As a resident of Tampa Bay for many years, it was easy for me to hop down to the Ft. Myers and Sanibel area regularly, so after several visits, here are my recommendations on top things to do in the region.
I recently researched a freelance article on the easiest warm weather places to get to on a bargain flight and the destination that kept coming up the most from various cities was Ft. Myers, Florida. Few people seem to know much about that city, but they have usually heard of the island draws in this region: Sanibel Island and Captiva Island.
Those two islands draw winter snowbird residents and vacationers year after year and no wonder. These are laid-back Florida islands with terrific beaches and great shell collecting options. No high-rises, limited development, and lots of nature to explore. Then if you get out on the water under your own paddling energy or on a motorboat, there are lots of smaller islets to explore in the region.
Here are a few places and activities to put on your list if you’re coming to the area. When you’re ready to make plans, go here to find great accommodations in Ft. Myers and the surrounding areas.
Visit J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Reserve
You don’t have to visit a zoo in this area to see wildlife. Just drive or bike to the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife refuge to find a plethora of sea birds, migrating birds, turtles, manatees, and maybe even a gator. What you’ll see depends a lot on luck and the time of year, but it’s nearly impossible to go through here and not at least spot cormorants, pelicans, osprey, and egrets.
When I was there last in January, these beautiful white pelicans were all over the place and we also spotted an osprey on its way to its nest with a big fish between its talons. We also saw herons ibis birds.
Entrance to this wildlife reserve is one of Florida’s greatest values: $5 per vehicle or $1 per pedestrian or bike. That includes admission to the museum and some nice bathrooms with wildlife murals. If you need to take the tram tour that’s $13 ($8 for kids), but you have a naturalist guide along who will help spot wildlife and explain a lot about what you’re seeing. Visit the official site here.
Kayak the Calusa Blueway
If you’ve ever gone on a hiking trail where there were markers pointing the way, you’ve got an idea of what the Calusa Blueway is like. Except instead of symbols on trees, you’ve got buoys and signs in the water defining the route and you’re on a kayak.
Here’s a story I wrote for our online magazine a couple years back after kayaking a small part of the trail away from the main resort areas: Kayaking the Calusa Blueway Around Pine Island. You can go island to island, explore inlets, or paddle through a mangrove area on the mainland spotting birds.
Stroll and Eat Seafood on Ft. Myers Beach
While the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva are better known, there’s also a long and wide sandy beach on the mainland of Ft. Myers. This is more of a typical resort set-up, with some high-rise hotels, beach bars, and seafood restaurants facing the water. This is a good family beach since the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida rarely gets waves big enough to even knock a toddler down. It’s also warm enough for swimming here most of the year, especially if you’re used to the frigid waters of the northeast USA and Canada.
Step Back in Time at the Edison Fort Estate
Although it’s hard to imagine now, Florida was fairly empty in the days before air conditioning. Most of the vacationers came for months at a time, not a week, with the goal of escaping winter for the entire season and breathing air that would cure–or at least mitigate–their northern health problems.
Two of those escapees from the north were Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who spent many of their winters in downtown Ft. Myers. Back then it was mostly a cattle ranchers town, but Edison installed electricity and built a nice estate here, the place functioning as his winter workshop where he tried (mostly in vain) to find a natural alternative to the rubber trees found in Brazil. See more on it here in our Edison and Ford estates blog post.
Go Island Hopping by Boat
If you look at a map of the Fort Myers area, you’ll see a string of islands that starts with sizable Sanibel, goes to smaller Captiva, then continues through the Gulf of Mexico with lots of skinnier islands. On any of those you can walk from one side to the other in a few minutes. These are low-key, low-density islands that seldom feel crowded and Useppa is so small that cars aren’t allowed, just bikes and golf carts.
You can go on a regularly scheduled passenger ship that tours several of the islands and stops for lunch at Cabbage Key, where you can dine under a sea of dollar bills at the famous restaurant. Of course you can also charter a boat from a company like Captiva Cruises for your own group.
Find Empty Florida Beaches at Cayo Costa State Park
It’s easy to think most of Florida has been built up, overdeveloped, and Disneyfied, but there are still some wild places where humans are scarce. One of those is Cayo Costa State Park, where only a few grandfathered houses sit near the beach and the rest is left untouched. Apart from those cranky homesteaders who like to post the equivalent of “Get off my lawn” signs, you’ve got the run of the place on this northern section of the long Cayo Costa.
Sometimes you can stop here with a small group on a boat and have miles of beaches all to yourself. It’s easy to imagine you’re in the old Florida of a hundred years ago and you won’t have much competition for shelling on the beach. It’s best to bring your own water and food though: the only commercial facilities here are a campground and its minimal store.
Look for Shells on Sanibel and Captiva Islands
In some places around the world, you can get arrested for taking shells from the beach and be detained at customs. Sanibel and Captiva Islands are awash in seashells though, with millions of them landing on the beaches here. One of the main pastimes of vacationers here is the meditative practice of strolling the tide line for an hour or more, looking for a beautiful shell to take home for a memory that will last for years.
The “Sanibel Stoop” is more effective at some times than others depending on tide patterns, tourism seasons, and your strolling spot, but this is one of the best locations in Florida to find something pretty on the beach at any time. If you fail, there are shops that will sell you something to make up for it or you can get a lamp or picture frame made from seashells. In this land of abundance though, the seeking is half the fun.