Strolling magnificent stretches of white sand are just the first step to experiencing the natural side of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. There are more than 400,000 hectares of nature sanctuaries to explore, and most have paths and boardwalks that allow event the most timid of adventurers to get out and see an abundance of wildlife going about its everyday business in a most natural setting.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, named for Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and pioneer environmentalist Jay Norwood Darling, sits on the northeast side of Sanibel Island. Footpaths, winding canoe/kayak trails and a 6.4-kilometre scenic drive, lush with seagrape, wax and salt myrtles, red mangrove, cabbage and sabal palms are all options to get out and see white pelicans, roseate spoonbills, manatees, wood storks, bald eagles, American peregrine falcons, ospreys, herons, American alligators and Atlantic loggerhead turtles.
Canoe Adventures, Tarpon Bay Explorers and Captiva Kayak & Wildside Adventures rent canoes and kayaks. A guided tour with a naturalist is essential for maximum appreciation of the refuge.
You can see many of the same species at the nearby Sanibel-Captiva Nature Conservation Foundation, which also features a nature centre, native plant nursery, gift shop and more than seven kilometres of nature trails.
Or head over to the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium on Ortiz /CWBYW southeast of Fort Myers. It boasts bird and butterfly aviaries, a short boardwalk through a natural swamp and several exhibits in a central building.
At Lovers Key State Park on Black Island, just south of Fort Myers Beach, you can hop aboard a delightful tram that runs along a rustic boardwalk, crossing picturesque Oyster Bay past mangrove isles, to one of the most private public beaches anywhere. On the unspoiled beach you can cast at surf line, picnic with raccoons, bird watch and search the shoreline for seashells, among other things.
Near Fort Myers Beach, stroll the elevated boardwalk for views of unspoiled live oak hammock and mangrove shoreline at Matanzas Pass Wilderness Preserve. Nearby, Mound Key, constructed from shells deposited by Calusa Indians centuries ago, is a favourite with professional archaeologists, history buffs and picnickers.
The 1.6-kilometre boardwalk through the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve lets you interact with a variety of fauna and flora, mammals and reptiles in a wetland ecosystem. The Preserve is a natural “drainage-way” that cleans rainfall runoff from the local watershed area as it runs to the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve.
One of the best ways to see all these aquatic attractions is to join a guided kayak expedition. Several companies can lead you through the wonders Matlacha Pass, North Captiva Island and unspoiled Cayo Costa Island State Park.
Birders head to internationally recognized Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary southeast of Bonita Springs, owned and operated by the National Audubon Society, to see varieties of wading and migratory birds and other wildlife along nature trails through the largest virgin bald cypress forest in the US. It’s also a gateway to the Great Florida Birding Trail. Further afield, the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress Swamp, home of the National Audubon Society, are a convenient day-trip from anywhere in the vicinity.
On Sanibel, the recently opened, Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife’s (CROW) new Healing Winds Visitor Education Center offers a rare opportunity to learn how one of the nation’s leading rehabilitation hospitals rescues and cares for injured and abandoned wildlife; and the Sanibel Sea School teaches kids and adults about the marine ecosystems of both Sanibel and Captiva islands.
Found in local waters year-round, “Manatee Season” is November through March, when they congregate in local waters to feed and stay warm. View these gentle sea mammals in a non-captive habitat at Manatee Park. Interpretive naturalists work onsite presenting programs about manatees, butterflies and native plants.
Everglades Wonder Gardens, established in 1936, is one of Florida’s earliest wildlife attractions. Watch guides feed giant gators, take in an otter show and view the park’s other residents including Florida panthers, Florida black bear, American crocodiles and alligators, white tail deer, bobcats, hawks, owls, snakes and wild boars. Botanists often refer to its lush tropical tree gardens as one of the finest in the world. There is also a unique natural history museum with artifacts and relics ranging from prehistoric through Calusa Indian eras.
Finally, if bugs are your thing, head to The Butterfly Estates in downtown Fort Myers, and stroll through butterfly habitat with cascading waterfalls, lush tropical nectar plants and thousands of butterflies.
For more information, visit www.fortmyers-sanibel.com