Lee County CVB
Floridians from more congested parts of the state regard Lee County as a favourite vacation spot and Canadians are starting to recognize Sanibel, Captiva, and other barrier islands off Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, as fertile territory for an island hopping getaway. Along with the perennial Florida pastimes of watersports and golf, these islands host significant eco-reserves and the raw material for an activity that’s practiced as passionately as any Olympic sport.
Sanibel Island, actually made of seashells, is renowned for its abundance and variety of shells found along expansive white beaches. The partial east-west orientation of the island turns its south shore into a massive scoop, funnelling new treasure from the Gulf and Caribbean with each turn of the tide.
Visitors invariably develop the distinctive Sanibel Stoop, bending at the waist to scour the sand for conch, junonia, lightning whelk, cockle, murex, tulip, and more than 400 other varieties. Some even join the ranks of the fanatics who strap on headlamps to take advantage of high and low tide, regardless of the time of day. And you can bet these folks turn up every March to compare collections and shell art at the Sanibel Shell Faire and Show.
Local tip: smaller shells wash up on the east end of the island around Lighthouse Beach, while there is a better chance of picking larger ones close to Captiva and North Captiva. Just be sure not to disturb “live shells” (it would be a shame to kill a creature for its home when there are so many vacant abodes lying around). The law protects all live shells, and don’t even think about shelling in J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Sanibel Beyond The Beach
For visitors interested in learning more about their seaside collectibles, Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel hosts 30-plus exhibits devoted to shells in art and history, shell habitat, rare specimens, fossil shells, common Southwest Florida shells and shells from around the world. Look for great books on shells in the museum store.
And while we’re talking shopping, Periwinkle Way – Sanibel’s pretty main street – is stocked with boutiques, galleries, gift shops and restaurants.
The eastern end of Periwinkle Way extends into Old Town near the Sanibel Lighthouse and close to the five-kilometre causeway that connects the island with the mainland. Now home to quaint village shops, inns and restaurants, Old Town is a great area for browsing. Pick up the Sanibel Historical Society’s walking and biking tour map and follow the four-kilometre trail.
Maps are available at the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village, a collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings dedicated to the pioneer families of Sanibel Island and Captiva Island and relating local history from the days of the Calusa Indians.
J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
It’s a short step from human history to natural history in these parts. As you head towards the northern tip of Sanibel and the short bridge to Captiva Island, “the Ding” stretches along the right, encompassing much of the north shore region and occupying more than two-thirds of Sanibel Island.
Named for Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and pioneer environmentalist Jay Norwood Darling, this wildlife refuge protects part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States and is renowned for its migratory bird populations. Home to 220 species of birds, more than 50 types of reptiles, and 32 different kinds of mammals, the Ding provides bird watching spots, bike and walking paths, canoe and kayak trails and a 6.5-kilometre scenic drive. Don’t be surprised to see a raccoon washing up before breakfast, an alligator snatching a quick bite, or long-legged wading birds stalking their prey.
Fans of this island quip that the main attraction on Captiva is that there is none. Visitors come here for serious downtime, whiling away the hours in one outdoor endeavour or another. Turner Beach, a swath of white sand stretching eight kilometres to the northern tip of the island at Redfish Pass, is a great place for fishing and shelling. And it was here on Captiva that Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famous aviator, wrote her best-seller Gift from the Sea.
North Captiva and Cayo Costa
North Captiva and Cayo Costa Island Preserve are known for their virtually deserted coastlines and excellent shelling potential. Competition for prize specimens is less ferocious here than on some of the more easily accessible islands, so if you’re really serious about collecting, you might want to connect with a local shelling guide and join an excursion to these islands.
Manatees and dolphins are regular sights in these waters off Cayo Costa, and visitors can swim or snorkel in the surf. Nature trails that criss-cross the island are ideal for hiking and biking, saltwater anglers can fish from boats or cast into the surf, and there’s a boggling assortment of birds for watching. But you may prefer just to kick back and sun on the beach or picnic in the shade. The park provides primitive cabins and tent camping spaces for overnight stays.
After communing with nature on a castaway isle, you may be ready for a sociable watering hole. Cabbage Key is the shipwrecked sailor’s dream of salvation. Built atop an ancient Calusa Indian shell mound, this lively refuge is situated at Milemarker 60 on the Intracoastal Waterway.
Mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart helped her son build his home here in 1938. Converted into a cozy inn with six guest rooms surrounded by 40 hectares of tropical vegetation, the main attraction is a picturesque dining room with about $30,000 worth of George Washington wallpaper. The tradition started when a thirsty fisherman left his bill taped to the wall, ensuring a cold drink the next time he stopped by. Now everybody leaves an autographed buck, if they can find a space.
Island hopping north via a short boat ride from Captiva or Pine Island, Boca Grande is a charming harbour town on Gasparilla Island. Founded by the wealthy DuPont family in the late 1800s, this sleepy little southern community comes replete with small shops, cozy restaurants, waterside accommodations and beautiful beaches. Members of the Boca Grande Tarpon Guides Association, largely composed of local third and fourth generation fishing captains, provide anglers with all the backup they need for a successful catch.
South of Fort Myers on the mainland, Fort Myers Beach on Estero Island, with its ultra soft, powdered sugar sand, is recognized as one of the “world’s safest beaches” because of its gently sloping shoreline. Beautifully suited to family vacations, the island is jam-packed with motels, hotels and restaurants. Estero Island offers every conceivable water activity from windsurfing to fishing charters.
Dolphins frequently frolic in Estero Bay, part of the Intracoastal Waterway, and local marinas set the stage for sunset cruises, sightseeing excursions and deep-sea fishing. At the southern tip of the island, a bridge leads to Lovers Key State Park on Black Island, the ideal spot for an afternoon outing.
Lovers Key State Park on Black Island
Local lore has it that before the bridge provided easy access, only lovers travelled to the island to enjoy its remote and solitary beach. Now it’s one of four barrier islands included in the state park. The islands and their surrounding waters are home to West Indian manatees, bottlenose dolphins, roseate spoonbills, marsh rabbits, and bald eagles.
Further south on the peninsula, Bonita Beach lies on the boundary of the Lee County area where traces of old and new Florida peacefully coexist along gently winding beaches. This is one of the best places in Southwest Florida to catch the sunset, where bits of shell along the beach echo the pastel pink and salmon hues of the Gulf of Mexico nearly every evening. A great place to view the sunset spectacular is Doc’s Beach House. The former biker bar is now a popular family-friendly eatery.
The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail
Paddling is an excellent way to explore the natural world of these islands and following the Great Calusa Blueway is a good choice for everyone.
Marked by easy-to-identify brown signs that guide paddlers through shallow areas away from powerboat traffic, this aquatic trail meanders through the coastal waters and inland tributaries of Lee County, taking in Sanibel and Captiva islands, the Pine Island-Estero Bay area and Caloosahatchee River.
More information from www.FortMyersSanibel.com