The Florida Getaway Spot with All the Feels
Purely on the basis of having gotten this far into 2020, you deserve a vacation. A real vacation. In a place where standard time-keeping tools give way to tides and sunsets, accomplishment is measured in seashells found—and the trappings of daily life include sugary white beaches, secluded mangroves and the occasional pod of dolphins. A place, in other words, where you can reconnect as easily with yourself as with your partner or family: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. And though a visit of any length is good for the soul, here’s how to experience all the best local feels in five days.
To feel chill…
For a day that’s about pure relaxation—the area’s signature vibe—the closest beach should do the trick, particularly if you’re staying near any of the local shell-collecting hot spots (a short list includes Sanibel’s Blind Pass Beach, Captiva’s Turner Beach, or Cayo Costa State Park—a barrier island turned nature preserve where you can camp overnight for the chillest of vibes).
Wherever you beach-comb around here, the 400 or so resident shell species will blow your mind—or they would if it weren’t so mellowed out by the sheer act of gathering them. Look for everything from common clams to the rarest of crown jewels: junonia, speckled swirls of cream-colored calcium carbonate. And when you need a shift from the famed Sanibel Stoop (the bent-at-the-waist local shell-gathering posture), you’ll find that hammocks, loungers—and beach towel-beckoning stretches of powder-soft sand—are in generous supply. Lie back, survey the transparent turquoise waters, and seal the tranquility deal.
To feel gratitude…
There’s nothing like a dolphin or manatee popping into view to make you grateful to be in the right place at the right time—so a day spent in pursuit of the local wildlife (from a respectful distance, of course) is a must.
Winter is the best season for manatee sightings, and though they’re not guaranteed, you’ll up your odds by going to one (or a few) of the gentle giants’ favorite hangouts. For starters, there’s the aptly named Manatee Park in Fort Myers, a non-captive refuge where you can rent kayaks and canoes or keep a lookout from a boardwalk. Then there’s Lovers Key State Park on Fort Myers Beach, where the resident canals make for excellent kayaking, stand-up paddling and manatee-spotting—or Estero Bay, Florida’s first aquatic preserve and another great spot for kayaking among manatees. Estero Bay also happens to be a good dolphin-sighting spot, no matter what time of year you’re visiting.
For the most dramatic local fauna-fest, though, head to Sanibel’s J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where you can walk, kayak, canoe or bike the park’s countless teeming trails. Arguably the best-known residents are the birds—250 or so species of which turn up throughout the year. But try not to miss the big five: the American White Pelican, Mangrove Cuckoo, Reddish Egret, Yellow-crowned Night Heron and—always a crowd-pleaser—the Roseate Spoonbill. You may even score a bonus manatee sighting in the refuge, to say nothing of the local alligators, river otters and bobcats.
To cap off a day of gratitude for being in the right place at the right time, there’s nothing like a local sunset. These beaches are known to host some of the best on earth, with standout spots including the Fort Myers Beach Pier, the Sanibel Lighthouse and Turner Beach. For a sunset with a side of something sippable, head to Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on Fort Myers Beach, where the cocktails and local lore famously rival the views.
To feel optimism…
Though some of the wildlife-viewing spots above include mangroves (not least, J.N. “Ding” Darling), there’s nothing like a full-on mangrove immersion day to boost your sense of optimism. Doubling as nurseries for all manner of newborn sea creatures—and rookeries for birds—these densely thicketed coastal swamps have that ever-regenerating cycle-of-life vibe that can’t help but make you more optimistic. And winter’s moderate temperatures mean you can spend hours on end paddling through these labyrinths, where the stilt-like roots harbor crabs, fish, turtles and more.
One prime spot to see for yourself is Fort Myers’ Bunche Beach, where you can rent equipment and/or book a tour with Kayak Excursions and check out the famed mangrove tunnels. Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve and Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve are home to more gorgeous mangrove mazes, both of which offer professional or self-guided paddling tours.
For a paddle with a bonus history lesson, head to Mound Key Archaeological State Park in Estero Bay. Once you’ve explored the mangroves that ring the now uninhabited island, look for a kayak- or canoe-friendly landing, then walk the almost mile-long interpretive trail to learn about the Calusa people who once called the area home, and the fascinating shell mounds they left behind.
To feel enthusiasm…
We’ll be honest: Just being in this part of the world boosts enthusiasm levels. But the zest-for-life factor goes off the charts when you’re pairing, say, the ridiculously fresh catch of the day with a bold local brew at an alfresco waterside spot. In fact, the foodie scene has gained such acclaim of late that you could easily spend more than a day exploring the best brunches, breweries and bistros.
But at a minimum, hit a few longstanding favorites: For breakfast, don’t miss Sanibel’s Island Cow, where the outdoor section also comes with family-friendly games, and one of the most beloved ways to start the day is the Shrimp Oscar Omelet (think gulf pink shrimp, asparagus, melty Swiss, hollandaise and sides of grits and potatoes). The house muffins are also legendary, and as a bonus, free with your meal. For lunch, consider Coconut Jack’s Waterfront Grille in Bonita Springs, where the ambitious should try the Ultimate Seafood Trio (Fresh Gulf Grouper, Jumbo Sea Scallops and Shrimp) and wash everything down with a Fort Myers Brewing Company High Five IPA.
Come nightfall—or more to the point, sunset—you want to dedicate at least one night to Captiva’s The Mucky Duck. Like Doc Ford’s from the peak gratitude section, this is an iconic spot to watch the sun drop into the sea, but this one even posts beach cam footage and sunset times. The Mucky Duck is also modeled after the classic British pub, so give yourself permission to deviate from the local seafood (though there’s plenty of that on the menu, too) and order the famous, open-flame charcoal-grilled Mucky Duck Pub Burger.
To feel togetherness…
2020 has introduced us to a level of connectedness that we’ve all had quite enough of, thank you very much—the kind that has us tethered to screens, where we’re alternately Zooming, learning or keeping up on the latest developments. So everyone’s hungry for a connectedness of a different sort: the kind you achieve sans screens (except maybe to document the moment for posterity and Insta followers). And one of the best ways to experience that around the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel is to literally be in the same boat—just you, your travel companion(s) and whoever’s at the helm. Yes, charters abound here, as you might expect in a part of the world where any number of the most gorgeous hideaways are accessible only from the water.
With hundreds of islands—and countless waterways—to explore, you’ll want to give yourselves at least one day on a boat. So head to any of 20 local marinas, where you can charter your own sightseeing tour, fishing boat or sailboat (to name a few). You’ll find everything from fully staffed to DIY options, and if you’d rather go with the latter—but don’t yet have the necessary skills—you can also sign up for sailing courses (though you’ll want to allot a few days in that case). Point is, being on board for an adventure together feels like the ultimate antidote to 2020.