Why This Florida Beach Retreat is a Natural Vacation Pick
Conjure the most iconic images of southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast—a mosaic of sparkling inland waterways, lush mangroves and old-growth forests, secluded homes with boat docks for garages—and you’ve captured Fort Myers and Sanibel.
And while that mental picture alone may have you googling flights or road trip routes already, 2020 comes with a bonus prompt: the 75th anniversary of Sanibel Island’s J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. For more on that—and six other natural wonders that await—read on.
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Let’s start with a backgrounder on the place this refuge calls home. Unique among local barrier islands, Sanibel has an east-west orientation that results in legendary sandy beaches and a reputation as one of the best shell hunting destinations on earth. Driving from Fort Myers, you get your first taste of what awaits as you traverse a three-mile causeway that splits a glistening bay. You then reach the island via a pine- and palm-canopied two-lane road, the seeming result of someone dropping Nantucket into the Gulf of Mexico. Conspicuously absent: high-rises, traffic lights and chain restaurants.
Arguably the island’s pièce de résistance, the 6,400-acre wildlife refuge is named for Pulitzer Prize–winning Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, who’s responsible for its protected status. Anticipating what would happen if the land were turned over to developers, in 1945, he led the fight to safeguard the fragile wetlands that rank among the country’s largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems. Today, Ding Darling is a sanctuary for migratory birds—and the January-April migratory season is a particularly great time to spot them. But whenever you go, you’re likely to see the refuge’s unofficial avian mascot: the appropriately pink—and severely adorable—Roseate Spoonbill.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary, the area will host events throughout 2020—and the range may surprise you: There will be everything from art and photography exhibits, to stand up paddling clinics to a fashion show (designers are charged with creating wearable pieces out of would-be landfill).
But whatever’s on the special events calendar, don’t leave the refuge without taking at least one lap through the mangroves in a kayak. Tarpon Bay Explorers, the licensed concession at the refuge, offers naturalist-guided tours so you can learn about the estuary’s rich ecosystem as you gawk at manatees, dolphins, fish and, of course, birds. While there’s better visibility by day, the evening cruises come with the magnificent Gulf Coast sunsets that Instagram was invented for. Try to catch low tide, when the exposed grass and mud flats become buffets for brown pelicans, herons, egrets, ibis, cormorants, osprey and others. Another perk of low tides? Manatees and dolphins are easier to spot.
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve
Of course, the local wildlife watching is hardly limited to the islands. Back on the mainland, Fort Myers’ Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve boasts a 3,500-acre wetland ecosystem, a 1.2-mile accessible boardwalk trail and a LEED-certified interpretive center. As you hike through the dark cypress strand—with a guide or on your own—you feel like you’re entering a primeval forest where year-round residents include otters, alligators, turtles and scads of wading birds, and winter visitors include migratory butterflies and birds that stop to feed or nest here.
A shimmering, wildlife-rich preserve, this bay makes for exquisite boating, as you’ll find on the Estero Bay Express from Fish Tale Marina on Fort Myers Beach. As the 40-foot accessible boat glides through the pristine waters, guides keep an eye out for dolphins, manatees, osprey, pelicans and those trademark roseate spoonbills.
If you’re lucky, another frequent star of your social accounts will be the endlessly lovable, faintly bovine manatee (thus the “sea cow” nickname). Yet—fun fact—manatees are actually related to elephants. One of the best places for sightings, especially from December to February, is Fort Myers’ aptly named Manatee Park, where you’ll want to rent a canoe or kayak for your expedition. Be sure to stop into the butterfly garden for bonus wildlife viewing before you head out.
Randell Research Center
Part of the Florida Museum of Natural History, Pine Island’s Randell Research Center is worth visiting for the natural backdrop alone: The Pineland archaeological site is a series of shell mounds extending more than 100 acres from the mangrove coastline. But beyond the backdrop, there’s a lot to take in here: The shell mounds are relics of the once powerful indigenous Calusa tribe, whose rich culture you’ll learn about along the center’s Calusa Heritage Trail.
Stop one: Echo Global Farm, whose mission is to reduce hunger and help small-scale farmers worldwide. On the guided walking tour, you’ll see models of efficient farming methods that (among other things) will likely leave you hungry.
Enter stop two: Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm, a North Fort Myers farm-to-table restaurant owned by the husband-and-wife team of Gary and Rose O'Dell King. Their back-to-the-land inspiration stems in part from their stint living on a sheep farm in England, where they learned about hormone-, steroid- and antibiotic-free agriculture.
The result? Another farm you'll definitely want to see: It’s home to most of the ingredients in every dish you’ll try. (A short list includes papayas, plantains, nasturtiums, honey and artisanal garlic.) There are also 100-plus free-range, heritage-breed chickens, a couple dozen turkeys, 100-percent grass-fed Longhorn cows, pastured Red Wattle and guinea hogs.
As for the table end of the farm-to-table equation, you have Rose to thank for whatever you're feasting on. She's a classically trained chef and certified sommelier. And if you want a little something to go after your meal (you will), you can shop for the likes of 24-hour fermented yogurt and fresh-baked sourdough.
Superior Star Gazing
In our age of seemingly inescapable light pollution, seriously starry nights are an increasingly rare and coveted phenomenon. But thanks to a Dark Skies Ordinance, Sanibel Island serves them up routinely. And after a day spent nature-bingeing, there’s no finale more fitting—or dazzling.