I stumbled on Shangri-la Springs, a hotel originally opened in 1921, while planning a visit to kayak the Imperial River and explore old Bonita Springs.
Old Bonita Springs? you ask. It would be easy to miss.
If you’ve driven through Bonita Springs, you’ve probably been on four-lane U.S. 41, which looks like all of urban South Florida – newish commercial development, same-everywhere stores, and gated housing developments for mile after mile after mile.
U.S. 41, however, changed its route 45 years ago, leaving Old 41 through Bonita Springs behind.
As a result, Shangri-la Springs and a few other Old Florida gems have survived on Old 41 and are now part of a renaissance in this one-mile stretch of two-lane road.
There are now coffee shops, restaurants, a cocktail bar, as well as other survivors, including the revived Everglades Wonder Gardens, an old-roadside attraction that opened in 1936.
Shangri-la Springs today
If you’ve driven down Old 41 over the years, you might have missed Shangri-la Springs. Until late fall 2023, it was hidden behind a wall. Today, the splendid white hotel and its magnificent grounds are easy to admire from the street.
The Shangri-la Springs is a boutique hotel with only eight rooms, but it is located on 8.5 acres of landscaped grounds, with champion trees, the original Bonita Spring spouting through a fountain, ponds, statues and Oak Creek wrapping around it. There is a farm-to-table organic restaurant and a spa too.
While the rooms aren’t cheap, starting at $189 in summer and going to $499 for the two-bedroom suite, you can visit experience Shangri-la Springs without staying there. In fact, management welcomes it.
The grounds of Shangri-la Springs are open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to general manager Lee Bellamy. After 4 p.m., the idyllic gardens are reserved for hotel guests and those attending special events there.
You also can enjoy Shangri-la Springs by having breakfast or lunch at Harvest & Wisdom, where the quality of food is excellent and prices are typical of nice restaurants. It’s open for breakfast and lunch five days a week.
There is an organic garden that is adjacent (across Oak Creek), which provides many of the fruits and vegetables for the restaurant. You can take a one-hour tour of the garden at 10 a.m. Tuesdays for a $15 fee. For more information or to schedule a tour, call 239-949-0749.
The spa at Shangri-la Springs is popular with day visitors or you can join several types of yoga classes and meditation classes.
Events for public includes seasonal Thursday market days where they sell organic produce from the garden, monthly artist markets and concerts on the lawn. Here’s the calendar.
It also has excellent space for weddings and special events.
The history of Shangri-la Springs
Over a 100 years ago, the city was called Survey because a survey team discovered the spring now on the grounds of what is now Shangri-la Springs. The river was originally called Surveyor’s Creek. But the usual land-boom mania inspired folks to rename the town Bonita Springs and give the creek the grand name of Imperial River.
Bonita Springs was built around the railroad tracks and the original U.S. 41, which brought travelers into Florida in the 1920s.
One of the earliest surviving buildings in the area is the Shangri-la Springs hotel, built in 1921 by Gilmer Heitman. The Heitman Hotel, as it was called, had 25 rooms and his business model was to give people a place to stay while they bought land and waited for their housing to be built.
Through economic ups and downs, the hotel changed hands several times. Several of the owners were intrigued by the supposed health benefits of the spring water. (One wonders; it does have a tell-tale rotten egg smell.) As a result, it was developed as a health-oriented resort.
Over the years, the appeal of health and healing brought many celebrities, including, it is said, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Al Capone, Henry Ford, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball and Elizabeth Taylor.
In 1963, the property was sold to Dr. R.J. Cheatham, who changed the name to Shangri-La (the paradise described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon). Cheatham developed the hotel into an institute devoted to the practices of natural hygiene, which is based on a belief that health comes from nutrition, exercise, rest, and other natural methods.
The next owner continued down the path of creating a health resort, but the property fell into foreclosure.
It was purchased in 1998 by its current owner Lama Hana Trust, a conservation organization. (The man behind Lama Hana is a Naples computer-security entrepreneur and environmentalist, but I only know that from other news accounts. The property prefers to just reference Lama Hana Trust.)
Lama Hana Trust has made multi-million-dollar investments in upgrading the property over the years and seems focused on preserving the historic facility and making it useful to the community. (It appears Bonita Springs was very lucky to have the property in their hands.)
A major setback was damage from Hurricane Ian in 2022.
Only recently were the majority of the hotel rooms re-opened after the storm required major overhauls. When we stayed here in January, 2024, the front desk staff person said we were probably the second people to spend a night in that room.
Staying at Shangri-la Springs
We stayed in one of six rooms in Villa Ascona, a motel-like building behind the main hotel. The rooms aren’t huge, but they have king-sized beds with luxury organic linens and towels, new bathrooms, small refrigerators and a desk.
What’s specials is that each room opens to private patio with tables and chairs. Villa Ascona rooms go for $189 in the summer and as much as $399 on Saturday nights in winter.
In the main hotel, there are two guest suites with either three or four rooms including two bedrooms each. These suites are priced in the $400-$500 range. The second floor is not open to the public and has yet to be upgraded to modern standards. (Manager Bellamy says investment in the upstairs is a few years off.)
Our room was very comfortable but what’s amazing is wandering the grounds of the hotel. It is full of beautiful views and magnificent trees, including a championship Mysore fig tree (commonly called a ficus tree.)
The old swimming pool doesn’t meet code and is called a “water feature.” There’s no swimming but it is preserved for its ambiance and historic value.
It’s not the only water feature. There’s the mermaid fountain that spouts spring water and a pond with a fountain where you can sit in lawn chairs under a large shade tree, among others.
We picked up a copy of the Shangri-la Springs Scavenger Hunt in the lobby – obviously meant for children but, hey, we loved it – and it illustrates all the things you can spot. A few examples: Find all five fountains. Find three fish statues and two turtle statues. Find the Chinese dollhouses. (We never did.)
We had breakfast at the Harvest & Wisdom restaurant. The banana pancakes ($15) were unusual and delicious. The quiche of the day ($15; butternut squash and brie) was one of the best I’ve ever had.
We’d come back someday for lunch, which offers soup, salads, sandwiches and burgers, including a black bean and oat vegan burger. There is also a selection of desserts. I wish I had tried the mango beignets!
We didn’t try any of the spa services, but you can arrange massages, facials, body treatments and many variations on those experiences. Manager Bellamy says it is sold out almost every day and has six therapists, eight treatment rooms, a suana room, steam room and locker rooms. Locals and vacations keep it busy even in summer, he says.
Exploring Old Bonita Springs
Old Bonita Springs makes a great weekend getaway. Old 41 is fun to explore, with a few shops and cafes. It’s clear from work in progress that much is being added, and I expect this area will fill up with appealing places to visit and shop, getting even better in the next few years.
We had a delicious dinner at The Bohemian Restaurant, 27975 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs, FL 34135. It has beautiful spaces both indoors and out. Everything we ordered was five stars. We walked there from Shangri-la Springs. The owners also have an excellent coffee shop and wine bar on Old 41, Downtown Coffee and Wine, 27546 Old 41 Road.
A walk in the other direction takes you to Everglades Wonder Gardens, 27180 Old 41 Road, which was more interesting and beautiful than we expected. The gorgeous orchids and exotic birds alone are worth the $12 adult ticket. My favorite was the pond with two resident flamingos. A flock of wild ibises flew in for a visit. There’s a lot packed into a relatively small space here.
Of course, the reason we visited Old Bonita Springs in the first place is the Imperial River. You can rent or launch a kayak right from Riverside Park on Old 41. It’s a beautiful paddle upstream through a shaded canopy of lush trees with Old Florida homes tucked amid the vegetation, lots of birds and turtles and, if you’re lucky, a few manatees. It’s a perfect paddle for a few hours over a weekend visit. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on kayaking the Imperial River.
Three miles east of Old 41 is one of the best “secret” beaches in Florida — a county preserve called Barefoot Beach, which has been named one of the best beaches in the U.S.
Note: To achieve its Blue Zone rating, there is no wifi, and cell phone signals are not very strong at the property. (The front desk staff person says that’s good motivation to put your phone away.) Because of the Blue Zone rating, the facility has no microwave or convection stoves either.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.