BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. – With a championship tee slope/rating of 77.6/153, Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Corkscrew Golf Club may be the toughest course I've played in Florida.
But after navigating 36 holes here on a sunny, balmy day in early January, all I could think about was that Old Corkscrew may be the quietest play I've ever experienced in the Sunshine State.
Located in Lee County between Naples and Fort Myers, Old Corkscrew highlights a part of the state with bountiful, natural appeal. Stay south of the county's largest cities, Cape Coral and Fort Myers, and development is vastly reduced, while nature preserves and green corridors, not to mention a wealth of golf courses, abound.
Old Corkscrew is set beside a 16,000-acre nature preserve, void of any surrounding residential or commercial buildings. No matter what set of tees you play, you'll be taking on a sophisticated set of Nicklaus-designed greens that yield plenty of tough pin positions that dangle over water hazards and deep bunkers. It's so quiet out here, the splunk of a wet golf ball seems to echo throughout the entire 275-acre property.
Closer toward the gulf coast, the top public-access rival in the neighborhood is in Bonita Springs at Raptor Bay Golf Club. Within a whiff of the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve and steps from the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort, gulf breezes and birdlife soar overhead. Opened in 2001 and designed by Ray Floyd, most greens are raised and multi-tiered - and fast. But most unique element to the design is there are zero traditional bunkers, only larger, waste areas that swarm green surrounds.
Across the street from Raptor Bay is The Colony Country Club, which offers a more traditional Florida-style design but with wall-to-wall paspalum turf that's a joy to hit off. But as swanky as the new clubs in southwest Florida are, a taste of the old school can be found in the heart of Fort Myers at Fort Myers Country Club. Minutes from the historic Thomas Edison and Henry Ford Estates, this Donald Ross-designed classic was a haven for the elite in its heyday. Today, it's a city-operated course that attracts 200-plus golfers daily.
Despite the fact there are countless championship-caliber clubs in the immediate vicinity, it's still home to one of the area's more prestigious events, the Coors Light Open, which will host the 51st staging this spring. Featuring a field of top area amateurs and pros, the near-100 year old course still shows its teeth, thanks largely to small, crowned greens. Such winners of this city institution include Dana Quigley and Lee Janzen.
After golf sporting events: Boston Red Sox spring training and the Florida Everblades
Southwest Florida's peak golf season coincides with baseball spring training. In Fort Myers, the Boston Red Sox have a brand new home, JetBlue Park at Fenway South. It's one of the MLB's largest spring ballparks, seating up to 11,000 fans and even has its own 'Green Monster' in left field.
If you're not in town during spring training but still want live sports, Ft. Myers added a new ECHL hockey team, the Florida Everblades, that has a strong local following. Or, for gambling, you can head to the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Racing and Poker in Bonita Springs.
Stay and play in Bonita Springs: Hyatt Regency Coconut Point
Golf is so close to the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point you can see it from your guest room, not to mention gorgeous views of Estero Bay beyond the fairways. Guests at the 451-room resort receive preferred rates at Raptor Bay, as well as limited access to private Colony Golf & Country Club. Among resort grounds are a large pool, multiple restaurants, spa and 24-hour fitness center. Guests can also take out complimentary bicycles and kayaks or even boat rentals for exploration.
For something more affordable and closer to the airport, the Holiday Inn Express is a relatively new property with spacious guest rooms full of modern furnishings, plus a bar with daily happy hour. It's also across the street from the Gulf Coast Town Center, which has a collection of restaurants and bars.
In an area where most clubs and resorts are on the fancier side, a real good dive restaurant can be found at the Fish House, which has both indoor and outdoor seating beside a canal, plus a market open during the day if you want to cook your own. The menu has such staples as Lobster tacos or oysters and grouper prepared in a variety of ways. Or, the Fish House will also cook the fish you catch out on the waters should you have a good haul.
For a more elaborate, multi-course meal, make a night out of a dinner at Angelina's Ristorante. The floor-to-ceiling wine tower dominates the center of the restaurant, which warns diners they may need a few minutes to select the perfect bottle or two for the table.
Getting to Lee County
Lee County and Bonita Springs is serviced by Southwest Florida International Airport in Ft. Myers, a large domestic airport that serves most east coast and midwestern domestic hubs as well as Toronto on WestJet.
More travel information to Fort Myers and Sanibel Island can be found at FortMyers-Sanibel.com.