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The Sanibel Causeway arcs up and over blue-green San Carlos Bay, a five-kilometre overwater stretch from the southwest Florida coast to Sanibel Island. Over the many years I’ve been visiting the beaches of Fort Myers with my family, I must have made this brief trip dozens of times. And yet I never tire of the gorgeous view and the peaceful sense I’m leaving the mainland behind for the tropical island getaway next door.

Sanibel and its little sister Captiva lie just off coastal Florida, but they feel a world away. When I arrive, I’m taken with their “Old Florida” vibe wrapped in a welcoming, laid-back personality. Flip- flops, fresh fish, epic sunsets and shell collecting: it's like I’ve stepped through a door marked “instant vacation.”

The first clue this is another world: there are no stoplights on Sanibel’s main road. Periwinkle Way is a two-lane route bracketed by lush growths of tropical foliage.

As we drive along it, I admire the elegant Gulf of Mexico-facing luxury homes that draw from classic island architecture. Some are painted in pastels and others in punchier hues and many are accented with plantation shutters. The homes share spectacular seascape views with resorts and bright, candy-coloured beach bungalows. I watch pelicans skimming the waves as kids run along the fine white sand. Palm trees and sea grass nod in the breeze. It’s a slice of carefree paradise – but there are pressing choices to be made.

The Beaches of Fort Myers & SanibelThe Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

WILL IT BE LUNCH FIRST? My mind wanders to the irresistible blackened grouper tacos served at the fun and funky Sanibel Fish House. It’s a place decorated with playful Caribbean beach bar décor, where a musician strums his guitar while crooning Jimmy Buffett hits. In the past, it’s also been the kind of place to relieve me of my mainland sensibilities, where I vowed to order a side salad instead of fries. But the melody of Margaritaville eased me into a beachy “why not?” state of mind.

Or perhaps I’ll get my toes into that white sand, starting with a walk on Bowman’s Beach, one of six public beaches on Sanibel-Captiva. This is where you can join the famous “Sanibel Stoop” brigade, the name given to the folks who come to this shelling paradise from all over the world, to stroll the beaches while slightly bent over and with heads down, to pick from the bounty of seashells.

The Beaches of Fort Myers & SanibelThe Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, the only museum in the U.S. devoted to shells, always provides inspiration. Download its app, a seashell guide complete with images and descriptions, to help you on your hunt.

One of my favourite Sanibel souvenirs is a small, glass-bellied table lamp – you can find them in many shops on the island – that I’ve filled with the seashells I collected on Sanibel’s beaches. It’s a lasting memory of a special place, especially when winter comes.

J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge covers roughly one-third of Sanibel Island. Protecting a large mangrove ecosystem, it’s a haven for migratory and native birds, as well as other creatures.

I’ve seen an astonishing amount of wildlife while driving the paved road that runs the length of the refuge. (The drive is closed Fridays.) But I see even more as I cycle through the Ding, a great option because renting a bike means I can take advantage of 35 kilometres of at bike paths that trace the island. Rangers are often found posted along Ding Darling’s paths, especially at popular viewpoints, with binoculars at the ready. They’re quick to offer up a glimpse or share information about the island’s wildlife, from birds to bobcats.

The Beaches of Fort Myers & SanibelOutrigger | The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

BACK ON THE MAINLAND, Fort Myers boasts its own excellent beaches, sheltered and shallow and strung along 11 kilometres of Estero Boulevard on Estero Island. I always walk out on Fort Myers Pier to watch hungry pelicans doing their best to snatch a catch away from the anglers. Following their lead, I snag my own catch at nearby Times Square, a prime spot for beachside shopping and dining.

As the day winds down, people turn up. They gather at the pier, at beach bars, on restaurant patios and along the shore for the ritual of admiring a Fort Myers sunset. We have a family tradition of taking a sundowner to a waterfront park overlooking the beach to toast the setting sun and another day in this Florida paradise – because, why not?

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When you go

William S. Speer, FortMyers-Sanibel.comWilliam S. Speer, FortMyers-Sanibel.com

WHAT TO DO: The Edison and Ford Winter Estates are a must-see in Fort Myers. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were snowbirds and spent winters with their families on the Caloosahatchee River. The site includes historic homes to tour, gardens, the Edison Ford Museum and more. Another of Edison’s legacies are the hundreds of magnificent Royal Palms lining McGregor Boulevard that you’ll pass along the way.

WHERE TO DINE: Dixie Fish Company bills itself as “an original Florida fish house.” Enjoy grouper or Florida pink shrimp and live music on the Estero Bay waterfront at Matanzas Pass. On Sanibel, order the coconut shrimp at The Fish House Restaurant, an eclectic eatery that rocks an island feel. Get your fill of conch fritters here, too.

WHERE TO STAY: Pink Shell Resort & Marina on Fort Myers Beach offers a full resort experience along with a great beach with a protected swimming/no-wake zone, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. Sanibel's all-suite beachfront resort Casa Ybel has watersports, yoga and bikes. Grab lunch or a sunset drink poolside or dinner at Thistle Lodge. Bonus: the suites have kitchens. The historic Island Inn on Sanibel Island has undergone a recent renovation to one building, creating 12 Gulf-view luxury suites, with private screened balconies and full kitchens. Located on the beach, it also has cottages for larger groups. 
  

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