Wildlife, Shells and Dolphins – Fort Myers, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island
Fort Myers, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island
Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Fort Myers
Also known as the City of Palms, Fort Myers is located on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in Lee County, Southwest Florida. While the city itself is located next to the widest point of the estuary, the main tourist attractions lie further south along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, with white sand beaches, islands, deep-sea fishing and the golf courses that attract visitors from all over the world. One of the main attractions, if not the main attraction, of Fort Myers, are the winter estates of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, who were good friends and both of whom spent much of their time here with their families. Exploring Fort Myers, Sanibel and Captiva Island will surely steal your heart.
While Fort Myers city itself has never been much of a tourist attraction in itself, usually overshadowed by the beautiful island and beaches nearby, a redevelopment plan which started about ten years ago is starting to bear fruit, particularly in the downtown and riverfront areas, where new developments are attracting new hotels, restaurants and shopping outlets. So keep an eye out for Fort Myers and consider stopping, because we’ve heard it’s on the up!
Getting most of the visitor attention are the islands of Sanibel and Captiva, a stunning drive across the Sanibel Causeway which rises and falls smoothly across a series of small keys along the west side of San Carlos Bay. This tropical island is a paradise of vast beaches covered in shells to take home, coconut trees, lush natural habitat and activities for everyone – adults, families, young couples, solo travellers – Sanibel caters to every type of vacation need. One of the things that Sanibel is best known for is ‘shelling,’ wandering the beach collecting various shells which have washed up there. There are also plenty of physical activities and way to explore too, like boating, kayaking, canoeing and water-skiing, to wildlife spotting for dolphins, blue herons, raccoons, alligators and various species of birds too.
Day 1 – Naples to Fort Myers, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island
Edison and Ford Winter Estates
We left Naples and the Naples Grande Beach Resort and drove about 1 hour north towards Fort Myers, the scenery on either side of the Interstate 75 peppered with small lakes and waterways. As we turned west towards the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, the surroundings became more urban and concrete as we entered the city eventually turning green and more suburban as we joined the riverside portion of McGregor Boulevard where we found the Winter Estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
The Edison and Ford Winter Estates are the former winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, which is approximately 20 acres of botanical gardens, historic homes and outbuildings, Edison’s laboratory and the Edison Ford Museum.
We arrived and collected our tickets, then headed through to the museum, which is full of inventions, artefacts and exhibitions from the Edison Ford era. The entrance ticket included a very detailed and informative audio tour of the property, but I’m very bad at following guided tours, preferring to meander around and take photos of what I find! The first place we went to was the riverside portion of the property, where the main house, guest house and expansive exotic gardens are. The two house on the Edison Estate have been stunningly restored and maintained as fully-furnished exhibitions of how the Edison family would have lived here. The gardens are home to more than 1700 plants, including many unique tropical species like the sausage tree, eucalyptus tree, kapok tree, tropical snowball, king’s mantle, and the huge banyan tree, thought to have been planted in 1925 and the largest of its kind the United States.
The Ford Estate, directly next door and not separated any natural or man-made barrier, is small, but equally interesting, with the Ford Family winter home as the centrepiece and the garage closer to the river bank which contains three vintage Ford cars and trucks.
For me though, the best view on the whole site by far is found standing at the edge of the river, in front of the entrance to the Edison Pier, with the timber board walk removed, leaving only the staggered wooden posts to lead the eye out into the river.
Sanibel Inn – Sanibel Island
From the Edison and Ford Estates we continued along McGregor Boulevard, following the never-ending rows of classic riverside homes until we reached the edge of San Carlos Bay and the start of the Sanibel Causeway, an elegant raised roadway which sweeps upwards as it leaves the mainland in a smooth, curving arc, before reaching its peak and flowing just as elegantly down toward the first of two keys between the mainland and Sanibel Island. On each of the narrow splits of land along the causeway, local residents parked their cars to fish, kayak, barbeque, or just to hang out with friends.
We arrived at Sanibel Inn in the late afternoon as the sun began to cool and walked into the cottage style building to check in, which was much like the British cottages in small seaside towns back home. The accommodation was built in a sort of condo style – two-storey timber buildings, painted in seaside pastel colours with white trimmings, giving it a sort of relaxed rustic appearance. More like a luxury self-catering apartment than a hotel room or suite, there was generous master bedroom with a spacious double bed, covered in thick, comfortable white duvets and pillows. The living room had a kitchen area with a fridge, microwave and a sink, with dishes and plates to use too. A big sofa area faced a large, plasma screen television and sliding glass doors opened out to the balcony, meshed against insects, probably sand flies, but still offering a beautiful view across the swimming pool to the beach and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.
Our evening was quiet, I went for a sunset swim, while Kach had a stroll along the beach looking for shells, then we sat down to watch the last of the sun dip into the water.
You can check details and latest rates on Booking.com, Agoda or Expedia or visit their website directly at The Inns of Sanibel. Don’t just take our word for it though, check out their reviews on TripAdvisor
Day 2 in Fort Myers, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island
Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge
Founded in the 1940’s by a group of passionate friends who learned this natural paradise was to be sold to private developers, the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is named after the man who was the driving force for the project. Today, the refuge has grown to more than 6,000 acres and is home to hundreds of native and migratory birds, alligators, otters, fish and many other species of wildlife and one of the largest mangrove forest environments in the country.
There are over 245 species of birds in the refuge, attracting many birders who can be seen all over the site with their binoculars and telephoto lenses. There are also many mammals – from racoons to manatees, reptiles – from small turtles to 6 foot alligators, amphibians such as tree frogs, fish, invertebrates like tree crabs and spiders, as well as a number of endangered species – Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Smalltooth Sawfish, West Indian Manatee and the Wood Stork.
We joined the 90 minute guided tram tour, led by a biologist, where we saw hundreds of birds, including grey and white pelicans, great egrets, snowy egrets, wood storks, roseate spoonbills, great and little blue herons, as well as cormorants, blue-winged teal and ospreys. Our guide also pointed out the different types of mangroves, tree crabs and other types of wildlife which call this unique habitat home.
There are numerous walking paths in the refuge if you prefer to go at your own pace, as well as the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge Education Center and the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum.
Lunch at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille
After an amazing visit to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, we headed for lunch with a local legend. Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar and Grille is a themed restaurant named after the main character in a series of books authored by local resident, Randy Wayne White.
Doc Ford’s was an ambitious project to fuse the traditional sports bar concept, with fresh seafood, amazing tropical flavours from all around the world, craft beers, cocktails and great hospitality!
There is no one signature dish as such, because it’s all amazing, but two stand-out favourites for us were the Seared Tuna Appetizer – with rice noodles, fresh herbs and Thai-style peanut sauce – and the Peel-and-eat Shrimp in the special Doc Ford’s Yucatan Sauce.
We didn’t know what to order, so we asked Liz the manager to order for us – Tropical Salad, Seared Tuna Appetizer, Seasonal Stone Crab claws, BBQ baby back ribs and Yucatan Shrimp.
Doc Ford’s is a collection of unlikely, yet perfect combinations which all fit together in any combination, like a Rubix Cube that’s never wrong!
Check out our full restaurant review of Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille!
Dolphin and Wildlife Cruise – Captiva Cruises
Just 25 minutes along the road and we crossed from Sanibel Island to Captiva Island, into the South Seas Island Resort and collected our cruise tickets. The two hour or so cruise took us out of the harbour and through a narrow channel in the Pine Island Sound, an area of water protected and sheltered by Sanibel Island, Captiva Islands and Cayo Costa. This protection keeps the water relatively calm and creates a perfect environment for schools to fish to gather, as well as for various predators – pelicans, sea eagles, dolphins – to pick them off. In the right season, the bay is also a haven for manatees. The crew and captain explained all about the history of the bay and all of the islands, including how many of the channels had been created by various hurricanes, each one reshaping the natural habitat and the habitat of the human populations who live there.
We were told that there was a 95% chance of seeing dolphins and there were many of them. Small pods of two to four Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins toyed with the bow and stern waves of the boat, playing, jumping and flipping through the water effortlessly, seeming to perform even more for the clapping and shouting crowds at the edge of the boat.
It was a beautiful way to end our trip in Fort Myers, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island, so that evening we retreated back to the beachside comforts of Sanibel Inn, to digest our food and the events of the day, while soaking up the sea air before heading to our next destination – St. Petersburg and Clearwater!
Note: This trip wouldn’t have been possible without the help and support of Lee County for our itinerary in Fort Myers and Sanibel, and to Visit Florida, the official tourism office of Florida in Tallahassee, and especially Ms. Summer Gilhousen, who arranged the whole trip and coordinated with all the local tourism boards, private companies for our sponsored hotel stays, tours and car rental. Thank you!