Photo by Travelmath
Sanibel, Captiva, and Fort Myers have a long history of attracting America’s elite. After all, this is where the likes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford once made their winter homes. Those in search of ideal weather and picture-perfect beaches still flock to the area for fun in the Florida sun. Glittery Miami, however, this place is not. On laidback Sanibel and Captiva, it’s all about catching the sunset and searching for treasure on some of the world’s most famous shelling beaches. In nearby Fort Myers, you’ll be surprised by the diverse range of urban offerings, from family-friendly museums to decidedly hip microbreweries.
The beaches of Sanibel, Captiva, and Fort Myers are year-round destinations. They’re at their most packed during the summer, when it’s hot and humid. From November through April, they’re busy with snowbirds—mostly people from the Midwest and Canada as well as a quite a few Europeans—as the air is dry and the weather is pretty much perfect.
Most major U.S. airlines—plus some smaller ones and Air Canada—service Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, which is one of those idyllic, small-town airports where security is a breeze and the overall atmosphere is pleasant. Alternatively, you can fly into Miami International Airport (about 2.5 hours away by car) or Tampa International Airport (about two hours away). Once here, a rental car is the most practical way to get around and make the most of your time. All major U.S. car rental companies have kiosks at the aforementioned airports.
In this part of Florida, it’s all about the beaches and surrounding nature. Sun worshippers can spend day after day bronzing on the beautiful stretches of sand in Sanibel, Captiva, and the Fort Myers area, or get out on the water for a sailing excursion, kayak lesson, or nature tour. Also not to be missed is the wildlife drive at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, during which you’ll spot in incredible range of birdlife and, most likely, alligators, manatees and dolphins, too.
Far from the Latin and international mix you’ll find in the greater Miami area, the cuisine in Southwest Florida tends to be more of the mainstream Florida variety. Here, you’ll never be far from a great grouper sandwich or slice of Key lime pie. Be sure to also scour menus for seasonal seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, like stone crabs, oysters, and clams. As for beverages, this is Florida so boat drinks and fruity cocktails abound, but beer lovers will be pleasantly surprised to find a booming craft brewery scene.
Long a winter haunt for America’s elite, this part of Southwest Florida has several interesting cultural and historical sites to explore. At the top of the list are the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, where historical buildings, a museum, and botanical gardens are spread across 20 beautiful acres. The area also hosts a range of fun events throughout the year, including the Island Hopper Song Writer Festival in September and a gumbo festival held at the Shell Factory Nature Park every January.
For families that delight in the great outdoors, there’s so much to love about this part of Florida, from the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island to the various butterfly gardens, nature preserves, and shelling beaches. You can even take eco tours through the mangroves, or visit a historical lighthouse. For those who prefer more manageable environments, there are also water parks, science museums, and more.
Freelance travel writer Terry Ward transferred to the University of Florida from northern climes during her college years and has called the Sunshine State home ever since. Exploring Florida’s nature— via kayak, with SCUBA diving gear, or with a tent in tow during camping trips—is her favorite way to experience the state. She has called everywhere from Orlando and Gainesville to Atlantic Beach and Cocoa Beach home over the years, and currently lives in Tampa.