Much to love in southwest Florida
SHERYL NANCE-NASH | 5/16/2019, 6:33 p.m.
When people think Florida, Orlando or Miami often come to mind. But there’s a whole lot more to the Sunshine State. Take for example Southwest Florida. Fly into Fort Myers, and Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Captiva Islands await. That trio is a winning combo for a fun-filled vacay.
Call Captiva Island your home away from home. The South Seas Island Resort there is surrounded by a 330-acre wildlife preserve, dolphins, manatees and more than two miles of beach. Bike, golf, play tennis, paddle board, kayak, fish or hit the pools. There are plenty of trails to walk, and a bonus, you’re likely to see an array of birds, other wildlife and depending on your route, shells and more shells.
You’ll have much to entertain yourself with and the eating is good, too. Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille is a favorite. The vibe is casual, lively. Start out with Captiva crab cakes, spinach & artichoke flatbread or Bayamo black bean dip with corn tortillas. There are too many choices for entrees, be it the cedar plank salmon, deep water mahi mahi, panko-crusted grouper, quinoa salad or island style shrimp & grits, and that’s not half the offerings. Go ahead and feast. Get up with the sun and run or stroll the beach to undo the damage.
Truth is you might be tempted to never leave the resort, but resist. You want to explore, not only the rest of Captiva, but Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island.
In Sanibel make your way to the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It’s 6,400 preserved acres and one of the largest mangrove wildernesses in the U.S. What you see depends on the season. You could be privy to sea turtles nesting, alligators laying eggs, manatees, shorebirds, white pelicans, and plenty more. One of your biggest dilemmas will be deciding on a beach—Bowman, Blind Pass, Tarpon or Lighthouse Beaches, or the Sanibel Causeway? Do eeny, meeny, miny, moe, there’s no bad choice. Rent a scooter, moped or bike for more island fun. Never heard of pickleball? Check it out, you just might like it. Set sail from Sanibel on a fishing charter, or a number of cruises, be it breakfast, sunset or nature and wildlife-themed trips.
Don’t leave Sanibel without having dinner at the Mad Hatter. The themed restaurant takes a love for “Alice in Wonderland” to a new level. Details will spoil the surprise, but throughout the restaurant many things somehow pay homage to the Lewis Carroll classic. Much as all this adds to the atmosphere, the reason diners leaving often stop to make a reservation for a future visit on the way out is the fantastic food. Get set for duck foie gras mousse pate, blue crab cakes, smoked salmon rolls, strawberry cheese salad, braised boneless short ribs, rack of lamb or roasted stack of tofu. Do not even think of your diet, treat yourself.
The fun continues in Fort Myers Beach, which is about an hour from Captiva Island. Southwest Florida’s sunsets are the stuff of movies. You’ll see some of the best ones from the Fort Myers Beach Pier. You’re likely to see a dolphin or two, or three playing in the Gulf of Mexico. Swim, parasail, splash around with the kids or simply soak up the sun. No worry if you get hungry or have the urge to shop, right at the beach is Times Square with shops and restaurants.
With a name like Lovers Key State Park you expect romance. Couples will get what they seek at this special spot in Fort Myers Beach. There’s a two-mile beach, a forest for hiking, narrow waterways for whispering sweet nothings while kayaking. The bald eagles, dolphins, and marsh rabbits add to the idyllic atmosphere.
Downtown Fort Myers’ River District is where you’ll find the Butterfly Estates in Gardner’s Park. Immerse yourself in the beautiful butterflies and tropical plants in this 3,600 square foot glass botanical conservatory. Another plus, there will likely also be musical entertainment and exhibits showcasing local artists’ talent.
What is it about manatees that warms the heart? Manatee Park in Fort Myers is the place for getting your manatee fix in a non-captive, natural environment. If you like, picnic there, explore native plant and butterfly gardens, or rent a kayak or canoe to enjoy on the Orange River. This family-friendly attraction charges no admission.
The Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers is over 3,500 acres of wetland ecosystem with a boardwalk trail and Interpretive Center. The cypress slough catches and slowly filters rainwater on its way towards Estero Bay. The preserve is home to otters, alligators, turtles, wading birds, and more. You’ll find them any time of year. But the migrating birds and butterflies only come for the winter.
If you’re in town on the first Friday of the month, make your way to the River District for the Art Walk. It’s free and fun. Visit galleries that spotlight local artists’ work and host receptions. Meet artists, enjoy street musicians, bands, food and more.