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Fort Myers Insider Guide

There are over 4500 islands surrounding the state of Florida and Fort Myers is a gateway to an epic island-hopping adventure on Florida's west coast.

By: Lauren Gay + Save to a List

The state of Florida is full of unique adventures and breathtaking natural wonders to be explored. With the milder temperatures year-round and abundance of white sandy shores, it is no wonder so many northern residents, popularly known as “snowbirds”, flock to Florida cities like Fort Myers and the nearby islands of Sanibel and Captiva for an escape that offers a taste of island living.

I’m Lauren Gay, the Outdoorsy Diva, a Texas native turned full-fledged Florida explorer. I love being on the water so when I learned there are over 4500 islands over 10 acres surrounding the state of Florida, I set out to see as many of them as I can. I love to visit the slower paced cities like Fort Myers and island-hop to laid back island towns because of the change of pace from urban life and the variety of outdoor fun they offer. Once you cross the bridge or get on a boat to get there, it really feels like you have escaped.

Fort Myers

Things to Do in Fort Myers

Botanical Gardens at Winter Estates of Edison & Ford

The Winter Estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford is a popular attraction in Fort Myers known for its 15,000 square-foot museum dedicated to the inventions of both men in the electricity and automotive industries and Edison's lab.

However, the real gem is the 20 acres of botanical gardens on the property making it one of the most beautiful places in the state for nature lovers. There are over 2,000 plants and trees from 400 different species from 6 continents. 

Of particular interest is the magnificent sprawling Banyan tree planted by Edison in the early 1920s during his days of experiments in rubber and latex research. This is the largest Banyan tree in the continental U.S. at 84 feet tall and over 30 feet in circumference. It is truly mesmerizing to see the vast root system extend from aerial branches down into the ground. 

You can spend hours walking the paths through expansive gardens along the Caloosahatchee River and even see a real model T car on your way.

Williams Academy Museum

Williams Academy Museum is another notable and important part of the Fort Myers community worth visiting. Visitors will learn about the historical significance of the original Williams Academy that was built in 1912 as the first school in the county for Black students. There is also historical memorabilia that highlights the history and culture of the Black citizens of Lee county. The museum can even be toured virtually on their website.

Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve

Explore over 3500 acres of wetland via boardwalk where you will see otters, alligators, turtles, and wading birds. The Slough is really a slow moving river that provides sanctuary to the indigenous wildlife eventually and eventually empties into the Estero Bay. There is no entrance fee but there is a fee for parking.

Visit Lover's Key State Park

Lover's Key State Park has 2 miles of beautiful untouched beach, hiking trails, and kayak trails for paddlers of all experience levels.

Where to Stay

Luminary Hotel & Co. by Marriott Autograph is a new addition to the downtown Fort Myers cityscape. With a boutique hotel aesthetic and sunset views of the river, Luminary offers a convenient home base to explore the nearby points of interest. Luminary is also home to the Ella Mae diner serving traditional American fares.

Where to Eat

After a day of nature walks, McGregor Café is a favorite local restaurant known for fresh ingredients and homemade dishes. The lobster cake salad is a fan favorite as well as the generous slices of in-house-made key lime pie.

If you’re craving southern flavors, Deep Down South BBQ is another local favorite. They are famous for their fried garlic crabs and tender fall-off-the-bone ribs as well as other southern side dishes like fried okra and homemade baked macaroni and cheese.

Sanibel Island

Things To Do

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Visiting the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge offers adventurers several ways to experience the refuge and observe wildlife.

Darling NWR is one of the top spots in the U.S. for birding. Visitors can take the 4 mile Wildlife drive via car or tram. There are also 3 hiking trails of varying lengths: Indigo Trail, Shellmound Trail, and Wulfert Key Trail. Animals like alligators, marsh rabbits, otters, and bobcats are common in the refuge.

Bailey Tract is a free trail accessed from a separate area from the rest of the Wildlife Refuge. This is 100 acres of interior wetland where birds and plants that thrive in freshwater environments frequent. Bailey Tract is popular for hiking, nature photography, birding, and cycling and there are several loops as short as .25 miles to 1.1 mile long.

Kayaking through JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge perfect way to spend a morning and get a different vantage point of the wildlife refuge from the water. Glide through mangrove forests on the Tarpon Bay Commodore Creek Trail with a naturalist guide via tour or on your own with a kayak rental. This is a peaceful relatively easy 2.5 hour paddle where you may see dolphins in the bay on your way to the trail entrance. On my nature tour, we saw several swimming snakes, green herons, a yellow-crowned night heron, and many other shorebirds.

Tarpon Bay Explorers is the only tour outfitter for kayak rentals and boat tours into the wildlife refuge. There are other designated kayak launch sites within the refuge if you have your own vessel.

Shelling Capital of the World

Shelling is what Sanibel Island is known for around the world. There are numerous beaches open to the public on the island that offer beautiful views for sunsets and millions of unbroken whole shells. Sanibel Island is also home to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. It’s a fascinating collection of world record-sized shells, touch tanks of ambassador animals, and other shell exhibits.

Day Trip to Cabbage Key

Cabbage Key is a small island in Pine Island Sound originally inhabited by the Calusa people until well into the 1700s. It’s only 100 acres with a single open-air restaurant and historic inn built by the family of famed author, Mary Rinehart in 1936.

I loved visiting this off the beaten path location for the day to have lunch and explore the water tower and nature trail that winds through the island’s tropical vegetation.

The food at the lone restaurant on Cabbage Key is some of the freshest seafood you will ever find anywhere with delectable specialties like stone crab claws from the local waters and black grouper filets. They have been visited by the likes of Jimmy Buffet and other celebrities and their cheeseburger is touted as one of the best in the country. However, no visit is complete without trying the famed Cabbage Kreeper and the uniquely delicious frozen key lime pie.

To get to this slice of heaven, there are daily ferries that operate from Captiva Island with Captiva Cruises. They also ferry to Pine Island, Useppa Island, Gasparilla Island, and Cayo Costa State Park.

Visit Cayo Costa State Park

Cayo Costa is an island Florida state park only accessible by boat with overnight tent campsites, cabin rentals, nature trails, bicycle paths, and pristine uncrowded beaches due to its remote location. On a moonless night, this is a prime place for night sky views and stargazing.

Boat charters from Captiva Cruises take visitors for full-day trips, shorter half-day trips. Tropic Star Adventures is the only outfitter with the state park that can ferry visitors for overnight trips with all of your gear.

Where to Stay

Sanibel Island is a laid back respite where residents and visitors frequently bike or walk instead of driving. There is an abundance of vacation home rentals on the island due to the large number of residents that only call the island home for the winter months and then return up north.

I loved my stay at the Island Inn. It’s a great choice due to their extensive safety protocols and beachfront cottages that make it easy to keep your distance. Watching sunsets in the evening and hunting for shells at sunrise is the ideal way to pass the time and embrace island life.

What to Eat

Mudbugs Cajun Kitchen on Sanibel is a local favorite restaurant. They bring authentic New Orleans-style flavors to the island life. The chargrilled oysters and beignets are a real treat and definitely put you in a Mardi Gras frame of mind. They also offer up delectable seafood dishes and Cajun classics like gumbo, etouffee, and jambalaya.

Bailey’s General Store and Jerry’s Foods are the two grocery stores on the island. Both have everything you need, including coffee shops, baked goods, butchers, fresh seafood, and quick pre-prepared meals.

Plan Your Stay

Fort Myers provides a window into important parts of Florida’s history and natural beauty and a gateway to blissful island escapes on Sanibel, Captiva, and island hopping to the other nearby islands of Pine Island Sound.

The gorgeous sandy beaches, kayaking, nature hikes, premier birding locations, and amazing food make the Fort Myers and Sanibel Island region an excellent destination for a restful sabbatical.

Safety Disclaimer: Confirm what current COVID-19 health and safety protocols and guidelines are in place by all tour vendors, accommodations, and city/county/state guidelines prior to booking. Follow the safety guidelines to keep yourself and others safe. Those choosing to travel during this time, do so at their own risk.

Some aspects of this itinerary were hosted by Vist Fort Myers-Sanibel, but all opinions are my own.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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