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Shangri-La Springs: There’s Mystery and History Behind the Gates

Jul 14, 2021 04:51PM ● By KATHY MONTGOMERY

What do Al Capone, a sacred Indian water source and the growth of Bonita Springs have in common? Shangri-La Springs, a historic hotel in Bonita Springs that has been a center for hospitality, tranquility, wellness, health and vitality for 100 years.  

The property began as an engine of development for Bonita Springs when it was built by prominent Fort Myers developer Harvie Heitman in 1921 as the Heitman Hotel. With eight acres and 25 rooms, it would accommodate potential buyers of development to the west.  

According to the Bonita Springs Historical Society, in 1920 the population of Bonita Springs was 177 residents, and it featured four miles of paved road and a four-and-a-half-mile shell road to the beach. Bonita Springs was labeled “The Mecca of the Tourist and the Land of Promise for the Settler.” Electric and telephone services were brought into town, streetlights installed, and cattle stops placed at the ends of the roads. 

“Heitman was a smart businessman, so it’s probably not an accident that the road in front of the hotel, Heitman Avenue, eventually became the main highway,” says Charlie Strader, past president and board member of the Bonita Springs Historical Society and narrator of annual walking tours that include Shangri-La Springs.  

The Fort Myers Southern Railway added Bonita Springs to its line in 1922, and the Tamiami Trail, using Heitman Avenue, was completed in 1928, connecting Tampa to Miami.  

While the future development and popularity of Bonita Springs were secured, the Heitman Hotel would see many changes during the years. After the Great Depression, the property was sold to the Haverfields and later to Walter Mack of the Cadillac family, who did extensive renovation and expanded the hotel to 50 rooms, renaming it Bonita Springs Hotel and then Villa Bonita.  

After that, the hotel was acquired by Dr. Charles Gnau, an osteopath interested in the health benefits of the mineral water from the springs. He added a spring-fed pool complete with a statue called the Indian Maiden of the Springs. The natural spring for which the city of Bonita Springs is named is said to date back to the Calusa Indians as a sacred place. 

In 1964, R.J. Cheatham purchased the property. Cheatham was also interested in health practice, particularly natural hygiene. He obtained diplomas in naturopathy, homeopathic medicine, osteopathy life science and metaphysics. He improved the property to provide places for recreation and points of interest conducive to peace of mind. He also renamed the health spa Shangri-La Springs, inspired by the book Lost Horizon by James Hilton.  

In his novel, Hilton described Shangri-La as a paradise on Earth where people could live for hundreds of years. Perhaps it is a desire for such longevity that has attracted famous guests to Shangri-La Springs, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Al Capone, Jackie Gleason and Buddy Hackett. Unconfirmed guests include Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball and Madonna. 

In 1993, Leo Dahlman bought the property with the goal of developing Shangri-La Springs into a first-class health resort. With a background in historic renovation and hotel management, he restored much of the property to its original grandeur. Throughout many of the ownership transitions and renovations, however, the lushly landscaped property with several blocks of Old U.S. 41 frontage sat often behind walls and gates.  

“For decades, one of the most frequent questions asked at the historical society was: ‘What’s going on with Shangri-La?’” Strader says. “There’s a mystery component that gives it allure. It has been open to the public off and on through the years.” 

When the property fell into foreclosure and became available for purchase in 1998, Lama Hana Land Trust bought it with the intent of restoring the important landmark in Bonita Springs into an organic boutique hotel, restaurant and spa. It is also a significant natural site, with Oak Creek flowing through it, a certified organic garden and more than 40 species of trees, including two champion Mysore fig trees.  

It took the trust nine years to obtain organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture before the property reopened with a public event in 2011. Then, storms and challenges of historic renovation stalled some of the plans. 

“With eight acres on a creek, it could have been condos or developed into something else,” Strader says. “That’s the big takeaway—that we still have it there.” 

The pandemic put plans for the organic hotel on pause again, and the organic farm-to-table restaurant that had opened in 2019 closed. Now, as the property celebrates its 100th anniversary, its organic spa is open and property tours can be booked. Yoga and other classes are also offered, and sporadic produce sales, from the on-site organic garden that was to supply the restaurant, share the abundant harvest. Weddings are the most popular activity on the property, with bookings for 2021 outpacing 2019, which was the property’s busiest year for weddings.  

Strader says that curiosity about Shangri-La Springs makes the walking tour very popular. “The atmosphere, the inherent beauty and landscaping create its own character, atmosphere and Old Florida charm,” he says. “People say its peaceful feel is like an oasis.” 

Kathy Montgomery has been writing for more than 30 years about Southwest Florida and the interesting people who live in the region.