Meet Your Family's New Favorite Beaches
No offense to summer camp, but The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel beat it at its own game. The short list of fun-in-the-sun offerings includes kayaking or paddleboarding past manatees, cruising on pirate ships, shelling along nearly empty shores -- and watching for the fabled green flash at sunset -- virgin or rum-tastic daiquiri in hand.
And the area is now easier than ever to reach, with 50 direct flights, both domestic and international. It’s also accessible on another front: You’ll find plenty of affordable stays in everything from rentals to resorts.
Read on for a closer look at seven local lures.
Most of the 50 nonstop flights to Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) are domestic, with new weekly options from Denver and Rochester, and new daily ones from Columbus.
And getting around the area is as easy as getting to it, even once you throw a few islands into the mix. Trolleys operate on Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs and Sanibel Island, while North Captiva Island has water taxis. Of course, there are also bikes, scooters and golf carts for rent.
Accessible pricewise as well, The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel are home to an epic assortment of affordable vacation rental condos and small inns, and even the bigger resorts tend to offer kitchen-equipped rooms that allow for eating in.
The beachy watersports
One of the best things about kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding through manatee and dolphin territory? The very real possibility that these guys will wind up chaperoning you for at least part of your ride, as you'll find in the 190-mile Great Calusa Blueway. Weaving through mangroves, Lovers Key State Park, Estero Bay and beyond, this trail of coastal waters and inland tributaries is navigable for beginners but still fun for experienced paddlers.
If being in the water is more your speed, consider the 21 artificial reefs beyond the shore. Though built to create new habitats and spawning grounds for local marine life (goliath grouper, orange-mouthed tomtates and mohawked hogfish, among others) this network also provides amazing diving ops for humans, who can charter boats for the occasion.
The inland wonders
It’s not just the coast that dazzles here; the inland areas pack wonders all their own. For starters, there’s the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, a 3,400-acre wetland in Fort Myers that includes boardwalk trails and a butterfly garden. Home to a diverse population of animals -- from otters to alligators to turtles -- the refuge exists thanks to a group of dedicated high school students in the 1970s who fought to save the land from development. Then there’s Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, where a 2.25-mile boardwalk leads you through pine flatwoods, wet prairie, and the continent's largest old growth Bald Cypress forest. Note that fellow visitors to the sanctuary may include alligators, otters, white-tailed deer, red-bellied turtles and the adorable painted bunting (picture a rainbow-dipped cardinal).
Not to be outdone, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge packs more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes and West Indian hardwood hammocks. Little wonder, then, that you can spot almost 300 bird species here, whether from the hiking and biking trails, or the kayaking and stand-up paddleboard routes.
Thanks to Gulf and Caribbean currents, the east-west beaches of Sanibel and Captiva Islands are shell central, with shorelines often blanketed in bivalves (among others). Hunting for just the right specimen falls somewhere between meditative and addictive -- so don’t be surprised at how quickly your family members perfect the “Sanibel Stoop” and “Captiva Crouch” in pursuit of their spoils. The one rule everyone should bear in mind: No taking shells with anything living in them. To find the best assortment, arrive early for low tide, when you may be able to walk farther out to sand bars and shallow pools (awesome shelling grounds). And note that the Blind Pass strait between Sanibel and Captiva is a particularly good spot to find the Sanibel Six: banded tulips, lightning whelks, lettered olives, alphabet cones, lace murexes and Florida fighting conches.
Happily, we’re coming up on prime shelling season -- May to September -- when you can score as many as 60 varieties in a day. And if you happen to be here on June 21, join in on National Seashell Day…shellebrations.
The kid-focused fun
Not only is the calm, warm water here perfect to splash around in, but it’s also a window onto the local marine life. Kids can learn all about it through fun programming at the Sanibel Sea School, which offers full- or half-day options.
You’ll find another fun variation on the theme at the IMAG History and Science Center, where the exhibits include aquatic touch tanks, a replica of the USS Mohawk artificial reef and animal encounter shows.
And for when the kids invariably note that not everything has to have an educational component, there’s Cape Coral’s Sunsplash Family Waterpark, home to a vast array of waterslides, a lazy river and a water play area. For waterborne fun of a different kind, board a Fort Myers Beach Pirate Cruise, where treasure chests, face painting, cannons and pirate games await.
The Floribbean cuisine
Much of the best local fare stars incredibly fresh seafood, luscious tropical fruits and a range of spices. Tucked into the Big Hickory Marina is the aptly named Big Hickory Seafood Grille where you can go big -- or you can go bigger. Think Florida lobster stew or the signature mahi-mahi coco loco, coconut- and panko-crusted mahi-mahi with pineapple and a coconut-pineapple beurre blanc. Or head to Fisherman's Wharf on Fort Myers Beach, where Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille dishes up famed banana leaf snapper and Yucatan shrimp tacos along with stellar views.
Also keep an eye out for Queenie's locally made ice cream. Seasonal favorites include Pine Island Mango and Butter Brickle, though the Key Lime Pie is a perennial crowd-pleaser.
For parents who might need an adult break, we’ll just note the bountiful microbreweries (15) and distilleries (two) in the area.
The amazing camping ops
The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel are the kind of place where you can spend 24/7 outdoors. There are plenty of RV resorts, but if it's the more rugged set-up you seek, head to Cayo Costa State Park on a tiny island, where you'll find basic cabins, wooded hiking trails and wildlife-rich waters. For a dose of history with your camping, consider the campsites at Koreshan State Park in Estero, home to the remains of a 19th century compound, plus a boat ramp that leads to the state's first aquatic preserve (which you should explore in a rental kayak or canoe). If glamping is more your style, head to KOA on Pine Island for deluxe cabins, tennis and basketball courts, a heated pool and a hot tub -- but you can still tell people you went camping.