When cold winds begin to blow and the skies threaten snow, sane people begin to plan a getaway to someplace warm and sunny. If you’re thinking Florida, consider Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel/Captiva Islands in the southwest of the state, on the Gulf of Mexico.
Estero Island, better known as Fort Myers Beach, is the most visited of the 100 barrier islands just west of mainland Fort Myers and Cape Coral. Low-rise hotels and condominiums edge the miles of white, sandy beaches on this long, thin island, which connects by bridge in the north to Fort Myers proper and in the south to the four barrier islands that make up Lovers Key State Park.
Mainland Fort Myers also connects via a three-mile-long causeway to Sanibel and Captiva Islands. In addition to magnificent beaches with an abundance of beautiful seashells, both islands are known for their leisurely pace and natural beauty.
Top of the list, of course, is spending time on the beautiful beaches, especially those at Fort Myers Beach, Lovers Key State Park (just south of Fort Myers Beach), Captiva Beach, and Bowman’s Beach and Lighthouse Park Beach on Sanibel Island.
If you become intrigued by the great variety of seashells on the beaches, stop for a quick look at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel. It displays shells from the world over.
You’ll want to spend time on the water, too. Try one of the regular excursions by Captiva Cruises, which include dolphin watching and sunset cruises or day trips to the tiny island of Cabbage Key, famous for its inn and restaurant, which serves the burger said to have inspired Jimmy Buffet’s homage “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
You can also charter your own boat and go exploring. Be sure to visit Cayo Costa, an island that is mostly state park. Accessible only by boat, Cayo Costa offers wide, unspoiled beaches and nary a soul around.
A tour of J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel is a must. The refuge includes more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged sea grass beds, cord grass marshes and islands of hardwood trees, providing homes for seabirds and migrating songbirds, tree frogs, marsh rabbits and, though seen less often, bobcats, alligators, river otters and manatees. You can drive, bike or take a narrated tram tour along Wildlife Drive through the refuge, or canoe or kayak its designated waterways or explore farther afield (or perhaps, a-water!) on the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile canoe and kayak trail that meanders through the area’s coastal waters and inland tributaries.
Back on the mainland, visit the side-by-side houses that were the winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The two surprisingly modest homes front a picturesque section of the Caloosahatchee River. Together with Edison’s laboratory, experimental gardens and a museum about both inventors, they are one of the premier tourist attractions in southwest Florida.
Nightlife in the Fort Myers/Sanibel area is just as laid back as the daytime. In late afternoon on Captiva, for example, visitors migrate from the beach to the beachfront Mucky Duck to toast the sunset. From there it is on to dinner at R.C. Otters, the Bubble Room (noteworthy for its decor), or the excellent Key Lime Bistro.
The Times Square region of Fort Myers Beach is another popular nighttime gathering place. Think of it as a mini-version of Key West’s Mallory Square, with a few street performers entertaining the crowd. For dinner, Nervous Nellie’s and Pierside Grill come recommended. (800-237-6444, FortMyers-Sanibel.com)