As the sun sets, it gilds the sand and fronds of beach grass waving in the breeze. An amateur photographer snaps photos, and the last of the beachcombers look for just a few more of the perfect, pastel-colored shells. Tucked into a little alcove partially secluded by a mangrove tree, a young couple snuggles on their blanket.
The beach here at Lovers Key State Park has been ranked the most romantic in Florida by the Travel Channel and among the Top 10 Romantic Retreats by CoastalLiving.com. According to local lore, the tiny island was nicknamed Lovers Key when it was inaccessible by land, when only lovers made the effort to get there by boat. The island’s 2.5 miles of white sand beach are easy to get to now, and they still inspire romance.
More than 100 small islands fringe the Florida mainland west of Fort Myers and Cape Coral. They are scattered throughout Pine Island Sound, Estero Bay and Charlotte Harbor, extending into the Gulf of Mexico. They offer unparalleled opportunities for water sports and wildlife viewing and some of the most spectacular beaches in the country.
Among the most visited of these barrier islands is Estero Island, better known as Fort Myers Beach. Condos and hotels edge the miles of white, sandy beaches on the 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. Black Island, also part of the state park, has more than five miles of trails through maritime hummock, where you can hike and cycle. Visitors can also rent canoes or kayaks and explore the park’s inner waterways.
A three-mile-long causeway connects Mainland Fort Myers with Sanibel and Captiva islands, which, in addition to magnificent beaches, are known for their leisurely pace and natural beauty. You won’t find a single stop light on Sanibel or Captiva, and few buildings are taller than the tallest palm tree. The islands have far more residences than businesses, so they remain unblemished by billboards or neon lights.
You can pick one island as home base for your entire honeymoon, or skip around from place to place to savor them all.
In Search of Wildlife
A Florida safari looks something like this: Early in the morning, pick a beach, then spend an hour or so walking along the shoreline, looking for crabs and the tiny fish that the shorebirds (and bigger fish) are so fond of. Gather some of the colorful and varied seashells that the area is famous for. You might see live starfish and sand dollars as well. Be sure to leave these critters behind. Blind Pass Beach near the bridge connecting Sanibel and Captiva is an especially fertile area for shells, as is Lovers Key Beach.
Next, head to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, which comprises more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged sea grass beds, marshes of cord grass and islands of hardwood trees. The varied habitats provide homes for seabirds and migrating songbirds: great blue herons, egrets, ospreys, pelicans and pink-feathered roseate spoonbills. Tree frogs and all manner of crabs make their homes in the mangrove marshes. Raccoons and marsh rabbits can sometimes be seen feeding in the brush. If you are lucky you will get to see an alligator, and if you are very lucky, you might see a bobcat, river otter or manatee.
You can drive, bike or take a narrated tram tour along Wildlife Drive through the refuge, or you can canoe or kayak designated waterways. Another great way to spot wildlife is by paddling a portion of the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile canoe and kayak trail that meanders through the area’s coastal waters and inland tributaries.
Later in the afternoon, take a dolphin-watching cruise. Hundreds of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins make their home year-round in the warm waters and rich feeding grounds of Pine Island Sound. They love to surf the wakes of boats, so you will likely get an up-close view of the playful mammals.
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With so many islands at your disposal, you will want to experience more than one or two. Topping your list should be Cayo Costa, an island that is mostly state park. Accessible only by boat, Cayo Costa offers wide, unspoiled beaches and nary a soul around. It’s a perfect place for a romantic picnic.
Cabbage Key’s claim to fame is its inn and restaurant, which serves the burger said to have inspired Jimmy Buffet’s homage “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” You can eat on the patio or indoors in the main room, where the walls and ceilings are papered in autographed dollar bills. Day-trippers also head to upscale, residential Useppa for lunch, a botanical walk or a stop at the island’s little museum. Captiva Cruises has trips to both destinations, as well as dolphin and sunset cruises.
Pine Island is accessible by road from Cape Coral, but if you are in the Sanibel region, it is easier and faster to get there by boat. At 17 miles long and 2 miles wide, Pine Island is the largest island on Florida’s west coast. It has lots of mangrove trees, but very little beach. Instead, tourists visit the island for its fishing, golf course and the artists who make their home here.
Culture and Nightlife
Here in the mid-Atlantic, we connect Thomas Edison with New Jersey, but for more than four decades he made his winter home in Fort Myers. Among the prominent people who visited him in the Sunshine State was Henry Ford, who ended up purchasing the house next door to Edison.
The two surprisingly modest homes front a picturesque section of the Caloosa River. Together with Edison’s laboratory, experimental gardens and a museum about the inventors, they are one of the premiere tourist attractions in southwest Florida. Plan on spending two or three hours here.
If you’ve become intrigued by the great variety of seashells on the beaches, visit the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island. It displays shells from the world over.
Nightlife in the Fort Myers-Sanibel area is just as laid back as the daytime. In late afternoon on Captiva, 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 at Snug Harbour Marina (near the bridge) is recommended.
For a real treat, book a sunset dinner cruise on the Sanibel Harbour Princess, which leaves the dock at the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort and Spa on the mainland right near the causeway entrance.
Sunup to sundown, day after day, there’s something special to see and experience on the islands of southwest Florida. Romance, here we come!
Getting There and Around
The direct flight from the Philadelphia International Airport to Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers is fast and easy. A rental car is a must for getting around the area.
Where to Stay
Lovers Key Resort (loverskey.com) is situated on a small, private island accessible by land and within walking distance of the state park of the same name. It has fully equipped suites.
The centrally located and full-amenity Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort and Spa (sanibel-resort.com) is a luxurious favorite of honeymooners.
To really get away from it all, stay in the charming honeymoon cottage at the Cabbage Key Inn (cabbagekey.com). There’s no beach or pool on the island, so you will want to charter a boat or arrange transportation around the islands with a boat captain.
Other accommodations are ’Tween Waters Inn (tween-waters.com) and the sprawling South Seas Resort (southseas.com), both on Captiva, and Casa Ybel Resort (casaybelresort.com) on Sanibel Island. There are many other excellent choices, as well.
For More Information
Contact the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau at (800) 237-6444 or fortmyers-sanibel.com.