Why Fort Myers & Sanibel Make Our Summer Vacation Short List
You'd be forgiven for thinking all Florida destinations are the same. After all, they're just sunshine and palm trees, right?
The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel on the southwest coast of the Sunshine State offer a laid-back alternative to an action-packed, thrill-ride vacation. In places like Captiva, Sanibel and Matlacha, you won't even find a traffic light, and the bikes and golf carts may outnumber the cars on the two-lane roads.
Families return here year after year for the sunsets, the seashells and the seclusion. Read on to discover why your family should get in on the fun.
This is the country's best spot for shells
There's much ado about the shells in this region -- and for good reason. The east-west beaches of Sanibel and Captiva islands intercept the Gulf and Caribbean currents and the shells come along for the ride. This isn't like a regular beach, where there are shells scattered here and there on the sand -- the beaches here are literally blanketed with shells in pristine condition.
You'll be tempted to join others doing the "Sanibel Stoop" and the "Captiva Crouch" in pursuit of the perfect shell. (Note to the wise: To find the best shells, arrive early and go at low tide.) Join the throngs on the beach celebrating the second annual National Seashell Day on June 21.
If you're headed on a shelling safari, look for the "Sanibel 6." Banded tulips, lightning whelks, lettered olives, alphabet cones, lace murexes and Florida fighting conches are among the many types washing up on shore.
The best place for shells is on the Blind Pass Beach between Sanibel and Captiva; at low tide, you can wade out into pools and sandbars about 50 yards out and find tons of shells. (If you're hungry after all that shelling, don some nice clothes for dinner and head to The Mad Hatter for dishes like black grouper and black truffle sea scallops.)
If that's not enough for you, head to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel, which offers more than 30 permanent exhibits and is open daily. Admission is free for kids under 5 and active military members. You can get half off museum admission when you sign up for a morning walk on the beach with their marine biologist.
The water is where it's at
Florida's west coast borders the Gulf of Mexico, which makes for calmer waters than its Atlantic side. Warm water plus smaller waves creates great beaches for families and a wonderful spot for swimming, snorkeling and diving.
In 2012, the USS Mohawk was purposely sunk 30 miles offshore from Redfish Pass, which separates Captiva Island from North Captiva Island. The ship is now a reef and diving attraction. It's the first military vessel dedicated as a planned memorial reef to all U.S. veterans.
Those who prefer to do water sports closer to the shore still have their choice of activities like kayaking and paddleboarding as well as the more futuristic water-propelled jet packs and Flyboards in Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Captiva Island.
There are 190 miles of paddling trails
The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail meanders through 190 miles of back bay waters and inland tributaries of the Fort Myers and Sanibel area and is navigable for beginners or more experienced paddlers. This marked canoe and kayak trail ranges from the southern end of Estero Bay all the way to the northern end of Pine Island.
Along with some amazing bird-watching, you might find yourself cruising along with a manatee or dolphin. Request a free trail guide map.
Two wheels are one of the best ways to get around
Biking is popular in the region, thanks to 25 miles of bike paths on Sanibel, 90 miles of trails in Cape Coral and seven miles of the hard-packed sand on Fort Myers Beach. Both Cape Coral and Sanibel Island have been designated as bicycle-friendly communities, thanks to paths that snake through nature preserves, marinas and main roads.
Those looking for a tougher route can check out Caloosahatchee Regional Park, where your route includes pine flatwoods, oak hammocks -- and local wildlife like gopher tortoises, red-shouldered hawks and migratory birds such as swallow-tailed kites.
No need to pack your bicycle -– businesses like Billy's Rentals on Sanibel will lend you some wheels.
It's an angler's paradise
From March through June, fishermen arrive in Boca Grande Pass, the opening between Cayo Costa and Gasparilla Island, for the tarpon, a game fish prized because it puts up a good fight. This is where tarpon fishing got its start in the 1880s, and this area is still considered the Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World.
Don't expect to see tarpon on the menus here though -- according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, tarpon are not eaten, but rather caught and then released.
There are other fish to fry, so to speak, in the region. Whether you're a fishing pro or novice, there are plenty of inshore, offshore, saltwater or freshwater options. And if you don't feel like jumping on a boat, some of the best fishing can be done right off local bridges and piers, such as Matlacha Pass Bridge between Pine Island and Cape Coral -- also known as the "world's fishingest bridge."
At a number of local restaurants, if you hook it, they'll cook it. Bring your catch of the day to places like The Fish Monger in Fort Myers Beach, The Nauti Mermaid in Cape Coral and The Fish House in Fort Myers, Sanibel and Bonita Springs.
An old fishing town is now an artists' enclave
Matlacha (pronounced mat-la-SHAY) was a fishing village until 1992, when gill nets were banned. Artists moved into the inexpensive location and, together with long-time residents, worked to preserve the ambiance. This small-town atmosphere continues to attract anglers today who enjoy fishing from the Matlacha Pass Bridge.
Less than 800 people currently live in this two-lane-road town, where little wooden houses are painted vivid tropical colors. Check out Wild Child Art Gallery and Leoma Lovegrove Gallery & Gardens to see local art inspired by the region.
There's a wild side to Sanibel
Sanibel Island is home to the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which consists of over 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes and West Indian hardwood hammocks. Part of one of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in America, this nature preserve offers trails for hiking and biking, but you can also explore it by kayak or standup paddleboard.
Keep your eyes peeled -- or bring some binoculars -- to catch a glimpse of more than 200 bird species that call this area home.
Loggerhead sea turtle hatching season begins in May on the area beaches, but you'll need to keep your distance if you want to witness the beaches crawling with baby turtles at night. Don't use any flashlights (or your smartphone), as artificial light draws the baby turtles away from the water.
It's the home of some pretty smart people
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were next-door neighbors in Fort Myers, and the grounds of their former residences are now open to the public. Located next to the Caloosahatchee River, the 20-acre Edison and Ford Winter Estates contain gardens, the Edison Ford Museum full of inventions and artifacts and the Edison Botanic Research Lab.
Families will want to try the Young Inventors' Tour, where participants will be part of an assembly line, play a phonograph and make rubber, offered at 11 a.m. on Saturdays ($12 for adults; $5 for kids 6-12; free for kids under 6).
You can try the original cheeseburger in paradise
As remote as Sanibel and Captiva Islands may feel, you can find even more privacy by going the extra miles to the outer islands that dot the Gulf of Mexico. You'll need a boat, because where you're going, there are no roads (or bridges).
At Cabbage Key, located in the waters between Pine Island and Cayo Costa, 100 acres of tropical vegetation surround a historic restaurant, inn and rental cottages. The restaurant is positively covered in autographed dollar bills hanging from its ceiling and walls, and it is rumored to have inspired Jimmy Buffet's "Cheeseburger in Paradise."
You've no doubt eaten on the beach at some point, but on Captiva Island, there is a food "cart" of sorts that lands on shore. Joey's Hot Dog Boat sells ice cream, frozen candy bars, chips, water, soda and, of course, hot dogs. It's cash-only though, so make sure to have more than sand dollars in your pockets.
Sunsets can be the highlight of the day
You might hear talk of "the Green Flash" when you're in the Fort Myers and Sanibel area, particularly as dusk descends. That's not a new superhero movie, but rather a green burst of light that flashes for a moment when the sun sets below the horizon over the Gulf.
One popular place for spotting this is at the Mucky Duck, a beachfront restaurant on Captiva, so get there by 3 p.m. to stake out your spot (and get parking).
The best part is that if you miss it or want to experience it again, you only have to wait until the next day.