If a tropical vacation is calling out to you this winter, 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 the time to unplug. Find your island in this Southwest Florida paradise by land or by water.
LEE COUNTY, FL -- If a tropical vacation is calling out to you this winter, 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 the time to unplug. Find your island in this Southwest Florida paradise by land or by water.
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. From shelling to kayaking to beautiful sunsets, visitors come to this destination and find their island creating wonderful vacation memories.
So many islands...how do you choose yours?
There’s just something about an island that spins romantic notions of independence, isolation, and escape. Whether it’s for a daytrip, vacation, or rest-of-your-life commitment, getting out to an island is the ultimate experience at The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel! With more than 100 barrier and coastal islands, there are many options to exploring the area. So, check out these suggestions and for more, visit www.FortMyers-Sanibel.com.
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. If your idea of a getaway involves going shoeless the entire time, Fort Myers Beach has the perfect dress code for you. Okay, you may have to slip into some flip-flops from time to time, but the fine sand and casual attitude give you permission to dig your toes in the sand and make a barefoot fashion statement.
Don’t miss: Lovers Key State Park, just south of Fort Myers Beach. The Travel Channel ranked this beautiful park’s beach 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, and get married under the gazebo! For information, visit www.leeparks.org or call 239-463-4588.
Cross the magical Sanibel Causeway and all worries vanish! Sanibel is known worldwide for its shell collecting 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.
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” (actual law on this island).
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 call 239-472-1100. Also: Walk the boardwalk at the Sanibel Lighthouse, bike along the island’s 25 miles of bike paths (away from all vehicular traffic), marvel at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, shop at the original Chico’s women’s clothing store in Periwinkle Place, visit 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, "Gift from the Sea." More remote than Sanibel, the island offers a laid back pace, several great restaurants, sunset views and beautiful beaches. Captiva Island has some of the plushest accommodations, so if you’re looking to do nothing but laze on the beach, maybe do a round of golf or a little yachting, reserve your room and luxuriate. Go ahead; get a massage while you’re at it.
Don’t Miss: The best sunset views at the Mucky Duck, the area’s British pub, 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 very popular Bubble Room restaurant, shop art galleries on Andy Rosse Lane.
Historic charm, cute shops and great restaurants draw travelers off the main roads to Gasparilla Island, home of the sophisticated little beach town of Boca Grande, founded by the wealthy DuPont family in the late 1800s. This sleepy southern town comes with waterside accommodations and beautiful beaches leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Accessible by boat and car via a causeway, this island offers fishing, shelling and lots of family fun. Travel + Leisure magazine named Boca Grande one of its 50 Best Romantic Getaways. 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.
Don’t miss: The restored Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum, built in 1890. For information, visit www.floridastateparks.org/park/Gasparilla-Island or call 941-964-0060. Also: visit the popular 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.
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. With fruit and tree farms, no stop lights, miles of countryside, and even a cattle farm, Pine Island feels like you’ve traveled inland rather than out-island. Long and roomy, its lack of natural beaches means less traffic (aside from sometimes bustling Matlacha) and more affordable dining and lodging. 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.
Don’t miss: A stroll through Matlacha. This colorful Mayberry-like fishing village is filled with eclectic galleries of painters and sculptors. Visit www.PineIslandChamber.org or call 239-283-0888.
If you want to be a castaway, this is your island! Cayo Costaranks as one of Boating World magazine’s “Great Escapes.” The beach at Cayo Costa State Park was named among the world’s best “hidden beaches” by Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s website 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. Restrooms and cold showers are the only conveniences provided by the state park. Close to nature. Beautiful. The island is accessible only by private boat or passenger ferry. For information, visit www.floridastateparks.org/cayocosta or call 941-964-0375.
Don’t miss: 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 famed 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 70,000 $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, water taxi service or scheduled boat service, the inn has guest rooms and cottages. For information, visit www.cabbagekey.com or call 239-283-2278.
Don’t miss: Boaters love to stop in for a cheeseburger in paradise. Also: Explore winding nature trails and picturesque views from Cabbage Key’s water tower.
No boat? No problem!
Adventures in Paradise offers daily cruises from Port Sanibel Marina and Sanibel Harbour Marriott 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 and South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island to Cabbage Key and Useppa Island (www.useppa.com). This exclusive private island club allows access only by membership or Captiva Cruises. Shelling, sightseeing and lunch tours are also offered. 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 more information on island hopping or planning a vacation to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, visit www.FortMyersSanibel.com.
Editors’ Note: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel include: Sanibel Island, Captiva Island, Fort Myers Beach, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Estero, Cape Coral, Pine Island, Boca Grande & outer islands, North Fort Myers, Lehigh Acres. Images available upon request.