The BEST WESTERN PLUS Beach Resort is one of the top-rated resorts on Fort Myers Beach. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor
If a tropical vacation is calling out to you, leave all of your cares (and phone) at home and pack up your T-shirts and flip flops and head to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel on the Gulf of Mexico. Take some time to unplug. Here visitors may explore the barrier islands of this southwest Florida island paradise by land or by boat.
In Jimmy Buffett style, you may spend days doing absolutely nothing or engaging in serious exploring of these award-winning islands.
The Florida of days long past, with unspoiled white sand beaches, exotic wildlife and lush subtropical foliage, can still be found here and it is the perfect oasis where visitors can “get away from it all” and yet still be close to all of the modern amenities. Many of the area’s 100 coastal islands are uninhabited mangrove clusters while others take visitors’ breath away with their beautiful beaches.
Island hopping by land!
Few destinations have such an abundance of sandy beach coastline, much of it undisturbed by modern intrusions. With a subtropical climate, a 590-mile shoreline and the warm waters of the Gulf, this area has all the components for a fantasy island vacation. Each island has a character of its own and makes for an island hopping vacation that includes sunsets, shelling, great dining and picnicking, water sports, boating, biking and exploring.
Best known are Sanibel and Captiva islands, connected to the mainland by an alluring three-mile-long causeway. They are connected to each other, by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bridge at Blind Pass.
Cross the magical Sanibel Causeway and all worries vanish! Sanibel is known worldwide for its shelling and the associated posture referred to as the “Sanibel Stoop.” Some shellers attach flashlights to their heads, in an effort to be first in the daily search for top picks of the more than 400 varieties of shells found on the beaches, particularly after an especially high or low tide. For most visitors, however, shelling is merely a delightful excuse to enjoy hours of sun along some of the best shoreline in North America.
In July 2010, Shermans Travel named Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel Island as one of the Top 10 secluded beaches in the U.S. Editors commented about the beauty of the linen white sand beaches. The island is well-known as one of the best shelling spots in the country, but you’ll find little competition here. There’s minimal development and few amenities, though Bowman’s does have one perk not found on any other beach on Sanibel: barbecue grills.
The island’s main thoroughfare, Periwinkle Way, is picturesque and lush with foliage. Interesting shops and restaurants dot the road from the Sanibel Lighthouse to Tarpon Bay Road, making it difficult to complete the distance without a half-dozen sight-seeking stops at boutiques and art galleries. What you will not find: Buildings taller “than the tallest palm tree.”
Don’t miss: The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is home to many exotic species of birds and plants. A four-mile drive with access to walking and canoe/kayak trails offers abundant opportunities for naturalists to witness a raccoon washing up before breakfast, an alligator snatching a quick bite or long-legged wading birds stalking their prey. Visit www.fws.gov/dingdarling or 239-472-1100.
Also: Walk the boardwalk at Sanibel Lighthouse, bike along Periwinkle Way, Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, shop at the original Chico’s store in Periwinkle Place, a visit to She-Sells-Sea-Shells, see a play at the Schoolhouse Theater, tour Sanibel Historical Village and Museum.
The main attraction on Captiva: none. And that is the attraction! Many people wile away the hours in one outdoor endeavor or another. The natural beauty of the island is the draw. It was here that Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famous aviator, wrote her best-selling book, “A Gift from the Sea.” More remote than Sanibel, the island offers a laid back pace, several great restaurants, sunset views and beautiful beaches for wandering.
The best sunset views at the Mucky Duck at the north end of Captiva on picturesque Andy Rosse Lane. This popular hangout with locals and visitors is never short of cold beer and fresh seafood. An island sunset tradition since 1976. Visit www.muckyduck.com or 239-472-3434. Also: Dinner at the eclectic and delicious Bubble Room, shopping art galleries on Andy Rosse Lane.
Estero Island, Fort Myers Beach
Estero Island, home of Fort Myers Beach, has been long recognized as one of the “world’s safest beaches” because of its gently sloping shoreline. The sand is particularly soft and white, like powdered sugar. During the winter, Estero Bay is home to an extensive shrimp and fishing fleet. Visitors find every imaginable water toy, from windsurfer to catamaran and parasail. Numerous marinas operate boating and fishing charters. Local restaurants benefit from the catch, which generally includes red snapper and grouper.
Lovers Key State Park, just south of Fort Myers Beach. The Travel Channel ranked this beautiful park fourth in the state of Florida. This is one of the area’s most pristine parks. Walk the boardwalk over tidal lagoons to a sandy, white beach with sea oats. Hike the nature trail, paddle a lagoon, get married under the gazebo! Visitors understand why
CoastalLiving.com has listed Lovers Key among its Top 10 Romantic Retreats. For information, visit www.leeparks.org or call 239-463-4588. Also: Explore Mound Key Archaeological State Park, rent a kayak and paddle the estuaries around Lovers Key.
Step back in time on Pine Island to reminisce a period when fishing reigned as the area’s largest industry. Accessible by land via “the fishingest bridge in the USA” at Matlacha [Mat-la-chay], the island is 17 miles long with Pine Island Sound on one side and an aquatic preserve on the other. Home to the Calusa Heritage Trail, the largest Indian shell mound in southwest Florida. For details contact Randell Research Center at www.flmnh.ufl.edu/rrc or call 239-283-2062.
A stroll through Matlacha. This colorful Mayberry-like fishing village is filled with galleries of painters and sculptors. Visit www.PineIslandChamber.com or call 239-283-0888. Also: Visit “Florida Creative Coast Weekends,” the second weekend of each month November through April 2011.
Accessible by boat and car via a causeway, this island offers fishing, shelling and lots of family fun. The island has five beaches with Gulf access. For information visit www.floridastateparks.org or call 941-964-0375.
Travel + Leisure magazine has named Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, as one of its 50 Best Romantic Getaways for 2010. “This idyllis enclave on the Gulf of Mexico is a genuine glimpse of Old Florida whimsically named streets such as Damnificare, a postcard-worthy lighthouse watching over Gasparilla Island State Park,and long, quiet beaches lapped by gentle waves.”
The island’s charming turn-of-the-century harbor town, Boca Grande, was founded by the wealthy DuPont family in the late 1800s. This sleepy southern town comes with small shops, cozy restaurants, waterside accommodations and beautiful beaches.
Former President George H. W. Bush along with family members, enjoys an annual winter visit to Gasparilla Island, staying at the legendary Gasparilla Inn & Club. The Inn dates back to 1911 and is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. For information visit www.gasparillainn.com or call 941-964-2201.
The restored Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum, built in 1890. For information, visit www.barrierislandparksociety.org or call 941-964-0060. Also: visit the famous Boca Grande Railroad Depot, home to antique and gift shops, the Loose Caboose Restaurant and an ice cream parlor, the structure was the last depot for the Charlotte Harbor & Northern Railway.
Island hopping by boat!
With more than 100 barrier and coastal islands, there are many options to exploring the area by water. Hop on a water taxi, rent a boat, take one of the scheduled services for the outer islands. Collect shells. Visit a museum or historic site. Have a “cheeseburger in paradise” at the Cabbage Key Inn. Swim in the pristine waters surrounding tiny North Captiva Island. Relax on a deserted beach at Cayo Costa. The options are as endless as the area’s award-winning beaches.
Pack a picnic lunch and head for a favorite of area boaters, Picnic Island. Visible from the Sanibel causeway, this island is located at mile marker 101 off the south end of Pine Island. Camping is allowed.
If you want to be a castaway, this is your island! Cayo Costa ranks as one of Boating World magazine’s “Great Escapes.”
The beach at Cayo Costa State Park was recently named among the world’s best “hidden beaches” by Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s Web site www.Concierge.com. The site described the beach on Cayo Costa island, which is accessible only by boat: “soft white sand, chill-out serenity, and nary a high-rise at the tide line.”
The state park is also popular with day visitors for its snorkeling and fishing opportunities. Heartier souls enjoy the primitive overnight camping in the 12 small cabins or 18 tent campsites. No electricity. Close to nature. Beautiful. The island is accessible only by private boat or passenger ferry. The beach at Cayo Costa State Park was recently named among the world’s best “hidden beaches” by prestigious Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s Web site, www.Concierge.com. For information, visitwww.floridastateparks.org/cayocosta or call 941-964-0375.
Access: Private boat or scheduled ferry service.
Shelling at the south end of the island. It is worth getting up at dawn to have the first pick of sea shells!
A hidden paradise located on a unique 100-acre island reminiscent of days gone by. Built by playwright and mystery author Mary Roberts Rinehart in 1938 on a Calusa Indian shell mound 38 feet above sea level, the original inn and restaurant features the famous dollar bill bar and cheeseburgers in paradise. The restaurant walls, beams and ceilings are plastered with $1 bills, a tradition that began in 1941 when a fisherman signed and taped his last dollar to the wall. When he returned, he would have money to buy a beer. Visitors continue the custom today. Accessible only by boat, the inn has guest rooms and cottages. For information visit www.cabbagekey.com or call 239-283-2278. Access: Private boat or water taxi service.
Boaters love to stop in for a cheeseburger in paradise. Also: Explore winding nature trails with picturesque views.
No boat? No problem!
Adventures in Paradise offers daily cruises from Port Sanibel Marina and Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa in Fort Myers. Canoe and kayak tours, shelling and sealift encounters, dolphin watch cruises and sunset champagne cruises. For details visit www.adventureinparadiseinc.com or call 239-472-8443.
Captiva Cruises offers trips from McCarthy’s Marina on Captiva Island to Useppa Island (www.useppa.com). This exclusive private island club that allows access only by membership or Captiva Cruises. Shelling, sightseeing and lunch tours also visit the outer islands and Cabbage Key. For schedule and details, visit www.captivacruises.com.
Tropic Star of Pine Island offers regular scheduled boat service from Pine Island to Cayo Costa State Park. Sightseeing cruises include eco heritage and nature cruises, Cabbage Key and Cayo Costa nature cruises, overnight camping trips to Cayo Costa and a Calusa heritage and mound tour. For details visit www.tropicstarcruises.com or call 239-283-0015.
For visitors who want to explore on their own, area marinas offer private boat rentals with or without guides. For details visitwww.fortmyerssanibel.com/do/marinas.php.
Island hop along the Great Calusa Blueway
Kayaking the barrier islands is a very popular way to see the area and its wildlife. The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail has launch sites and landings around the 190-mile marked trail as well as easy access to rental kayaks and canoes. One of southwest Florida’s most acclaimed nature-based attractions, the Blueway and the Fort Myers/Sanibel Island area has been recognized as one of the best kayaking destinations in North America by both Paddler and Canoe & Kayak magazines. The trail itself has garnered National Recreation Trail designation and is part of the evolving Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.
Put-in sites are designated along the trail, as are other amenities such as campsites, restaurants, marinas and cultural and historic sites of the Calusa Indians, for whom the trail is named. The new Caloosahatchee leg (Phase 3) now offers a lush, green, Old-Florida dimension to the Blueway, complete with moss-draped oaks along shores dotted with expansive preserve land. On the trail, novice to experienced paddlers can get up close with outstanding flora and fauna while exploring back bays, aquatic preserves, wildlife refuges, creeks, bayous, rivers, and mangrove forests. Many of the trails follow the course charted some 2,000 years ago by the area’s earliest residents, the Calusa Indians. For maps, kayak rental information and accommodations along the Blueway, visit www.greatcalusablueway.com.
This article was provided by the Beach of Fort Myers & Sanibel. The links to TripAdvisor hotel forums were added by Beach Maniac. For more information on island hopping or for planning a vacation to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, visit www.FortMyersSanibel.com.