Archive For March 17, 2017
Florida is synonymous with sunshine. And one of the many benefits of living in the Sunshine State is the spectacular year-round beauty that our semi-tropical climate produces. Something outstanding is blooming every month of the year. It’s no surprise, then, that Florida is home to some of the most breathtaking botanical gardens in the United States. Some are elegant and formal, others whimsical and amusing, still others aesthetically appealing with the addition of artistic elements and magnificent architectural components. Each one has a uniqueness all its own.
But have you ever thought about who planted those botanical beauties? Before they were drop-dead gorgeous gardens that delight you and I, they existed only in someone’s imagination. It’s interesting, to me, that the visionaries behind all that awesomeness were filthy rich businessmen. Yes, Florida’s most exquisite gardens have very, very rich roots! Buried deep within our sandy soil lies DNA from some of the wealthiest families in American history. I’ve chosen these 5 Florida Gardens with Rich Roots for you to add to your botanical bucket list.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens — Miami Florida
When I say Miami, “Gardens” is not usually the first thing to pop into someone’s head. Or the second, or third for that matter. Miami is best known for points of interest like South Beach, Ocean Drive, Art Decor Tours, Little Havana, Lincoln Road Mall and Bayside. But if you’ve been to this Southern Florida City and haven’t visited Vizcaya Museum and Gardens somewhere between your Cafe con Leche and Tostada Cubana, you’ve missed a botanical masterpiece!
Vizcaya’s Rich Roots
Vizcaya is a stunningly beautiful American Villa inspired by the palaces of Europe — a subtropical interpretation of an 18th-century Italian countryside villa. It was built in the early 1900s as the winter home for northerner James Deering, a retired millionaire businessman, and one of America’s wealthiest families. Mr. Deering was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, so his doctor recommended sunshine and a warm climate to lessen the effects of his affliction. (Turns out his pain was our gain!) As an avid sailor who owned three yachts, he also had quite a passion for landscaping and plant conservation. All of these things combined to play a huge role in the location of his 180-acre winter estate.
Vizcaya’s old-world European-inspired gardens are among the most elaborate of any in the United States. The formal gardens of Florence, Venice, and Rome served as the inspiration for James Deering. I absolutely love the use of sculptures, elaborate fountains, and other architectural structures strategically placed throughout the garden landscape. There are statues, urns, busts, and vases reminiscent of the Renaissance, which I find remarkably romantic. Apparently I’m not the only one that gets romantic vibes here, as Vizcaya Gardens is a popular wedding destination for multitudes of brides looking to create an enchanting fairy-tale backdrop for their special day. There are tons of charming, picturesque spots to choose from.
The horticultural collections in Vizcaya’s Gardens are so extensive and diverse (it took almost eight years to create the Garden), they have to be catalogued in a plant database. The Gardens include a subtropical forest, a mangrove forest, an exotic 2,000-specimen orchid collection, massive live oaks, Royal Palms imported from Cuba by boat, unusual plants such as Peach Palm and Giant Elephant Ear, and many endangered plants. Some are so rare they only exist here and in one or two other places in the world!
Vizcaya still remains an outstanding garden oasis for the rich and famous. It’s not unusual for Hollywood to come here for film shoots. They’ve recognized what we Floridians have known all along: Vizcaya showcases the history of the Mediterranean, the glamour of the Jazz Age, and the heat of the tropics! For hours, admission, calendar of events, and frequently asked questions, visit the Vizcaya website.
Bok Tower Gardens and Pinewood Estate — Lake Wales Florida
Tranquil and serene. Bok Tower Gardens gets my vote for the most peaceful place in Central Florida. It’s the ultimate great escape from Orlando’s thrilling [and sometimes over-crowded] tourist attractions. Since it’s one of my favorite places, Hubby and I have an annual membership to the Gardens. One of the great perk’s of membership is that we receive reciprocal benefits (including free admission) to many other spectacular gardens in Florida and around the country — places like Harry P. Leu Gardens and Museum in Orlando. Bok Tower Gardens is a mere 30-minutes from my home, so we visit frequently. There’s always something new blooming!
And with the recent addition of Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden, an educational and fun children’s learning area, I can introduce my toddler grandson to the beauty of “natural” Florida. Part of the expansion project also included an Edible Garden & Outdoor Kitchen. The Bok Tower Gardens special event calendar now includes various chef demonstrations and other culinary activities. This area also hosts after-dark soirées perfect for intimate gatherings. A favorite of visitors to Bok Tower Gardens is the infamous 205-foot-tall Singing Tower which houses one of the world’s finest carillons. Concerts occur twice daily, with additional live performances during peak periods.
Pinewood Estate’s Rich Roots
Pinewood Estate is a 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion from the 1930s. The Estate is open for self-guided tours throughout the year, with docents on hand to answer questions. The holidays are my favorite time to tour the mansion which features one of the best Christmas Home Tours in all of Florida. Each year, the local Garden Club creates a holiday “theme” and decorates each room of the mansion accordingly — truly spectacular! Charles Austin Buck, a Bethlehem Steel vice president was the original owner of this elaborate residence. And, like so many other historical homes in Florida, this was only a winter retreat. Can you imagine having a 20-room mansion that you occupied a mere 6-weeks out of the year? Mr. Buck was so wealthy that he brought 7 – 9 servants from his home in Pennsylvania with him each winter. He hired a manager to live in the house and take care of it the rest of the time.
For a glimpse of Pinewood Estates at Christmastime, read my article about Bok Tower Gardens during December.
TIP: Wear comfortable shoes… it’s easy to spend an entire day at this National Historic Landmark!
Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens — Winter Park Florida
The Albin Polasek Sculpture Garden is located just a short drive from Orlando, the theme park capital of the world, in beautiful Winter Park, Florida. I’ve always loved everything about Winter Park — the architecture, casually elegant restaurants, shopping on Park Avenue, the yummy Winter Park food tours, museums, art festivals, and relaxing Central Park with its inspirational Peacock Fountain. But of all my visits to this wonderful place, only recently did I discover the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. Hubby and I spent several hours here, and had we packed a lunch we could have lingered longer.
Mr. Polasek was a world-renowned Czech sculptor. In 1950 he retired to Winter Park, at the age of 70. Prior to that, he headed the Department of Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago for nearly three decades. The Polasek Museum is the actual home and art studio where Albin Polasek lived and worked. Many original paintings, drawings and small clay sculptures are on display here. While touring the Museum, I learned about the history of this incredibly talented man. But no amount of reading could have prepared me for what I was about to see in the Polasek Sculpture Gardens located on the property behind the Museum, right along the edge of scenic and serene Lake Osceola.
My goodness, these sculptures are absolutely amazing! When intermingled with many native Florida and subtropical garden species, it becomes a botanical utopia; simply perfect! I was blown away by both the created and natural beauty represented in this three-acre Garden. Not withholding the fact that some of Albin Polasek’s greatest artistic achievements came as a severely disabled person. Wow… if only these sculptures could speak! (You may be interested in a more comprehensive article on the life and legacy of Albin Polasek here.) This is truly a “not to miss” attraction if you appreciate outstanding outdoor gardens and are ever in the Central Florida area.
Winter Park’s Rich Roots
The entire town of Winter Park was founded by wealthy Northern industrialists as a winter getaway. This classy place might be geographically close to Disney and other Central Florida tourist attractions, but it’s a world apart in almost every sense. Its got style and substance! Winter Park has never lost its late-19th-century charm — brick-paved streets, stately turn-of-the-last century historic homes, 200-year-old live oaks with Spanish moss, and meandering canals once used for logging. And because money begets money, Winter Park still attracts multimillionaires today. Don’t be surprised if you rub elbows with a member of the Orlando Magic or see a movie star at a Park Avenue sidewalk cafe…
Edison & Ford Winter Estates and Botanical Garden — Fort Myers Florida
Did you know Thomas Edison (the innovative inventor) and Henry Ford (the Ford Motors car mogul) were very good friends? Yes, indeed. Such great friends that they purchased adjoining properties in southwest Florida in the early 1900s as their winter estates. The 21-acre estate features the former homes of the two men, a research laboratory, museum, and botanical gardens.
It’s a lovely waterfront location right alongside the Caloosahatchee River in Ft. Myers. Here, you’ll get a taste of what tropical, “old-Florida” used to be like. Whether you choose the guided or self-guided tour, you’ll receive so much historical information you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time. In the Gardens, it’s hard to believe that a few of the original trees planted during Edison’s time are still standing. Hint: check out that famous banyan tree! Good golly miss molly, wait till you see the size of that thing. I won’t give away all the fascinating facts, but you practically need a wide-angle lens to capture the whole thing. Additionally, there are 1700 plants representing 400 species from six continents on display. Hard to find a more diverse horticultural collection anywhere! To get a heads-up of what’s blooming in any given month, check out the Edison Ford Gardens “what’s blooming” page on their website.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates’ Rich Roots
Of course we’re talking about Henry Ford and Thomas Edison here. This popular Florida attraction represents some serious wealth. The net worth of these two men individually is massive, with a capital “M!” When combined, it’s mind-boggling. By the mid-1920s, Henry Ford’s net worth was estimated around $1.2 billion. That’s billion, with a “b!” At age 57 he was worth $188 billion, making him one of the 10 richest people of all time! When Thomas Edison was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1928 Congress valued his work at nearly $15.6 billion. Imagine the good times they had together on that property in Fort Myers that you and I get to visit…
Harry P. Leu Gardens and Museum — Orlando Florida
Leu Gardens is vintage Florida at its best! It’s easy to imagine Florida the way it used to be while strolling this massive Garden comprising nearly 50 acres. It’s nicely divided into 14 distinctly different areas (you’ll need a map). A few of them are formal, like the Rose Garden, but most sections appear more “natural.” While meandering through the landscape that contained the Palms, Cycads & Bamboo, I envisioned old-Florida — the way the Sunshine State looked pre-Disney. I was waiting for a gator to emerge at any moment from the dense subtropical terrain. Stand still long enough on Lake Rowena Overlook and in your minds-eye you’ll see the logging of humongous cypress trees that were transported via steamboat through Florida’s chain of lakes and canals.
Yes, old-Florida is becoming extinct. Vanishing. Endangered as our beloved manatees. But there are remnants, if you know where to look. Thank goodness Harry P. Leu Gardens is doing their part to preserve Florida’s cultural identity, for many generations to come, I hope. You’ll notice Leu Gardens has a personality all her own; it’s old Florida today!
Make sure you save time to tour the Leu House Museum; it’s included in the entry fee. A restored 19th century Victorian-style home, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Central Florida. Some of the architectural details include a tin roof and pine floors. Before it opened to the public in 1961, four different families resided there. The stories told by our docent about these wealthy owners were captivating. If you want a sense of what turn-of-the-century Florida living was like for affluent landowners, take this guided tour!
Harry P. Leu House’s Rich Roots
From a cotton farmer (1st owner) to an actress (2nd owner) to a steel manufacturer (third owner) to the Leu Family (4th and final owner), this house-turned-Museum has had quite a rich history. The most intriguing of the occupants was Duncan Pell, a prominent New York businessman who divorced his first wife in order to marry actress Helen Gardner. Ms. Gardner went on to create her own film company (a first for a woman) and became very well known throughout Orlando. Joseph and Martha Woodward were the 3rd owners; wealthy industrialists who only used the home as a winter residence. Mr. Leu, the last resident, owned a very successful industrial supply company. He and his wife traveled the world and brought back seeds and plants for their gorgeous gardens.
Have you been to any of the 5 Florida Gardens with Rich Roots? Or perhaps you know of another garden here in the Sunshine State with roots back to the rich and famous. Please share with our readers via the comment box below!
Sensational Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island is a premier destination in Southwest Florida. Only 14 miles from Ft. Myers, it sits off the coast in the blue/green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This tiny little island oasis has gained quite a reputation for itself. Experts in the travel industry have been bragging on sensational Sanibel Island for decades! Authorities within the travel industry say Sanibel is an extraordinary travel experience. But what makes Sanibel so special, and so different from any other island in the Sunshine State?
Well, Travel & Leisure says it’s one of the 10 Best Shelling Beaches in the United States! And USAToday ranked the seashells of Sanibel in the Top 10 Attractions in Florida! So then… seashells and Sanibel are synonymous! But what if beach-combing isn’t your thing? If shell collecting isn’t on your tropical vacation to-do list, is Sanibel still worth a trip? The answer is unequivocally, yes! I’ve put together a list of my favorite things to do every time I visit (in no particular order). You’re welcome to add your favorites as well. Simply reply in the comment box at the end of this article.
- BOOK A WATERFRONT PROPERTY: The beaches of Sanibel are so relaxing. Even in the busy season they’re not crowded. Do yourself a favor and book waterfront accommodations. The few extra dollars a night will more than pay for itself with a million-dollar view. Don’t be surprised if you decide to do nothing at all during your stay, except to immerse your senses in the simplistic serenity of nature. Put your cell phone on mute, kick up your bare feet on that lanai lounger, grab a spoon and enjoy a pint of Queenie’s ice cream (no sharing allowed) — homemade, right across the Pine Island Sound in Ft. Myers. Cinnamon is the bomb! We like to stay at Tortuga Beach Club, a Vacation Ownership property managed by Hilton. Even if you’re not a timeshare owner, rentals are available. It’s only a few steps to the sandy beach via a small boardwalk. It truly felt as if we were vacationing in the Caribbean. Here’s the view from our balcony…
- VISIT JERRY’S FOODS: We started a tradition while on Sanibel. The first thing we do right after check-in and unpacking is make our customary run to Jerry’s Foods. It’s a combination grocery store/restaurant right on the island, at 1700 Periwinkle Way. It has the coolest entrance to a grocery store that I’ve ever seen. It feels like you’re walking through the jungle to get there. Strategically placed throughout the dense tropical palms and foliage are colorful parrots and birds. As you stroll the peaceful pathways, stop and say hello… they do talk… but only when my video is turned off! How do they know that? These gorgeous guys and gals will have you in a relaxed state of mind in no time. When Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” starts running through your head, “island time” has officially found you! Jerry’s isn’t cheap, so we don’t do a large grocery order here, but their pastries and breads are excellent for breakfast on the balcony, and this is where I get my Queenie’s! Also, for a casual lunch or dinner, you’ll never go wrong with Jerry’s Restaurant. The daily specials are always a good value. We’ve had fish tacos, grouper fingers, oriental chicken salad, prime rib, and that coconut pie… oh my! Everything we’ve tried has been excellent!
- TOUR BAILEY MATTHEWS NATIONAL SHELL MUSEUM: You don’t have to be a shell-lover or collector to appreciate this place. There’s no other museum like it in the United States. It’s the only museum devoted entirely to shells and the mollusks that create them. There’s over 30 permanent displays and some temporary ones that often change. The Museum is home to at least 4 different world-record-sized shells. (Wait till you see the size of those things!) But, Bailey-Mattthews is far more than just colorful shells, it’s incredibly educational. The Marine Biologists that research and study here are internationally known as the foremost authorities in their field. Take advantage of the interesting and interactive “Tank Talk” lectures; and in the Arts & Crafts Room you can make a shell souvenir to take home (far more memorable than anything you could purchase in a tacky shell-shop!). Both things are free with a paid admission. FloridaFunAndFork did an in-depth article and photo tour of Bailey Matthews Shell Museum here.
- HISTORICAL SANIBEL LIGHTHOUSE: The Sanibel Lighthouse (originally called Point Ybel Light) is worth a visit for anyone who loves historical points of interest. It’s located on the eastern end of the 12-mile long island and was one of the first lighthouses on Florida’s Gulf coast; first lit in August 1884. The Sanibel Lighthouse is currently maintained by the Florida Coast Guard. Although the lighthouse is not open to visitors, you can walk the surrounding property that includes the keeper’s quarters. There’s also a fishing pier and public beach access. Have your camera or cell phone nearby, it’s a great area for photography!
- J. N. “DING” DARLING NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE: With an address like “One Wildlife Drive” you know you’ve gone somewhat off-the-beaten-path. The Refuge is named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Jay Norwood Darling. Many are familiar with his cartooning in the New York Herald Tribune, but few people realize Mr. Darling was a passionate environmentalist. In fact, he was a pioneer in the conservation movement, and an advocate for wildlife management. At The Education Center you’ll learn his story and the connection he had with President Franklin Roosevelt and ultimately Sanibel Island. The “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is quite large; 6,300 acres. It’s accessible via car, interpretative tram tours, biking, walking trails, or by canoe. We chose the 4-mile scenic drive but also walked a few of the shorter trails. I’ve seen stunning photography of various birds, reptiles, and mammals spotted at the Refuge, but unfortunately we didn’t see too many. Know before you go: Timing is everything! Birds typically feed during low tide, so that’s the ideal time to be there. We visited in the afternoon, in the heat of the day, when movement is minimal. Next time, I’ll tour the sanctuary according to the tide tables.
- CHAPEL BY THE SEA: Just north of Sanibel, via a small bridge, is a tiny sliver of land called Captiva Island. I love the scenic drive to Sanibel’s sister island. As you’re driving perfectly parallel to the sea and sand you’ll be amazed at the colorful bougainvilleas, giant cactus, and other tropical flora. Chapel by the Sea was originally built as a schoolhouse in 1901. On Sundays it would double as a church. Nowadays, it’s an interdenominational church that holds services seasonally, November through April. When you see the setting of this seaside sanctuary you’ll know why it’s also a popular wedding spot. Take a walk through the very old cemetery right next door to the church, many of Captiva’s original 19th century settlers are buried there. TIP: Time your visit to Captiva so you can have dinner while watching the setting sun!
- PLAN A DAY TRIP TO MATLACHA: OMG… I smile just thinking about this place. We discovered Matlacha (pronounced MAT-la-shay) on our way to a romantic anniversary lunch at the historical Tarpon Lodge Restaurant, a 4-Star waterfront restaurant on Pine Island. Matlacha is a teeny-tiny little town the size of my walk-in closet (well, at 99 acres, that’s almost true!) that you have to drive through to get to Bokeelia, our restaurant destination. Turns out, this pee-wee sized place with a population around 735 is a bright, funky artist enclave — it’s so colorful you’ll be tempted to wear your Ray Ban’s at night! The color is what captured my attention, but the incredible talent is what really impressed me. Matlacha is home to a multitude of authors, musicians, and artists. (You know… birds of a feather…) You’ll definitely want to check out Matlacha’s Art Galleries, amongst the most eclectic I have seen!
- MURDER MYSTERY DINNER TRAIN, FT. MYERS: Another outstanding day trip is to one of the best attractions in all of Florida. A short 40-minute drive will have you in Ft. Myers, — a popular Southwest Florida destination. Here’s an itinerary idea: Tour the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Have Lunch at The Veranda (one of my favorite upscale restaurants in Florida!), Stroll the Fort Myers Newly Expanded River District, then experience Dinner and A Show on the Murder Mystery Dinner Train. (Perhaps you’ll be like my sleuth friend, Ron, who received an award for correctly solving the “who done it” mystery!) It’s a full schedule, but you can chill at your beach-front Sanibel villa the next day! Fort Myers is a day trip you’ll be talking about for a long time after you return home, I promise!
- BIRD WATCHING ON THE BEACH: If you’re not into shelling, no problem. There’s another popular pastime on the beaches of Sanibel. Here’s how it works: Perfectly position your beach chair at one of the birding hotspots and spend a lazy afternoon doing a little bird watching. Simple as that! Simple, but oh so satisfying to the soul!
- THE SANIBEL STOOP: Okay… I must confess. After a few days of watching everyone else doing it, I decided to try it myself. The Sanibel Stoop, that is. It’s difficult watching the sense of satisfaction and jubilation people get when finding one of those “prized” shells, and not being a participant. After all, it’s kinda like the “official” pastime of Sanibel. And, you know what they say… when in Sanibel, do as the Islanders do! But I have to warn you, the Sanibel Stoop can become seriously addicting, with spontaneous bouts of stooping over with little or no warning. Don’t fight it. There’s some spectacular spoils waiting to be discovered on the sparkling shores of sensational Sanibel!
The Sanibel Stoop Sets A Guinness World Record!
In March 2012, over 800 hovering hineys of Sanibel broke the world record for “largest treasure hunt game!”
Have you been to Sanibel Island? Would love for you to add some interesting “Things To Do” to our list! Simply reply in the comment box below!
Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island
There’s no other museum in the entire United States quite like the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum. It’s the only museum stateside that is entirely devoted to shells and the mollusks that create them; that’s what makes it so unique. It’s located on Sanibel Island, a small island off the Southwest coast of Florida (14 miles west of Ft. Myers) in the Gulf of Mexico.
Sanibel Island’s claim to fame is its beaches. USAToday ranks the Seashells of Sanibel as the 7th of Florida’s Best Attractions overall (right on the heels of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, so you know Sanibel is pretty spectacular!). It consistently ranks at the top of Travel & Leisure’s 10 Best U.S. Shelling Beaches. And, internationally, it’s known as one of the best shelling beaches anywhere. So what better place to have a shell museum than right in the middle of the shelling capital of the world!
The Museum was conceived in 1984 and opened its doors to the public in 1995 — a dream-come-true for many Sanibel shell enthusiasts. Since its inception it has operated as a reference center for students and scientists, both nationally and abroad. During my last visit some researchers from out of the country were working upstairs (not accessible to patrons) to assist with curating and organizing part of the Museum’s vast mollusk collection. It’s been an ongoing effort for many years.
Bailey Matthews Shell Museum has become the premier destination for anyone interested in terrestrial, marine, or land mollusks of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. Lecture Series are commonplace and given by leading specialists in malacology (the branch of zoology that deals with mollusks) and natural history. Shell aficionados young and old have benefited from the Museum’s findings — shell clubs, community groups, public schools, home-schooled children, churches, and retirement homes. In fact, an official collaboration with Lee County schools was started in 1997.
The Bailey Matthews Shell Museum was named in honor of the family who donated the 8 acres of land where it was erected, and operates as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Marine biologist José H. Leal, Ph.D., serves as Curator and Scientific Director of Education.
Sanibel Island is World Renowned for its Shelling Beaches
Many of the shells that end up in Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum are found on Sanibel Island, Captiva Island right next door, or neighboring barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico. If you look closely at the photo below, you’ll notice that the sand on this Sanibel Island beach is covered with seashells! I have never seen such a high concentration of shells as what I experienced on the beaches of Sanibel. As a Florida resident I’m accustomed to walking barefoot on our beautiful sandy shores. But… not here! It’s a dangerous thing because of the multitude of shells. I overheard a lady in a Sanibel Island gift shop tell her friend that she cut her foot very badly on some shells, even with sandals on. For her, it required an emergency trip to the hospital; not the way to spend a vacation in paradise!
TIP: Always wear protective beach shoes while on Sanibel Island’s shell-strewn beaches. Although the pastel-colored shells are stunning to look at and exciting to collect, they’re likely to cause injury if proper footwear is not worn.
Southwest Florida Shell Guide: A Work in Progress!
I had a blast searching for and collecting shells on Sanibel Island. The locals are awesome; always eager to help a bone fide novice like me learn the secrets to successful shelling.
- Rule #1: Learn the “Sanibel Stoop!” Scouring the beach with a bent-over posture will yield better results.
- Rule #2: Buy a shovel! The plastic kiddie-kind will do just fine. Prized shells are like most other valuable treasures — found just below the earth’s surface with a little digging.
There were so many unusual ones, very different from what I find on beaches elsewhere in Florida. Since I’m not a serious shell collector, and I’m far from being an expert at seashell identification, I needed a lot of help distinguishing one from another. The Bailey Matthews Shell Museum was the perfect place to assist. José H. Leal created the Southwest Florida Shell Guide. It depicts hundreds of shells, but has an emphasis on those collected on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. It currently has 349 species listed but is continually being expanded and updated. Various information is given for each type, along with a photo for easier identification. But here’s the best news of all… you don’t have to travel to Sanibel Island or the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum to gain access to this information. It’s available to anyone via the Museum’s website. Simply click this link to open the Southwest Florida Shell Guide.
Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum: Hours and Daily Programs
Unlike many Sanibel Island businesses, the Museum doesn’t keep seasonal hours. That means no matter what day, week, or month you visit it will be open. (Our last trip to the Island was in September, and we were disappointed to find out many of the local businesses close during that month!) The Museum is closed only one day each year; Thanksgiving. Otherwise, you can visit daily from 10 – 5 (with abbreviated hours on major holidays). Adult admission is $15, with reduced prices for children and youth. Children under 5 and active military are FREE. Parking is included, and daily programs are FREE with paid admission.
How long should you plan on being at the Museum? Well, I’ve been to Bailey Matthews Shell Museum twice, both times spending several hours looking at awesome displays, watching informational videos, and participating in the daily programs. But even if you bypass the extra programs, I’d recommend a minimum of 1 1/2 hours. The events are ever-changing, so it’s best to check the daily schedule on the arrival board in the main lobby.
We attended a Live Tank Talk that was presented by a marine biologist. What a great way to gain insights into the fascinating world of mollusks! It was both fun and informative. Our speaker allowed ample time to answer all questions and we got to handle some of the subject matter. There’s no better way to learn than “hands-on!” There was also an hour-long Arts & Crafts session that my “crafty” friends took advantage of. Hubby and I were sorry we didn’t join them after seeing their shell masterpieces. My friend Ron made a cat, and his wife, Donna, made the most adorable seashell elephant. Her miniature version of this otherwise large pachyderm was amazingly adorable. I affectionately call him “EL, the seashell elephant!”
Permanent and Temporary Exhibits at the Shell Museum
The Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island offers more than 30 permanent exhibits, along with some that are on display for a limited amount of time. I remember prior to my first visit having this thought, “How can you build an entire museum out of a few sea shells?” Oh my goodness, I was so narrow-minded! I had the opportunity to see and learn about shells that I never even knew existed. Gorgeous shells, scary-looking shells, humongous shells, itty-bitty shells… and every kind in between. Not to mention that Bailey-Matthews houses some of the largest record-holding shells in the world. In fact, they have the largest known Goliath conch, Atlantic trumpet triton, horse conch, and lightning whelk. These things were massive! Take a look at some of my favorites…
The Role of Shells in History
Shells are not just beautiful and interesting to look at, but for centuries they’ve played an important role in culture, art, design, and medicine. For example… do you know what the oldest currency in the world is? Prior to visiting the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum, I didn’t know either. It’s shells! Apparently even before coins were made of silver and gold and precious gemstones, the ancient monetary system was shells. In one of the exhibits at the Museum you’ll learn why shells were used as money.
“The money cowrie (Erosaria moneta) is the most widely circulated and longest enduring currency in history!”
~ The Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum Quote
On a more romantic note, shells were also used as Valentines! Back in the early 19th century, shells were used as a popular art form developed by women in the Caribbean Islands. Oftentimes, sailors would create extravagant shell artwork and bring them home to their loved ones as the ultimate Valentine.
Additionally, shells were used to make some very practical things like buttons and bows. And fashion diva’s “back in the day” didn’t have Gucci, Coach, or any other designer-named purse so guess what they used? Yep, shells! And check out the intricacy (photo below) of the “flower” arrangement. It’s made entirely of shells, all with their natural color — every petal delicately and strategically placed. Among other things, there are 7 stems of lilac flowers made from 3,500 purple coquinas, all hand-collected on Sanibel Island. It took the artist and his wife 200 hours to complete this stunning piece.
Calusa: Florida’s Original Shell People
The exhibit depicting the Calusa Indians was fascinating. The Museum uses life-size models that look amazingly real. The Calusa were the original inhabitants of Southwest Florida (long before the first Spanish explorers) and made many of life’s necessities from shells; hence, the nickname “Florida’s original shell people.” Through the artifacts on display we know they used shells for things like tools, weapons, utensils, jewelry, and shell spears were made for fishing and hunting. More information on this “people group” can be found on Wikipedia’s Calusa Indian page.
Exotic Shells from Around the World
Upon entering the Museum the focal point of the Great Hall is a display featuring exotic shells from around the world. You can’t miss it! It includes shell species from the Japanese Province, Indo-West Pacific and other distant locales typically only accessible with a passport. It’s an inexpensive way to do some island hopping, and, if you get tired the room has a few comfy benches.
The Prized Junonia
I’ve saved the best for last! The Scaphella junonia is the grand prize for shell collectors on Sanibel and its surrounding islands. It truly is the pride of Sanibel Island. The treasured junonia is such a special find because it rarely washes ashore. It’s a deep-water marine mollusk that lives off the coast, in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s how the official Chamber of Commerce website for Sanibel and Captiva Islands describes it:
“The islands’ most coveted seashell, it belongs to the volute family. Its milky chamber is covered with brown spots on the outside, and the animal that occupies the shell is likewise marked. Shellers who find a junonia on Sanibel or Captiva get their pictures in the local newspaper!”
Yes… a junonia find is so rare that you practically become a celebrity by the locals if you scoop one up — right down to getting photographed for the local newspaper! HINT: the best time to find one is right after a major storm, when all kinds of marine life comes ashore.
The Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum is a great experience for the whole family. They have incredibly useful information for shellers of all types, from amateur to professional. In addition to viewing shells you won’t see anywhere else, their resources are second to none. And, even if you’re not an avid sheller, you’ll leave with a new appreciation for shells and the little creatures that inhabit them. It’s no wonder people come from all over the world to visit Bailey-Matthews! I highly recommend this experience.
DID YOU KNOW…
Yearly Memberships for Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum are available for as little as $50 for 2 people?
Purchase online before you go!
NAME: Beach Walk — LOCATION: Island Inn Beach
TIME: 9:00 AM Daily — DURATION: 60 Minutes — COST: $10 (Adult)
MEETING ADDRESS: 3111 West Gulf Drive, Sanibel — Purchase tickets online
Led by a Marine Biologist, you’ll learn about the shells, mollusks, and other marine life that has washed ashore!