You know Henry Ford and Thomas Edison for the car and the light bulb. But these Michigan buddies also helped invent the winter escape. Follow their early snowbird tracks into wild (and tamed) tropics in southwest Florida to places in and around Fort Myers and Sanibel.

By Timothy Meinch
The Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail

A narrow tunnel of mangroves renders paddles useless. Instead, kayakers use limbs as handholds to glide through a stretch of shallow waters in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve. The silent approach earns the trust of wildlife that would scatter at the sound of tromping feet or airboats.

Perched inches from paddlers' faces, a tricolored heron doesn't flinch. Around the next bend, a few wading ibis dig for breakfast. A gator lets the visitors float within 20 feet to snap a photo before sinking below the surface. This world captivated two of the Midwest's most celebrated innovators more than 100 years ago. Today you can explore it yourself, with time in the afternoon to catch the Minnesota Twins in spring training, or the 2018 World Series champs at the Red Sox' Florida stadium-lobster rolls, the Green Monster and all.

South of Fort Myers, The Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail covers 190 miles. Photo: Courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.

In Fort Myers, 60 miles north of this Everglades water trail (and 15 miles from beaches), the Edison and Ford Winter Estates lines the Caloosahatchee riverfront with blooms and royal palms. Ohio-born and Michigan-raised Thomas Edison bought land here in 1885, when Fort Myers was a frontier town of 300 people. Accessible only by boat and cattle trails, it was a doorstep to the Everglades, which have since shrunk 50 percent due to development.

Henry Ford, of Dearborn, Michigan, became Edison's neighbor in 1916. He did so after joining his friend and mentor (with naturalist John Burroughs) on an Everglades camping trip. The jaunt was the first of many glamping excursions the duo led across the U.S. until the mid-1920s. Dubbing themselves the Vagabonds, the adventurers attracted journalists, film crews and even President Warren Harding for one trip.

The conjoined Fort Myers estates today draw a quarter-million annual visitors. Edison and lab assistants planted some of the massive trees (banyan and Mysore fig) in their search for natural rubber sources. The famed inventor used the samples and instruments on display in the lab. Orchids growing up trees and in gardens represent the same flowers that Thomas and his wife, Mina, found in the Everglades.

Palms and jungle-like foliage cradle the Edison and Ford Winter Estates historic site in Fort Myers. Photo: Courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.

Surrounding the site, a metro of 700,000 now booms with travelers following the lead of the two Midwest heroes. They seek baseball spring training, manatees and sunshine. Downtown, marquees for Edison Theatre and Ford's Garage burger bar glow above open-air dining and live bands. And for active types, it's still a gateway to the largest U.S. swath of subtropical wilderness (roughly the size of New Jersey). Venture beyond Edison and Ford's backyard to find it.

Historic River District in Fort Myers. Photo: Courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.

Soak It Up

In southwest Florida, Fort Myers is a hub for the arts, modern comforts and exotic encounters. Follow the crowd or explore beyond the tourist grid.

Play

Music Walk Time a trip for the third Friday of the month to witness a music takeover in the historic River District downtown. Streets close for more than a dozen acts, including jazz ensembles, island bands and buskers.

Repertory Theatre In this same building, Ford and Edison once watched some of the earliest films, thanks to Edison's kinetograph. Today, actors from New York and other cities set up residence in Fort Myers to perform intimate plays on two stages.

Repertory Theatre. Photo: Courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.

MLB Spring Training Get tickets well in advance for the Red Sox at JetBlue Park at Fenway South, featuring a replica of the team's Boston ballfield. Ten miles away, CenturyLink Sports Complex is the late-winter home for the Minnesota Twins.

Joe Mauer signs autographs at CenturyLink Sports Complex. Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images.

Manatee Park Lee County's Manatee Park in Fort Myers draws a special winter crowd. Wild manatees (often more than 100) fill a warm canal beside a power plant. Stick to the boardwalk, or rent a kayak to join the once-endangered creatures in the water.

Manatees gather in warmer canals during winter months in Florida. Photo: Courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.

Edison and Ford Winter Estates Open daily for self-guided and historian-led tours, the 21-acre historical site features the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, Edison's lab, a museum, and many colorful acres of botanical gardens.

Eat

Food Truck Rally In an industrial park close to JetBlue stadium, Fort Myers Brewing hosts Food Truck Rally on Thursdays. It still feels like a locals' secret. Pro tip: The food and live music kick off at 4 p.m, right around the ninth inning for
a typical afternoon ball game.

Food Truck Rally. Photo: Courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.

Pinchers The Marina at Edison Ford Next to the estates, grab a dockside seat for fresh oysters and other seafood. Upstairs you'll find a cold case of crab and fish, plus walls covered in trophy sport fish. A generous two-for-one happy hour runs from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Green Cup Organic Cafe Fresh juices and wraps make this a delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner spot. Try the vegan Yogi Wrap, loaded with tempeh, sprouts, hummus and kale. Outside, string lights, potted plants and palms decorate the courtyard.

Stay

Hotel IndigoA rooftop bar and pool crown this eight-story downtown hotel. In the attached historic Post Office Arcade building, Rebel Coffee Roastery and Tea Lounge serves a big selection of teas and breakfast in a sun-filled space.

Do the Everglades

Tod Dahlke and his Tour the Glades guides lead visitors along water trails south of Naples. Kayakers get up close with wildlife on half-day jaunts or multiday camping trips. Try an airboat excursion for more of a thrill-ride experience.

Near Everglades City,Port of the Islands is an old-school, Spanish-style inn with a safari feel. Comfy rooms put you minutes away from trips into the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands.

Photo: Getty Images.

To learn more and plan a trip, visit fortmyers-sanibel.com.

Tip: Allegiant Air regularly sells tickets between Midwest cities and Punta Gorda/Fort Myers airport for less than $100.

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