There are two routes from the main tourist areas in Orlando to Fort Myers: via 1-4 west and I-75 South, which takes you along the coast past Tampa and Sarasota (though you won’t have a view of the Gulf) or by I-4 to Highway 17, which cuts through the middle of the state. I-75 has the advantage of easy access off the highway near Bradenton if you want to get onto the coastal road of Highway 41 for a beachside lunch or a splash in the water, then pick up 1-75 again just south of Punta Gorda. Highway 17 is slightly more scenic, passing through rural areas and small-ish towns.
What’s on offer once you arrive? Plenty.
Henry Ford (of automotive fame) and Thomas Edison (of light bulb fame) had homes in Fort Myers to escape the bone-chilling cold of Michigan and New Jersey during the winter, and both guided and self-guided tours of their period-furnished Edison & Ford Winter Estates, the botanical gardens surrounding them, and Edison’s botanical research laboratory, are offered daily. A museum is among the buildings open to the public, with informative exhibits detailing the lives of these great inventors, and there is even a History Detectives challenge to keep youngsters engaged as adults browse the artifacts and exhibits.
For an unusual look at Florida’s flora and fauna, check out Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, a 3,500-acre wetland eco-system with a boardwalk trail and interpretive centre. It sounds a bit dull, until you realise you might see wild alligators. And otters. And turtles, wading birds, woodpeckers and raccoons. Guided “Wet Walk” tours along a private trail are offered in summer, and again, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just another boring eco-lesson. This one veers off into clean, waist-deep fresh water (long pants and tight fitting shoes required!), so while it’s thrilling, it’s also safe. Even better? Your tour donation ($10 is suggested but not compulsory) helps purchase school supplies and fund educational programmes for children.
Fort Myers River District is the place to be of an evening, with a wide variety of restaurants, from fine dining in turn-of-the-century Antebellum style at The Veranda to funky The Oasis 2 for breakfast and lunch. The streets are cobblestone, the atmosphere is buzzing, and there are lots of seasonal events, festivals and street parties, including music and art walks, car cruises and bike nights, barbeque competitions, craft beer and food trucks, and a Christmas festival of lights.
If you visit during southern Florida’s cooler months (meaning, December through February), pay a visit to Manatee Park, where gentle ‘sea cows’ seek out the warmer waters of the Orange River that flows past the refuge, made warmer by the nearby Florida Power & Light plant. Bring along a picnic and observe the manatees from the park’s viewing areas, or get out on the water on a kayak and be among these placid creatures. The Orange River is also on the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail, spanning the Caloosahatchee River and its tributaries, ideal for kayaking. Entertain the kiddies during your visit by downloading a free manatee colouring book or manatee activity book, or go for the Manatee Bingo cards and see who can spot a down/across/diagonal row of 5 nature elements on their card first. There is no charge to visit the park.
It’s hard to mention Fort Myers without mentioning the barrier island of Sanibel, connected to the mainland by the Sanibel Causeway. And it would be a shame to go to Fort Myers without spending time on Sanibel. The island’s natural wonders start with award-winning beaches (six in Sanibel and another two in Captiva, on the island’s northernmost tip), rated No.1 in the U.S. Top Ten Shelling Beaches.
The shelling is so popular here, locals have coined the term, “the Sanibel Stoop” for bent-over beach goers scanning for treasures. If you’d like to join them, get out to the beach at low tide (ideally after a storm has gone through) and shuffle along in the shallow water to kick up the most recent influx. You may even find a beautiful sand dollar (the intricately ‘etched’ remains of a flat urchin) to add to your collection! Just be sure the shells you collect don’t have a mollusc still living in them. It’s illegal to take live shells.
Fishing and kayaking, plus sunset, dolphin, and manatee tours are all available, or take a shelling tour to a secluded island, with lunch included. Sanibel and Captiva are all about getting out on the water, and appreciating the area’s incredible beauty.
Nowhere is that more obvious than at “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, with its breathtaking array of wildlife and its photogenic, four-mile-long Wildlife Drive. The refuge sits within the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the US, and is a major attraction for birders who seek out the 250 species that inhabit it, including five unique to the refuge, among them the beautiful Roseate Spoonbill. Coyotes, otters, rabbits and bobcats can also be found, as can crocodiles, snakes, gators, manatees, loggerhead sea turtles, and more, among them 13 animals and fish on the endangered species list. While there are trails for hiking, it’s easy to tour the refuge from your car, with stops at the various ecosystems. We’ve even seen raccoons, armadillo and wild hogs trotting alongside the main road, Wildlife Drive. You definitely want your camera at the ready here!
If you’re looking for a twin centre option that offers all the luxury of Orlando’s best resorts and convenient access to Fort Myers and Sanibel, we highly recommend the gorgeous Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa, with five dining outlets, four pools, a trio of three-storey water slides, a lazy river, spa, and a service ethic geared toward exceeding expectation. It even has its own private island, accessed by free shuttle boat. Best of all, the resort has so many amenities and creature comforts, you don’t need to move a muscle beyond its confines. Oh, and don’t miss the gorgeous dining opportunity of Tarpon Bay for some of the freshest seafood. It’s a true taste of Florida.
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