Discovering a Different Side of Florida
So many Americans looking for a domestic beach escape are headed to Florida this year. But not all Sunshine State experiences are built the same. Tucked in the Southwest corner of the state is The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, where you'll find more manatees and mangroves than million-dollar mansions, where sand dollars (and other seashells) are the currency of choice for beachgoers and where "island time" is a thing, whether you're on one of the outer islands or the mainland.
We asked travel content creator Leah Shoup (@LeahShoup) to explore this spot with her mother Becky recently during four sun-drenched days. Read on for her biggest discoveries (and best shots) from their trip, then start making plans for a getaway of your own.
"This was not the Florida experience I was used to."
An Atlanta native, Leah has been to Florida "dozens of times"—but after returning from her first trip to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, she said it was much different than the other places she'd visited in the state.
"This was so low-key and chill," she said, mentioning that most of the beaches weren't lined with high-rise resorts and that even though she visited in peak season, there was plenty of space to stretch out and do your thing. "I loved the small beach town vibe."
Blessed with a gorgeous stretch of sunshine during her four-day visit, Leah and her mother spent a lot of time outside: kayaking in Lovers Key State Park, dining alfresco at every chance, venturing out to the unspoiled Cayo Costa State Park for a relaxing beach day, window-shopping boutiques in the Fort Myers River District and checking out the lighthouse on Sanibel Island.
One of her favorite spots was the small town of Matlacha (pronounced Mat-LA-SHAY), located on a small spit of land between the mainland and Pine Island. "There's one main street, filled with art galleries and cafés—and everything is painted a vibrant color," Leah described.
Never one to turn down a unique place to stay, Leah and her mother spent their first night in one of the brightly colored tiny homes at the Matlacha Tiny Village. "It was adorable," Leah said, suggesting that it would be a great place to stay with a group of friends or a family reunion. "You can walk from there to all of the art galleries, great lunch spots, even ice cream."
In addition to snacking on Queenie's ice cream, a local delicacy (Leah suggests the salted caramel), she and her mom visited several art galleries, including their favorite, Leoma Lovegrove. "There were pops of color everywhere you looked," she noted.
"It's great for any age to visit."
Leah has traveled with her mother everywhere from Canada to the Caribbean, and particularly enjoyed the mother-daughter bonding time in Fort Myers and Sanibel. "This was definitely a trip for the both of us," Leah said, "we are beach buffs, history buffs and we love nature and animals."
Her mother also pointed out benefits of the destination that Leah wouldn't have noticed. For example, her mom appreciated the easy walk and shade from the Florida sun while exploring the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, one of several natural preserves and parks in the area. "It was flat, with a raised boardwalk through the trees," Leah explained. "You could spend hours here and still have more to see. We saw all sorts of birds."
In addition to being accessible to travelers across all ages and abilities, Leah and her mother appreciated that this spot was such an easy trip from Atlanta—a quick 90-minute hop to the Southwest Florida International Airport. It's one of 51 nonstops to this rapidly expanding airport, which has recently added new direct flights from Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit and Kansas City.
"Usually you need a passport and have to fly four or more hours to have an experience like this," said Leah, comparing The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel to a Caribbean destination. "We both loved that it's so close and easy to visit."
"The beaches are incredible."
Not surprisingly for a Florida getaway, their four days in Fort Myers and Sanibel were full of beach time—catching the sunset on Fort Myers Beach, looking for seashells on Sanibel Island and exploring Cayo Costa State Park, an uninhabited barrier island located about four miles off the coast.
Cayo Costa is only accessible by boat, so Leah and her mother packed some Publix sandwiches and caught the Tropic Star Cruises water taxi to the island from a marina on Pine Island for a beach day. "You can bring snacks, chairs, a cooler, even bikes on the boat—anything you need for a day at the beach," Leah noted, adding that the crew loads and unloads your gear, and a truck will take you to the beach once you arrive so that you're not lugging your stuff around.
"It truly feels like you're on a deserted island, but in a good way," Leah said, mentioning that a small concession rents bicycles and other supplies for the nearby campground. "We thought we'd have nothing to do, but it was so rare having a beach in Florida almost all to yourself. It was so relaxing to walk up and down the beach with barely anyone there."
"Cayo Costa is one of the best places to go shelling in the area," she said. "Since it's secluded, there aren't many other people there with you and there's an entire area where the shore is seashells." In fact, there are so many seashells that she suggests bringing water shoes to walk on the beach. "We came across a jetty that was entirely seashells and found the biggest shells of the whole trip here."
In addition to the experience of being on such an idyllic beach, Leah recommends getting out on the water. "It's such a boater's paradise." Cayo Costa is one of several so-called outer islands, including Cabbage Key, North Captiva and Useppa Island, which are accessible only by boat. "Our boat captain Joe was so knowledgeable and entertaining and went out of his way to find manatees on our way back from Cayo Costa."
"But it's so much more than a beach."
Not ones for sitting still in beach chairs, Leah and her mother kept exploring around the area.
After spending one night at the new Luminary Hotel & Co. with a view of the Caloosahatchee River in downtown Fort Myers, they spent a morning walking around the Fort Myers River District, checking out art installations and boutiques along the way. Leah suggests booking a guided tour with True Tours in advance, whether that's a haunted history tour, a day tour or their seasonal "Fabulous Females of Fort Myers, Then and Now" tour.
Time your trip to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel to include a Friday night. The Art Walk takes places on the first Friday of every month and features local artists and galleries, while the month's third Friday has the Music Walk, filling the River District with live music.
One of Leah's favorite activities was a true farm-to-table dining experience at Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm in North Fort Myers. "Arrive early before your reservation so you have time to explore the farm," she suggests. "You can see Rosy's pigs, cattle, chickens, ducks and more. We watched a momma pig feed her piglets. It was so cool. I mean, who thinks they are going to see farm animals when they visit Florida?"
"We had a wild time finding the wildlife."
After an overnight stay at the upscale Pink Shell Resort on Fort Myers Beach, Leah and her mom spent a morning kayaking through the estuary in Lovers Key State Park. They booked a guided tour with Lovers Key Adventures, and followed their guide Steven, who brought his dog along on his paddleboard as the group explored the area. "We learned all about the wildlife in the area and the value of the park as a safe space for sea animals," Leah said. "We saw a family of dolphins, manatees, tarpon and even an alligator."
Leah described the experience as "so chill being out on the water. We would listen for bubbles to find the manatees."
If you are more ambitious, kayaking excursions are available to Mound Key, once the ceremonial center of the Calusa Indians, with shell mounds rising 30 feet above the mangrove forest. Visitors to Lovers Key State Park can also rent kayaks to explore independently, enjoy biking or hiking trails, or just settle in for a beach day on the two-mile-long beach.
"We were always discovering something new."
Whether it was discovering new shells on the beach or seeing osprey in her nest on Sanibel, there was seemingly always something new to see for Leah on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. And as a photographer, she was in her element. "It's so picturesque, and the landscape was already perfect," she described. "I just needed to show up and take the picture. It fit so perfectly with what I enjoy shooting."
For Leah and her mother, part of that discovery was also the food they enjoyed on the trip. When traveling, they gravitate toward smaller "mom and pop" restaurants, especially to support local businesses during the pandemic.
One such find was Fancy's Southern Cafe in Fort Myers. "The location is unassuming. It's in a shopping center, but you walk inside and it's a totally different vibe than you would expect," described Leah, who found the spot on Instagram. To put this gourmet Southern to the test, she ordered a staple of the South—chicken and waffles—and was hooked by the caramel-flavored syrup. "It was the best syrup I've ever tasted, almost like something you'd put on ice cream.
"I've eaten Southern food in Savannah and Charleston, and this was just as good."
Then there was the coffee they grabbed to go at The Perfect Cup in Matlacha before their Cayo Costa beach day. "They roast their own coffee there and it's some of the best coffee I've ever had," Leah remembered. "The whole trip we kept figuring out how we could go back for another cup."
Throughout their trip, Leah and her mother ate well—whether it was crab cakes and craft cocktails like "An Afternoon in France" (Grey Goose, Chambord, sour mix, simple syrup & Champagne) at the upscale Coste Island Cuisine, seafood with water views at Matanzas on the Bay (get the stuffed seafood) or a simple bacon, egg and cheese on a fluffy biscuit at the quaint female-owned Heavenly Biscuits before a kayaking adventure.
One more discovery happened on their final day, when they drove over the causeway to Sanibel Island to see the Sanibel Lighthouse. Leah calls it a "must-visit" spot. "It's unlike any other lighthouse I've ever seen, and the surrounding area is filled with wildlife and pristine beaches," she said. "The water here was so turquoise—it felt like we could be in the Caribbean."
"Don't miss a sunset."
Leah scheduled her days so that she wouldn't miss out on one of Southwest Florida's biggest draws—the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. All along The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, sunset is a big deal, drawing crowds to the coast to watch the sun disappear against a pastel-painted backdrop and cotton-candy clouds.
During their four days in this part of Florida, Leah and her mother saw three sunsets from three vantage points—sipping sundowners from the rooftop bar of the Luminary Hotel & Co. in downtown Fort Myers, with their toes in the sand at Bowditch Point Park on Fort Myers Beach, and enjoying the catch of the day at the Tarpon Lodge looking out over Pine Island Sound.
When asked to pick a favorite, Leah demurred as if she was being asked to pick a favorite child. One sunset was "incredible," the other was "spectacular," and the third was a "perfect spot." Which one is which? Well, that's for you to discover when you visit yourself.