By Chelle Koster Walton

Surrounded by glowing destination neighbors such as Sanibel Island and Fort Myers, Cape Coral sometimes gets overlooked.

But that’s about to change in a major way, in part because of the recent christening of Southwest Florida’s first Westin property, with all the luxe and attention to detail that connotes.

What to do in Cape Coral, Florida and why should I visit, you ask?

Understandable. Up until 1957, it was known commonly as “the other side of the river,” because that’s where Cape Coral lies in relation to Fort Myers’ perch on the southern banks of the Caloosahatchee.

Personalities such as the late designer Lilly Pulitzer, millionaire quail-hunting preserve owner Ogden Phipps, and colorful fishing guide “Fingers” O’Bannon figured into Cape Coral history before it became one of the most ambitious development projects in the state and its third-largest city by acreage.

Mostly residential in nature, Cape Coral began in the 1980s  to emerge as a tourism destination with a reputation for its rose gardens and endearing, pint-size burrowing owls.

Those very owls flashed a brief spotlight on the town, in fact, when one of Florida’s best-selling authors, Carl Hiaasen, based his first young adult novel, Hoot, in a fictional town modeled after “the Cape,” as locals call it. Moviemakers later turned Hoot into a film starring Luke Wilson.

Cape Coral Activities

Meanwhile, Sun Splash Family Water Park and a growing little history museum added to the attractions list. The Cape Coral Historical Museum commemorates the town’s past with rose gardens and exhibits depicting bygone eras. One replicates the ground nest of the burrowing owl.

There's also the Southwest Florida Miltary Museum & Library, which honors the military and preseves and displays military artifacts and memorabilia to educate the public.

Lacking the beaches of its neighboring islands, the watersports crowd looking for what to do in Cape Coral, Florida should look to its riverfront vistas. Cape Coral Yacht Club Park is headquarters for fishing, boating, beaching, and swimming in its pool. It is ground zero for the annual lighted Christmas boat parade, one of the area’s first, started in 1977.

Kayakers and hikers head to Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve, a newer city park with nature and paddling trails and kayak rentals.

With the boom of the 1990s, Cape Coral gained steam as high-rise developments arose along its marinas. Cape Harbour enhanced the town’s dining scene, known previously for its Italian and Latin restaurants, with waterfront new-American cuisine restaurants Rumrunners and The Joint.

Then in 2009, MarinaVillage added an 18-story upscale resort with a spa, waterfront dining and generous watersports option. What a glory for Cape Coral, which was at about the same time shining up its main thoroughfare, Cape Coral Parkway, in an effort to create a cohesive downtown atmosphere where farmers markets, live music, and art festivals would fill the calendar and streets.

With the economy’s nosedive, the Resort at MarinaVillage stalled in its track. That’s where Westin entered, bringing its “heavenly” industry standard-setters and earning the property a AAA four-diamond rating.

“We did a girls’ weekend at the Westin recently, and it was awesome,” said MaryBeth Greenplate, a Sanibel Island mother. “Its condos are huge and really gorgeous. We hated to leave. I had no idea this existed in Cape Coral.”

Another shot in the arm could only boost Cape Coral’s ascendancy on tourism ladders. It came in the form of a shot of rum and the tale of a mischievous dolphin.

Wicked Dolphin Artisanal Rum opened off the corridor of Pine Island Road, which connects Interstate 75 to the artist-buzz hamlet of Matlacha on Pine Island, a tropical fruit farming setting. New restaurants and shopping clusters have been filling in the space in years past, restaurants like Crazy Olive, which gives a new twist to the Cape’s Italianista reputation.

Also on the restaurant scene, downtown Fort Myers’ Ford’s Garage, purveyor of gourmet burgers and craft beer, is being cloned along Cape Coral Parkway. Peruvian restaurants join traditional Cuban and Mexican eateries to hype the exotic flair.

Maybe not the foodie mecca of Miami or even Naples, but Cape Coral boasts its own distinctive small-town style. Wicked Dolphin distillery owner Joann Elardo mentions one of her favorites – off-the-beaten-path Brew Babies, where owners make jazz music and imaginative dishes with equal aplomb.

Elardo has plans to grow the tourism aspect of her new operation. Shortly after she opened in 2013, locals and visitors found her, asking for tours of her copper-still craft-rum operation – the largest of such in Florida. A new state law means she can now sell two bottles of house-made liquor per adult customer.

“It’s huge for distillery tourism in Florida,” she said. “It makes it more profitable to do tastings. We now plan to expand our line from our silver rum, which has won national awards, to a spiced rum and vodka infused with Florida flavors.”

What to do in Cape Coral, Florida you ask? Now you know.