It’s called island hopping.
However the trek from Fort Myers to Sanibel Island in Florida is more like a short road trip over a causeway before you start sunning yourself on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. And the beauty of this junket is there’s not a castle spire or Mickey Mouse hat in sight.
Captiva Island has been a long-time favourite sanctuary among artists, writers, politicians and celebrities. It is part of a chain of barrier islands off the coast of Fort Myers that also includes Cayo Costa Island, Cabbage Key, Useppa Island, North Captiva Island and Boca Grande. All are only accessible by boat or plane and offer plenty of interesting day-trip opportunities.
Our first “hop” took us to Captiva Island where we settled into comfortable family-friendly digs at the South Seas Island Resort, named a top-10 beach resort by Parents Magazine. Spread over more than one square kilometre, the property offers short- and long-term stay accommodation choices ranging from private homes to sunny, spacious hotel rooms that are a mere stone’s throw from shops, restaurants and miles of white sandy beaches.
It’s a lovely haven for those seeking rest and relaxation in a quiet setting and there’s no shortage of water and sporting activities to keep kids and adults happy. In fact, the property boasts three pools, six dining options, a spa and a nine-hole golf course. Singles and honeymooners can spend romantic evenings watching waves roll in or dance the night away at the friendly beachfront bar.
What struck me most about Captiva and environs was the die-hard commitment to eco-friendly tourism. No buildings in the region can be taller than the tallest palm tree on the island. You won’t find a coffee chain shop anywhere. And lights are minimized at night so sea turtles following the moon during nesting season aren’t distracted on their journey.
Birds and wildlife are regular visitors. A healthy population of ibis wanders the property, unfazed by human intruders. If you take a stroll down to the marina first thing in the morning you just might see a manatee pop its nose up for air.
One fun outing is a day trip run by Captiva Cruises to the Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant. Built on an Indian shell mound, the isolated site has its own small menagerie of reptiles and other critters. Playful wild dolphins accompany the boat on almost every crossing, performing acrobatics and entertaining passengers who cheer them on.
The restaurant has a particular cachet. Every surface of the dining room is papered with thousands of autographed dollar bills. It’s a tradition that began when a fisherman left an autographed bill taped to the wall to make sure a cold drink would be waiting for him on his return. Now almost every guest joins in the fun. Notable signatures include Julia Roberts, Kevin Costner, Matt Groening, the George Bush family, President Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy Jr.
When in town you can stroll through Andy Rosse Lane, known as the “hub” on Captiva Island. Walk down the lane to the beach past boutiques, local art galleries and a lovely selection of quirky restaurants.
The legendary Bubble Room Restaurant is an intriguing throwback to a bygone era, with every nook and cranny of its three floors stuffed with nostalgic items and Hollywood paraphernalia from the 1930s to the 1950s. The food is plentiful and desserts are worthy of an award or two. But be prepared for mammoth servings and a rowdy crowd.
The next “hop” took us to Sanibel Island and the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a 24-square-kilometre property that’s home to scores of wildlife including a wide variety of birds and native plants you rarely get to see. In fact, USA Today named the area the top birdwatching destination in North America.
A rare but unassuming gem along the route is the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Although it is relatively small by museum standards, it houses a spectacular array of rarities as well as common findings gathered from beaches in the region. Actually, this island is famous for its seashells and collectors spend hours combing through the refuse washed up onto the shorelines. Take care however. The island has very strict rules and prohibits any collection of live shells.
Our final “hop” was the Sanibel Lighthouse Boardwalk and Beach, a popular shell-collecting site complete with a beautifully preserved late 19th-century lighthouse where shells were so plentiful and literally crunched under our feet.
Back in Fort Myers, we settled in at the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa, a well-appointed property, which features a luxurious spa in a massive 3,716-square-metre building. There are plenty of walking and running trails, along with a fishing pier, water sports and a yacht you can book for a romantic sunset dinner cruise.
One more-than-pleasant surprise was the Edison & Ford Winter Estates complex, which ranks among the 10 most-visited historic homes in the USA. Kids might not be chomping at the bit when you suggest it, but they’ll soon change their minds. The buildings on the property exhibit ample evidence of Edison’s endless creative genius, from the first electrical cables to gramophones and early projectors. If you time it right, be sure to take in a demonstration in the gramophone room, where you can step back in time and experience what it must have been like to hear them for the first time.
Edison spent a great deal of his time at this stunning riverfront estate, where he worked his magic on more than just mechanical and electrical inventions. He and his wife also created one of the most complete botanical gardens in the country.
And literally a stone’s throw away is the home of Henry Ford where car buffs get an eyeful of models dating back to the early 20th century. One can just imagine the two inventors having a relaxed chat over the fence while tending to their gardens.
All in all, our visit may have been short, but it didn’t take long to realize the Fort Myers and Sanibel area has much to offer folks who prefer a more leisurely escape surrounded by nature.
WestJet (westjet.com) and Air Canada (aircanada.com) offer direct service daily to Fort Myers from Toronto. Plan your Gulf Coast getaway in the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel area at:
The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel: FortMyers-Sanibel.com
Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce: fortmyersbeach.org
Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant: cabbagekey.com
Edison & Ford Winter Estates: edisonfordwinterestates.org
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge: fws.gov/refuge/jn_ding_darling
Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa: marriott.com
South Seas Island Resort, Captiva Island: southseas.com
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum: shellmuseum.org