The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

With sugar sand beaches and crystalline waters, spinach-green mangrove forests and hundreds of kilometres of wooded cycling and hiking trails, the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel offer a quieter, less crowded and more authentic side of Florida. Here is what to expect…

Fly into the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel’s main airport, Southwest Florida International Airport and you can be in the artistic, waterside downtown of Fort Myers in no time (less than a 30 minute drive from the airport). Alternatively, fly into Miami and hire a car to reach The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel in around two-and-a-half hours. This area of Florida – a string of over 100 sand barrier islands scattered across the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico – is situated along the state’s southwest coast and immediately puts you in the heart of nature. 

7 Must-Visit places in The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

Sanibel Island 

With its thousands of acres of thick mangrove wetlands, rainbow blooms of bougainvillea and pearly beaches studded with ancient seashells, Sanibel Island is a subtropical, ecological escape. The island’s main draw is undoubtably the J.N “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The 21 sq km wild space is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove system in the whole of the United States. One of the best ways to explore it and spot the many creatures that call it home is by kayak. Paddle quietly through the mangroves, looking and listening out for creeping chameleons, geckoes, tree frogs, alligators and nesting loggerhead sea turtles. The refuge is world-famous for its huge diversity of migratory bird populations, so be sure to keep your eyes open to spot some of the 245 species including pelicans, cranes, herons, vultures and many more. 

Elsewhere on the island, head to the shell-piled seashores to take on the so-called 'Sanibel Stoop’ as you keep your eyes to the ground in search of rare shells. There are 400 species of multi-coloured seashells including the rarest of them all, the brown speckled junonia. Stumbling across a junonia may get your photo in the local Sanibel newspaper.

Be sure to visit the Sanibel Lighthouse, one of the first in the whole of Florida’s Gulf Coast, having first been lit in 1884. End your day by watching the sun melting into the sky, dyeing it all shades of purple and orange over the water. 

Captiva Island 

This laid-back quirky island maybe small on crowds but has a large personality. Connected to Sanibel via the Blind Pass Bridge, Captiva has been a muse for artists such as Raushenberg for many years. From the eccentric restaurants to the westerly views of sunsets that set the golf on fire, Captiva will capture your heart and creativity. The island is also a great base for adventures, and is a jumping off point for many excursions. Why not head out in a kayak or a paddle board to explore the bays and mangrove forests with Adventure Sea Kayak? Hire a boat with Sunny Island Adventures to get further out on the Gulf of Mexico’s sparkling waters and spot dolphins. The company also offers bike rentals for those who prefer to stay on dry ground, or for something more thrilling, enjoy a bird’s eye view of Captiva on a parasailing excursion. 

For a taste of history, head out on a cruise to Cabbage Key with Captiva Cruises to discover the secluded, traffic-free island surrounded by 100 acres of tropical vegetation. Walk the short nature trail and climb the water tower before grabbing lunch at the 1938 Inn and Restaurant, founded by American Playwright Mary Roberts Rinehart. The restaurant serves up everything from seafood to delicious desserts, but be sure to order the self-claimed paradisiac cheeseburger. The restaurant is covered in signed dollar bills, a tradition started by a fisherman who left his autographed bill taped to the wall, ensuring a cold drink the next time he stopped by. Today the fallen dollars are donated to a local charity.

After a long day of adventure, head back to Captiva Island to refuel at one of the beach-side restaurants along the eclectic Andy Rosse Lane to eat seafood fresh from the Gulf. 

Cape Coral 

With 145km of interconnected bike trails, great beach access and the world’s largest municipal network of canals outside of Venice, Cape Coral is catnip for adventurers. Don’t miss a tour of the maze of canals on the Homes, Harbour and Nature Tour. This hour-and-a-half cruise will allow you to appreciate the architecture of the historic estates of Cape Coral, spy playful bottlenose dolphins in the San Carlos Bay, as well as many birds including the great blue heron, eagles and pelicans. 

Back on dry land, be sure to visit the Rotary Park Environmental Center to walk one of the many trails that will reveal snakes, lizards and turtles. Meanwhile, over at the Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve, you can follow a boardwalk walking trail through the 365-acre wetland to spy snakes, racoons and eagles. Keep an eye out for the Florida burrowing owl, the ‘Official City Bird’ of Cape Coral. These unusual owls live create shelters by digging into the ground and there are over 3,500 owl burrows on Cape Coral. 

All of that exploring is thirsty work, so make a pit stop at the award-winning Wicked Dolphin Rum Distillery to quench your thirst on a tour. You will be shown around the distillery, local ingredients such Florida sugar cane are sourced, the fermenting process and how the rum gets its unique colour sand taste. The tour ends with a chance to sample the many different rums. 

Bonita Springs & Lovers Key State Park 

As the second largest state park in Florida, Lovers Key State Park delights visitors with its four kilometres of white sand beaches and eight kilometres of hiking and walking trails, easily reached by trolley bus from Fort Myers Beach. Embark on a trail to wind past freshwater ponds filled with gopher tortoises and alligators. Alternatively, explore on two wheels along the Black Island Trail or Eagle Trail, both of which will take you through the maritime hammock. Along the way, spot dolphins and manatees splashing in the waterways, and look up to see bald eagles and ospreys. Get closer to the wildlife by hiring a kayak and paddling through the four kilometre mangrove estuary.

Elsewhere in Bonita Springs, more nature awaits. The Big Hickory Island Preserve, for example, protects some 186 acres of barrier island ecology, including mud flats and mangroves, home to wading birds, bottlenose dolphins, opossums, racoons and even bobcats.  

Gasparilla Island 

With its sugary sands and bath-like waters, it's little wonder this barrier island is such a favourite among locals and visitors alike. Don a mask and snorkel or dive under to see marine life such as barracuda, nurse sharks and moray eels slaloming between the coral. 

Gasparilla island is also a joy to discover by bike, with the flat topography and sea breezes (the island is 0.4 kilometres wide at its fattest, so you’re never far from the coast) making for easy pedalling. Follow the almost 10km Boca Grande Bike Path to pass the Lighthouse Museum, Bayan trees, wild iguanas and the restaurants and boutiques of downtown Boca Grande. 

The island’s main outdoor attraction is Gasparilla Island State Park. Easy nature trails (and serious birding) abounds - keep an eye out for Great Blue Herons, ospreys, and brown pelicans among others.

 

Estero Island/Fort Myers Beach

Connected to Lovers Key State Park via a bridge at its southern edge, Estero Island is home to Fort Myers Beach. The 11km stretch of coastline offers warm, shallow waters, old Florida charm and the annual Shrimp Festival. 

Times Square is considered the heart of Estero Island’s downtown. Full of shops and restaurants, Times Square features outdoor dining, street performers, and plenty of spots to sit down and relax. The area is adjacent to the Fort Myers Beach Pier, the best place to watch our astounding sunsets.

Elsewhere on the barrier island, Estero Bay Preserve State Park puts visitors in the heart of subtropical Floridian wilderness, with salt flats, mangrove-shrouded coastline, and pine woods all waiting to be explored. Getting to Mound Key Archeological State Park is an adventure in itself, as the island is only accessible by boat. Once there, you’ll be free to explore the mangroves studded with mounds left by the native Calusa people. For something easier to reach, head to Mantazas Pass Preserve, a 60-acre county park home to an oak forest and great access to the Great Calusa Blueway.  

Fort Myers 

With its pastel-hued buildings and fascinating history, Fort Myers is the perfect place to get away from the coast and into the city. Easily explored on foot, embark on a walking tour of downtown’s River District to admire the Art Deco and Spanish-influenced architecture. For more historic buildings, take a tour of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, former holiday homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Spend some time exploring outside the estates too, where the botanical garden with its 1,700 plants including tropical fruit trees, won’t disappoint. 

The Downtown River District of Fort Myers really comes alive during the monthly Art Walk and Music Walk events. Art Walk is held the first Friday of each month, where galleries, museums and shops stay open late, with special exhibits and activities. There's even a free trolley to take you to shops and galleries outside the immediate downtown area. On the third Friday of each month for Music Walk performers take to the streets playing jazz to top 40 and everything in between.

Outdoors lovers will want to head to the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, a 3,500 acre wetland cut through with a roughly two kilometre boardwalk trail that wends past the eponymous, spindly cypress trees and - if you’re lucky - otters and alligators. 

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Some of Florida’s finest beaches, cultural hotspots, and wildlife and nature awaits on this leisurely road trip along the Gulf of Mexico...

Adventures on land

Cycling 

The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is a place where the flat topography and balmy climes makes for easy and accessible cycling. Add to that the safe conditions for cyclists (there are separate cycle lanes to the main road and cyclists have the right of way) and you have perfect pedalling conditions. 

With flat lanes shaded by Buttonwood and Gumbo Limbo trees (and rigorously enforced speed limits), Sanibel Island is a cycling dream, as evinced by some 40 kilometres of paved cycling trails. Here, you can pedal the six-and-a-half kilometre  Wildlife Drive Loop through J.N “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, passing migratory birds, alligators and other marine wonders en route. Alternatively, head to the eastern half of Sanibel to take in views of the Sanibel Lighthouse. For a bit of history, cycle the Middle Gulf Cemetery Bike Trail to see the graves of some of the island’s original settlers. To combine biking with local fare, opt for the Periwinkle Way, an off-the-beaten-track trail on the east of the island that offers scatterings of boutique shops and eateries.

Elsewhere, at the town of Fort Myers Beach, you can rent fat-tire beach cruisers and pedal along the boardwalk, or take on one of the local bike routes of Cape Coral. 

Mountain Biking 

The closest mountains to the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel may be in Cuba (this is not an exaggeration), but if you want to do some mountain biking, you only need to head to Caloosahatchee Regional Park, located about 30 km east of downtown Fort Myers. There are over 17 km of twisty mountain biking trails here, some cut from the dirt, some fashioned from cleverly angled boardwalks. The trail has been integrated into both the open Southwest Florida prairie and nearby subtropical forest; in these latter sections, the ride is tight and fast (and more than a little thrilling). Bear in mind this is a one-way single track trail that changes direction on a monthly basis; check with the Mudcutters, a local advocacy group that maintains the trail, for conditions.

Hiking 

With so much forest, lush greenery and long beaches, it’s no surprise that The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel is such a hiking paradise. Hit the boardwalks of Six Cypress Slough Preserve for a gentle two kilometre stroll across the wooden walkway, pausing to admire the racoons, alligators and birds you’ll see along the way. Similarly, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary offers a three-and-a-half kilometre trail along boardwalks past marshes, pine flat woods and the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America.

More traditional hiking can be found at Estero Bay Preserve State Park, where the spiky coastal savannah and salt-whipped pine forests await exploration. The Bonita Beach Walk is a roughly four-and-a-half kilometre out and back trail that runs between Bonita Beach and Bonita Beach Rd that is framed by residential homes, sawgrass and palmetto green spaces, and sandy shores.  At nearby Lovers Key State Park, the Black Island Trail consists of two loop trails totalling some eight kilometres that rolls by coconut palms and sea grapes. 

For something more challenging, head to Caloosahatchee Regional Park where some 32 km of trails will lead you through pine flat woods and oak hammocks. 

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Discover unspoilt white sand beaches, exotic wildlife and lush subtropical foliage on this seven-night trip to The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel with America As You Like It…

Adventures on water

Kayaking 

If you’re looking for warm weather kayaking in the continental USA, the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel are ridiculously ideal. Besides being beautiful fists of green vegetation, the local barrier islands create calm inland waterways such as Estero Bay, which is protected by the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve.

While there’s no shortage of green space in the area, paddlers are also served by the Great Calusa Blueway, a 205 km network of aquatic trails that connect the open, calm waters of Estero Bay to the shores of Pine Island to the tight palm corridors and mahogany woods that shade the Caloosahatchee River. If you thought the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel were an escape from the busy day to day, wait until you’re on the Blueway, where your only accompaniment is the wind, the waves, skimming pelicans, and if you’re lucky (and looking!), the cresting fin of a dolphin. 

Don't miss Kayaking the largest mangrove ecosystem in the whole of the USA. Kayaking through a narrow passageway that slices between the thick, dark green foliage of a mangrove forest, with only the sound of your paddle splashing in the water as company, is a relaxing and revealing way to explore this unique ecosystem. Go slowly to keep an eye out for birds such as the roseate spoonbill and pelicans as well as dolphins, manatees and alligators. 

Paddleboarding 

The Gulf of Mexico, on Florida’s west coast, is a calmer, warmer body of water compared to the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast. Throw in huge bodies of sheltered water, including Estero Bay, San Carlos Bay, and Pine Island Sound, and you’ve got the recipe for a good paddleboarding environment. Lovers Key is a particularly popular spot, while the entirety of Estero Island is rife with mangrove ecosystems, beaches, and a landscape of islands, shallow water, and causeways. Paddleboarders may well spot a manatee on an excursion out to Mound Key, and are almost guaranteed to see some of the region’s avian fauna. Other outfits in the area offer paddleboard instruction, exploration of the Matanzas Pass, and even paddleboarding yoga. Closer to Cape Coral, you can explore that town’s vast canal network, or take off for excursions around rural Pine Island and the bohemian fisherfolk on Matlacha.

Island-hopping 

The best way to explore the over 100 island and islets that are scatted up and down the azure waters surronding The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel? By climbing aboard a sailing boat for an island-hopping adventure. Some of the smaller islets are nothing more than clumps of mangroves, while others are sand-fringed knuckles of wild pine inhabited by fox squirrels, alligators, plover, and spoonbills.

Other islands - many of which are only accessible by boat - include Useppa Island, a car-free 100-acre outcrop that is the site of a storied private club, the bridge-accessible artist colony meets fishing village of Matlacha, and the gem of the area’s offshore islands: Cayo Costa. This protected state park can only be reached by boat and is home to some 14 km of white sand beaches, wind carved dunes, primitive camping, and cabins. 

Alternatively, hop aboard a Captiva Cruise for a tour of Cayo Costa State Park. This beautiful barrier island can only be reached by boast and offers 10 km of trails, secluded sands and pine forests, as well as birdwatching and snorkelling opportunities.

Snorkelling and diving

Head below the water’s surface at The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel and you will discover over 20 artificial reefs that provide a colourful home to over 250 species of fish and countless other marine life. You don’t have to go deep either, with spots such as the Belton Johnson Reef off Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel Island and Captiva Beach on Captiva island offering snorkeller’s eye-fulls of nurse sharks, grouper and moray eels. 

Those looking to go deeper can dive to the further out dive sites such as the wreck of the USS Mohawk Memorial Reef, a World War II warship that lies 27 metres deep, and Charlie’s Reef which is almost 50 km away from the shore. 

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Book a stay at Fort Myers Villas with USAirtours to spend your time strolling the sands of the nearby beaches, seeking out rare wildlife, paddling along the mangrove system and soaking up history at places such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Winter Estate Museums...

Birdwatching

There’s a certain kind of birder who talks about the avian fauna in Southwest Florida in the most reverential of tones, and with good reason. This part of the country basically sits smack bang in the middle of one of the most utilised bird migration routes in the world and is visited by 245 species of migratory birds and home to five local birds. The presence of protected wetlands and rookeries means the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel are as popular with things that flap as they are with human visitors, and just as families return to these beaches year after year, so do generations of birds.

Wading birds are the most prized species for twitchers to ‘bag’ in this part of the world, and they can be spotted in their literal hundreds in sanctuaries such as Six Mile Cypress Slough, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In truth, you could end up close to any body of water here and it likely wouldn't take long to spot a Great Blue Heron or Yellow-Crowned Night Heron poking along the estuarine waters in search of a crab or fish to snack on. 

Other species in the area include the brown pelican, a favourite guest at local docks, and the American white heron, one of the heaviest birds in the world. Also be on the lookout for flamingos, the peregrine falcon (the fastest animal in the world), and the elegant anhinga, which uses its lithe body and needle beak to catch its prey. Similar in its pink hue to the flamingo is the roseate spoonbill which uses its flat, ladel-like beak to catch a variety of snacks, sometimes as big as frogs!

Another favourite among birders in this part of Florida is the great egret, an apt name for a bird blessed with almost a metre height and pure white feathers – a great sight indeed.

The pride and joy of Sanibel Island is the protected space of J.N "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to roseate spoonbills, ospreys, and great egrets, among dozens of other bird species. The main activity here (and arguably for the entire trip) is heading through the refuge’s six-and-a-half-kilometre Wildlife Drive, which can be accessed via car (there’s a strict 15-mile per hour speed limit) or bicycle. This mangrove swamp, home to hundreds of birds such as ospreys and falcons, is one of the truest slices of natural, rugged landscape to be found in the state of Florida.

More wildlife… and where to spot it

Manatees 

The gentle giant manatee is the official marine mammal of Florida, which is saying something in a state with no shortage of mascots. These enormous aquatic animals (they can weigh up to 450 kg) like to swim up the local protected waterways that ring and run through the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel. Local manatees, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, can sometimes be found at Manatee Park, where there is a viewing platform dedicated to spotting them, and often enough in the warm canals around Lovers Key. November through March is the best viewing time. 

Dolphins 

Playful pods of dolphins can occasionally be spotted from the beach or causeway bridges that connect the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. But for your best chances of seeing dolphins, get out on the water! A bucket list highlight of many a local kayaking or paddleboarding excursion is watching porpoises dance over the waves that lap the region's many barrier islands. There’s no one better spot for encountering a dolphin other than saltwater, but the best times of day for seeing them are sunrise, around mid-morning (10am-noon), and the waning hours of afternoon before the sun sets. 

Otters 

North American river otters are playful, efficient predators that can be found throughout Florida’s freshwater rivers and lakes. Increase your chances of spotting them by heading to watery protected areas such as Six Mile Cypress Slough and the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Otters have also been spotted running through Sanibel backyards. Twilight hours – around dawn and dusk – are the best times for otter activity, but these mammals are infamously elusive. Look to riverbanks; otters are known to slide down muddy embankments for, it seems, the sheer fun of it. 

Turtles

Visit the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel in May to witness loggerhead turtles returning to the sand to dig nests for their eggs. Alternatively, visit around July to see those same eggs hatch and watch the hatchlings scurry down to the water in their hundreds. 

Make it happen

What are you waiting for?

Start planning your dream adventure to Fort Myers and Sanibel now by heading over to the official website.