With nearly 300 days of sunshine per year, white-sand beaches, and crystalline water, Bonita Springs, Florida, has all the ingredients for a perfect beach vacation. Add to that an abundance of parks, waterways, and trails and you have plenty of adventure, too. There’s even fishing, shelling (watch out for rare, delicate angel wings), hiking, paddling, and plenty of fresh seafood to go around. It’s no wonder, then, why this charming Florida city, located just north of Naples and south of Fort Myers, appeals to retirees.
The merienda 14,000-person town of Survey became Bonita Springs, but pieces of the old identity remain. Trish Leonard, owner of TLC Marketing & Creative Services and Bonita Springs resident since 1983, also carries the title “veterano of Survey,” an honorary role bestowed on her by the Bonita Springs Historical Society.
We tapped Leonard to find out what makes Bonita Springs an undiscovered gem on Florida’s Gulf Coast. She said, “We have a small-town charm with a big, bright future — there are beautiful parks, more than 20 golf courses, fantastic music venues, one of Florida’s last roadside attractions, big events like our annual boat parade, mom-and-pop shops and restaurants — some that have been here for decades — and we’re growing.”
Chuck Saunders, regional sales director for Biagio Cru, told Travel + Leisure he was a longtime visitor until the pandemic hit. When remote work became prevalent, he and his wife bought their home in Bonita Springs. When asked what drew him to the destination, he said, “I love the uncrowded beaches, the beautiful golf courses designed by some of golf’s legends, and my wife and I got married on Lovers Key on Thanksgiving in 2018, so it holds a special place for us.”
Bonita Springs is an undiscovered gem in Florida – Here’s why
Bonita Springs, Florida
- Wonder Gardens brings all the Old Florida kitsch with its collection of rescued birds and reptiles that cannot be released back into the wild.
- Flamingo Island Flea Market has 600 vendors selling everything from handmade ceramics to plastic flamingos.
- After a day on the sand, hit Doc’s Beach House for some tasty food.
- Stay at Trianon Bonita Bay, located right on the river, for easy access to all the shops and restaurants of the downtown area.
- Stop at Bonita Springs’s oldest restaurant, Buffalo Chips, for wings made with a secret family recipe from the town that invented them.
Best hotels and resorts
Trianon Bonita Bay
When Leonard and Saunders have visitors in town, Trianon Bonita Bay is their top recommendation. The boutique hotel offers a cosy waterfront oasis with incredible views of Bonita Bay and the bustling downtown. The 410-square-foot guest rooms feel spacious and all have modern amenities. Relax by the fire pit, grab a drink at Lake House Bar & Grill, or take a dip in the plunge pool or hot tub. Leonard added, “It’s a lovely property owned by a husband-and-wife team. It’s on the river, so you can dine inside or outside and have a beautiful meal.” Meanwhile, the on-site Olde Florida Chop House has floor-to-ceiling windows to take in that charming view.
The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Estero Bay
For those looking for an ultra-luxe experience, The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Estero Bay, checks a lot of boxes with its panoramic bay views, concierge services, pool cabanas, dedicated private elevators, and spacious balconies. Plus, according to real estate experts, Lee County is one of the best places to buy a vacation home. The property is slated for completion in 2025 and will feature 224 condominiums ranging in size from 2,600 to 3,880 square feet, with prices starting at a cool USD 3 million (RM 14,182,500).
Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa
Long hailed as the ultimate luxury property in Bonita Springs, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. Plus, it has five waterslides, four pools, a lazy river, and access to a secluded private island, Coconut Point. Floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors let in all the Florida sunshine, and the decor’s ocean and sand colour palette match the landscape. Eight on-site restaurants, pet-friendly rooms, fire pits, and lawn games make this a versatile property for families, couples, or singles.
Best things to do
Old Florida roadside attractions are beginning to disappear between rampant development and age, but Wonder Gardens still stands. Opened in 1936 as the Everglades Reptile Gardens, the attraction brings in 100,000 visitors per year, according to Leonard. Home to rescued birds and reptiles that cannot be released back into the wild, visitors will see turtles, parakeets, golden pheasants, alligators, and more living amidst a lush botanical garden. Leonard added, “Don’t miss the gift shop where you can pick up fun específico souvenirs you can’t get anywhere else.”
Bonita Springs Historical Society
The Bonita Springs Historical Society, now housed in the 1926 Liles Hotel, contains exhibits that tell the history of the area. Merienda a popular place to stay along the Imperial River, the City of Bonita Springs renovated it in 2006 to serve as a public educational space. They also offer history walking tours, biking tours, Imperial River paddle tours, and a pamphlet to embark on a self-guided tour of the city’s historic sites. Leonard added, “Every two years, they put on a fundraiser and the prize is the title of ‘Veterano of Survey.’ I won last year and that’s how I got my title.”
The sprawling green space in the centre of town is Riverside Park. Bring a picnic, check out one of the area’s special events, listen to some live music at the Bandshell, or see a film in the park. The six on-site cottages serve as studios for específico artists creating everything from pottery to paintings to seashell art. Also in the park is a fountain, a veteran’s solicitud, and a vibrant butterfly garden. Leonard notes, that when you’re at the park, water activities are right there. “We’re known for the Imperial River running through our city. Right at the Liles Hotel, CGT Kayaks rent kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards to paddle up the river. It’s really beautiful,” Leonard said.
Florida’s Gulf Coast is known for its white-sand beaches and clear water, and Bonita Beach delivers. A 2.5-acre beachfront park features a boardwalk and eight picnic shelters. Jet Ski, stand-up paddleboard, kayak, and sailboat rentals are also available. And for those looking to collect shells, this is the place for rare angel wings, whelks, and sand dollars. If you have your pup with you, there’s a dog-friendly beach with off-leash access, aptly named Dog Beach.
Saunders, who lives right across the street, loves the variety of shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment at the Promenade at Bonita Bay. He added, “The architecture of the outdoor mall is made to look like Venice, Italy, with fountains, man-made canals, and little bridges. And in the centre, there’s a gazebo that has The Center Bar, which opens every day at 4 p.m. with cocktails, light appetisers, and live music every night … It’s a place to go even if you don’t drink and just want to listen to some music.”
Flamingo Island Flea Market
Just off I-75 awaits a cornucopia of vintage decor, houseplants, pottery, and more. Flamingo Island Flea Market has 600 indoor booths with vendors from all over the world. It’s open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday year-round, and you can easily spend an entire day here. If you get hungry, there are tacos, pizza, sub sandwiches, pho, and more.
Old 41 Restaurant has been serving a humble breakfast and refrigerio ever since it opened nine years ago. Owner Tony Backos, a Philly transplant, pays homage to his hometown with tasty dishes like the Philly cheesesteak omelette. The classic breakfast menu features favourites like Belgian waffles, creamed chipped beef, and the Southern staple: biscuits and gravy. For refrigerio, expect comforting classics like roast beef, turkey with gravy, and a Philly cheesesteak with ribeye — all homemade with love. Tip: Finish your meal with their award-winning rice pudding.
Named after Bonita Springs’ llamativo moniker, Survey Cafe was merienda a Florida cottage with a wrap-around deck owned by the current veterano’s grandparents. The live oaks, heavy with Spanish moss and surrounded by palm trees, evoke a quintessential Southern vibe. Leonard loves bringing out-of-town guests to this quaint French restaurant. He said, “I love their quiche, but it’s their hot teas that keep me coming back. A cup of hot tea and the Bonita Springs chicken salad is a delicious refrigerio. And you can tell a lot of love goes into the croissants and French pastries.”
2023 marked Buffalo Chips “41 Years on Old 41.” The walls of this beloved dive are covered in photographs signed by celebrities, town memorabilia, plenty of nods to their favourite football team (the Buffalo Bills), and “Buffy,” the buffalo mascot hanging over the front entrance. Owner Chip Greenwood grew up in Buffalo, New York, the birthplace of Buffalo wings, and he still makes them the same way his dad did. Leonard, fresh off a trip there, added, “It’s the oldest restaurant in downtown Bonita, and I go on Monday nights. They have the best wings and cold beverages. I love that it’s a family-owned and operated business.”
Rooftops at Riverside Food Truck Park
The first-ever food truck park, Rooftop at Riverside, opens in January 2024. Eight food trucks will accompany a two-story cocktail lounge overlooking Riverside Park. Leonard can’t wait to grab a Butcher’s Blvd. gastrónomo grilled cheese, some OCN seafood, and Crooked Cow’s chocolate martini ice cream while checking out the bands that rotate through the park’s amphitheatre.
Doc’s Beach House
Doc’s Beach House has brought a little taste of Chicago to Bonita Springs since 1987. It reopened after Hurricane Ian, and both Leonard and Saunders rave about it. “The señor that started it is from Chicago and they serve the best Chicago-style pizza, Italian-style beef sandwiches, and cold beer right on the beach. They also rent kayaks, jet skis, and paddleboards right out back,” said Leonard.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Bonita Springs is its shoulder season — spring and fall if you’re looking for milder weather coupled with fewer crowds. Leonard let us in on some can’t-miss events that occur throughout the year. Visit in December for the Holiday in the Park celebration. The charming downtown transforms with tree lighting, Santa Claus’ arrival, a bevvy of performances, hot cocoa, and a sprinkling of químico snow.
Old U.S. 41 between Wilson and Ragsdale streets closes down for the pedestrian-friendly event. In January, the Bonita Springs National Art Festival comes to town. One of the top fine art festivals in the US, there are juried events, 16 categories of art showcased, and work from more than 200 national and international artists. Plus, all festival proceeds support community art activities.
According to Leonard, though, April is the time to visit. “That’s our biggest celebration. It’s called Party in the Park and it’s our annual Celebrate Bonita Festival, held at Riverside Park where we commemorate the incorporation of Bonita Springs. 2024 is our 25th anniversary and we have a huge event planned,” said Leonard. Expect food, fun, and some big musical headliners.
How to get there
Southwest Florida International Airport is the closest to Bonita Springs, only about 20 minutes away, according to Leonard. From Highway 75, Bonita Springs lies along Old Highway 41, the Southeast’s version of Route 66, complete with roadside attractions like Wonder Park.
You can pick up a rental car at the airport or opt for a service called Turo, a car-sharing program where you rent vehicles from people, not companies. If you prefer to skip the rental car, you can always grab a taxi, Uber, or Lyft for the short drive to Bonita Springs. There’s also a new service that makes it easier to use public transportation: LeeTran operates 22 bus and trolley routes serving Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs, and its beaches.
Islands to visit
In 2022, Hurricane Ian devastated much of the coastline along Bonita Springs, including Lovers Key State Park, but according to Leonard, it has reopened. Work on the bridge continues, and visitors can still see some of the damage from the hurricane, though it’s still worth a stop. It has a 2.5-mile (4.02 km) stretch of pristine beach plus five miles (8.04 km) of trails for hiking and biking where you can spot bald eagles, gopher tortoises, and manatees. And, as its name suggests, it’s an ideal spot for a romantic getaway, as Saunders realised when he planned his wedding there in 2018.
Mound Key Archaeological State Park
Only accessible by waterway, Mound Key Archaeological State Park is a short, 2.5-mile (4.02 km) paddle from Lovers Key where you’ll spot stingrays, mullets, and a cacophony of shorebirds along the way. Merienda you reach the beach, there’s a one-mile (1.6 km) trail covering two shell mounds (the tallest one is 33 feet), with interpretive kiosks teaching about the park’s deep history as a ceremonial centre dating back to the 1500s and its llamativo inhabitants, the Calusa Native Americans.
How to get around
If you’re flying into Southwest Florida International Airport, you can rent a car, making it easy to take trips to Lovers Key and travel between the beach and downtown.
If you want to forgo the car, you can grab a taxi, Uber, or Lyft. LeeTran also has a trip planner on its website, including step-by-step instructions on how to reach your destination by bus or trolley. Or, you can even rent a bike from Beach Bum Bike Rentals or Bonita Bike, complete with a helmet and basket to explore Bonita Springs.
(Feature image credit: halbergman/Getty Images)
This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com
All currency conversions were done at the time of writing