Travel: Southwest Florida
The allure of the islands
Photography, Kate Robertson
Lee County, on the southwest coast of Florida, offers up fabulous, island-time beach options. Seminole natives and marauding pirates inhabited this rugged area when Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821. Settlers moved in to the area to farm, log and cattle ranch. Wars with the Seminoles ensued and Fort Myers, currently the county centre, was built.
Although this area is now populated with several adjoining cities, it’s far more laid-back than Miami and south Florida. With an abundance of nature experiences, museums, golf courses and shopping opportunities, there’s no shortage of things to do, but make sure you take the time to enjoy the beaches.
Located across a long causeway just west of Fort Myers, Sanibel Island is ranked one of the top 10 best places to escape the snow by USA Today. It’s easy to see why with its white sand beaches, an annual average temperature of 24C and worldclass fishing. With just one main thorough-fare, traffic can get busy, but the 40 kilometres of bike paths, which run the length of the island, offer up a more-relaxed alternative in order to appreciate the scenery.
Eco-tourism is strong here due to the 6,354-acre J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which covers about 70 per cent of Sanibel. The refuge is home to 220 species of birds, more than 50 types of reptiles (including the Florida-famous ‘gator), and 32 different kinds of mammals – so bring your binoculars. Tram tours are available, or you can hike, bike or drive the trails on your own.
Just down the road from the refuge is Tarpon Bay Explorers, where a knowledgeable naturalist will take you on a guided kayak tour through the mangrove forest. On the Commodore Creek Trail, you’ll see an abundance of marine crabs and birds trying to catch them.
Captiva is attached to Sanibel via a bridge, and is smaller in size. This island is so narrow in places that you can see water on both sides of the road. Similar to Sanibel, there are miles of beautiful beaches, but it’s also populated with houses (more like mansions), inns and vacation rentals. Captiva is very laid back, and as one islander said, “Nine p.m. is midnight on Sanibel and Captiva Islands.”
Visit YOLO (You Only Live Once) Watersports to rent stand-up paddle boards, arrange a parasail or waverunner excursion, or to rent a golf cart (you can drive them on the road) or bicycle.
It’s easy to get a room with a kitchenette on the islands, so you can make yourself at home. However, if you’d rather not fend for yourself, there’s no need to worry about dining options. Many have a quirky bent, like the Bubble Room, with its emporium of antiques and bubble fun. Or try Doc Ford’s (named after the fictional character in co-owner Randy Wayne White’s crime novels), with an outdoor patio, live music and flights of rum tastings.
There’s elegant, high-end dining as well, including the award-winning Thistle Lodge Beachfront Restaurant. Fish and seafood options are always on the menu. Try the scallop and pork belly appie (voted best on the Island). Or for an island-style taste explosion, try the fluffy, moist black grouper.
Here, the word shelling is a verb. Because of the location on a continental shelf, in addition to the unusual east-west orientation of many of the beaches, the current sweeps in from the Caribbean, carrying with it copious amounts of shells. In order to avoid crushing these beauties, one has to watch where they’re stepping. For collectors, it’s a shell-lover’s paradise with more than 400 varieties. Pick up a shelling brochure to identify your treasures, or you can learn more at the Bailey- Matthews National Shell Museum – the only one in the United States.
For ideal shelling conditions, it’s recommended to take a charter tour, like the one Captiva Cruises offers to the boat-access only state park beach, Cayo Costa Island. Before you board at the dock, check for manatees – the large, gentle, sea-cow creatures who like to hang out there. On the cruise, you’ll likely see dolphins, as well as a wide variety of birds.
Fort Myers Beach
If the islands get too quiet for you, head back over the causeway to Fort Myers Beach. Here there’s a busy, beach-town vibe with surf shops, bars, clubs and resorts. The soft, white sand is like walking on baby powder.
Whichever beach you find yourself on at the end of the day in Southwest Florida, take the time to enjoy the spectacular sunset – after all, you’re on island time.
- Take a direct flight from Toronto to Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers and rent a car with a GPS.
- Stay at one of the Inns (I stayed at the quaint Captiva Island Inn), a resort, or a vacation rental.
- Travel during shoulder seasons (fall or spring) for quieter beaches and better rates. FortMyersSanibel.com