location by the scenic Imperial River. To go with its natural beauty, the park is a focal point for downtown’s social life.
There’s an outdoor concert series at the bandshell, movies in the park, as well as a Christmas festival, and Star Spangled Bonita.
I’ve visited the National Springs National Art Festivals, held on single weekends in January, February and March.
I had a lovely time strolling around, and was impressed with the quality of work on show. There were even manatees in the river at that time of year.
Look out for the Historic Lilies Hotel by the water. Dating back to 1926, this is one of the oldest buildings in the city, functioning as a museum until recently.
Bonita Springs is hands down, one of the best places to kayak, canoe or go paddleboarding in Southwest Florida.
Again, this is all about the sheltered back bay habitat, on the estuaries and tidal lagoons between the mainland and the string of barrier islands. Locally, there’s a catalog of outfitters equipping you with everything you need to explore these environments.
For me, the obvious starting point is Lovers Key State Park, which protects more than 700 acres of Estero Bay.
Traveling quietly through these waters you may see bottlenose dolphins and manatees, as well as spectacular birds like roseate spoonbills. Spend a carefree afternoon here, navigating the mangroves and paddling from island to island.
Bonita Springs is part of the Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile network of paddling trails across Lee County.
5. Bonita Wonder Gardens
Going back to 1936, this wildlife park is the brainchild of two brothers who established a roadside attraction for visiting tourists.
Bonita Wonder Gardens has evolved over time, and features a steamy patch of botanical jungle, home to rescued reptiles and tropical birds.
This place is right up my alley, with a rich array of plants, from orchids to a dozen palm varieties, as well as abundant wildlife.
I saw gators, flamingos, peacocks, ibises, Sulcata tortoises, macaws, and Chinese golden pheasants on my way through.
This attraction also offers special animal encounters, where you can meet and feed the tortoises and lorikeets.
6. Congo River Golf
With an African exploration theme, Congo River Golf is a cherished family attraction along the Highway 41 corridor.
On my round, I was impressed with the dedication to the theme—this 18 hole course is interwoven with waterfalls, caves, and tropical vegetation.
Something I haven’t seen before is the wheel-spin challenges on some of the holes, adding a lot of fun twists to the game.
For instance, I was told I had to use the handle of the club to play my shot. It added four shots to my score, but at least my kids thought it was funny.
There are also more local tropical animals, and as a side-activity kids can feed the resident turtles and alligators.
7. Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park
In the roster of sensational beaches close by, there’s another parcel of unblemished shoreline, with few signs of development.
Sitting south of the Cocohatchee River mouth, Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park has the kind of sandy beach that people will travel miles for.
The beach is the star attraction, and one of the best in the region for shelling, but there’s much more to see.
You can hike in the coastal forest, or explore the sheltered Turkey Bay on a kayak trip. Manatees are often spotted in these waters in winter, while there are usually plenty of wading birds like plovers and sandpipers in spring and summer.
8. Bonita Jet Ski and Parasail
Based at Bonita Beach Park, this watersports company will help you experience the magnificent local shoreline to its fullest.
For example, one of the packages offered by Bonita Jet Ski And Parasail is a guided jet ski tour through Estero Bay. You’ll hop from one mangrove island to the next, with a chance to see dolphins and manatees as you go.
A little shorter, the parasailing flight is just as memorable, giving you awesome vistas of Naples, Estero Bay, Barefoot Beach, Bonita Springs, and Lover’s Key.
There’s a range of other services available, including kayaking, paddleboarding and bicycle rentals if you want something quieter.
9. Farmer Mike’s U-Pick
A familiar presence at farmers’ markets from Naples to Fort Myers, this local fruit and vegetable farm was founded more than 20 years ago by a father and son team.
Growing in these fields are more than 100 varieties of fruit and vegetables. All of this produce is raised with sustainable practices like integrated pest management and crop rotation.
From late summer to spring, you can call in at the farm stand and pick up anything from Habanero chiles to butternut squash. In spring there are U-Pick strawberries, tomatoes, and flowers, and my kids had the best time helping out
At the start of the season there’s a fall festival, with hayrides, bounce houses and pick-your-own sunflowers and pumpkins.
10. Culum’s Bonita Trail
For something off the tourist track, you can take a short but spectacular walk along the Imperial River.
The trailhead is upriver from downtown, at the Bonita Nature Place, a cute passive park designed for nature experiences. Before you set off you can take a look around, and admire the gopher tortoises, bee house, and butterfly garden.
The primitive trail conveys you through mature native woods, with some massive oaks and cypresses next to the path.
My one piece of advice is to bring bug spray, and you’ll have a perfect little walk in nature. The Imperial River is also part of the Great Calusa Blueway, with almost 200 miles of paddling trails in Lee County.
11. Mound Key Archaeological State Park
As well as stunning natural beauty, there’s compelling archeology among the mangroves of Estero Bay. Mound Key is thought to have been a ceremonial center for the prehistoric Calusa Native Americans.
This culture of hunter-gatherers was based in the area for some 2,000 years, making use of the rich marine resources.
They were here when the first Spanish explorers arrived in the early 16th century, but had abandoned Mound Key by 1569.
What remains of their society are middens, surprisingly large mounds composed of discarded shells and pottery shards. I paddled out here during a kayak trip around Lovers Key, and went ashore to see the mounds and ridges, up to 30 feet tall.
Sadly Mound Key suffered extensive damage in Hurricane Ian, but was being restored when I was here.
12. Bonita Fairways Golf Course
There’s a litany of exclusive golf courses up and down the coast, but if you don’t want to break the bank, Bonita Fairways Golf Course is a great option.
This is a par-61 executive course, with an assortment of par 3s and par 4s. The holes are embedded in a nature preserve, with tropical vegetation all around.
The preserve’s lakes come into play on every hole, so this will be an enjoyable test for your iron play, approaches and short game.
To loosen up before you hit the course, there’s a full-size putting green, and you can also find what you need at the fully-stocked Pro Shop.
13. Bonita Springs Farmers’ Market
October through July there’s an excellent farmers’ market in Bonita Springs. Held at the Promenade at Bonita Bay, the market is a point of contact for a thriving community of growers.
There’s always an astonishing variety of fruits and vegetables, live plants, and cut flowers. Added to that are artisanal cheeses, salsas and pickles, guacamole, local honey, seafood, jams, dog treats, and an array of baked goods.
When it comes to prepared food, I can’t resist grabbing some homemade lobster bisque, tamales, mini donuts or bagels here.
14. Dog Beach Park
If the Southwest Florida climate is hot for you and me, then spare a thought for our pups. Dog-friendly beaches are few and far between, but there’s a great one in Bonita Springs.
A Lee County facility, Dog Beach is on the quiet back bay next to Lovers Key State Park. The waters here are gentle and shallow, and energetic dogs will have the best time running off-leash and playing together.
There’s a short walk through the mangroves from the parking lot, and you may even see some wildlife. Manatees, dolphins and wading birds like herons, ibises and spoonbills are often on the scene.
15. Flamingo Island Flea Market
Off I-75 on the east side of town, there’s a flea market with around 600 vendor booths. Open Friday to Sunday, Flamingo Island Flea Market offers bargains on an enormous range of items.
Every visit is a journey into the unknown. You might come across a great deal on jewelry, sunglasses, CBD items, tools, vintage clothing, toys, electric bikes, records, books, the list is almost endless.
There’s also a farmers’ market here, as well as live bands, a lineup of restaurants and a hopping little tiki bar.