Fort Myers + Naples See And Do
3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road
Sanibel Island , Florida
Tel: 239 395 2233 or 888 679 6450
As opposed to the many cheesy shell shacks, this is a serious museum devoted to saltwater, freshwater, and land shells (snails) from all over the world. Exhibits also include fossil shells found in Florida, displays on the medicinal benefits of mollusks, and sailors' valentinesshell crafts made by natives of Barbados for sailors to take home to their lovers. Make this your last stop before shelling on Sanibel or Captiva islandsand remember it's illegal to take live shells from beaches.
From Marco Island north to the far tip of Captiva Island, almost the entire Gulf Coast is fringed by fine, family-friendly beaches with similar attributes: flat, hard-packed white-sand strands that gently ease into the Gulf of Mexico. From south to north, here are the highlights:
Marco Island's Tigertail Beach (239-252-4000; www.colliergov.net) is actually two beaches—a mainland beach with bathrooms, concession stands, and equipment rental, as well as a deserted gulf beach on Sand Dollar Island, which is accessible by wading across a shallow lagoon. No such effort is required to sunbathe at Naples' condo-flanked Vanderbilt Beach (239-252-4000; www.colliergov.net), where Cabana Dan's kiosk rents chairs and cabanas, and hawks frozen treats like chocolate-dipped Key lime popsicles. Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park (239-597-6196; www.floridastateparks.org) is a hit with locals, who picnic in the ample shade provided by sea grape and casuarina trees. The north end near Parking Lot 5 has the most powdery sand, but strong currents from Wiggins Pass make swimming risky. Bonita Beach Park (239-533-7275; cityofbonitasprings.org) is notable for its playground and handicap-ramp accessibility, while Lovers Key Carl E. Johnson State Park (239-463-4588; www.floridastateparks.org), a quartet of barrier islands, is distinguished by its tranquil dunes and lack of development. Its antithesis, honky-tonk Fort Myers Beach, is backed by fast-food restaurants, budget hotels, and tattoo parlors. Over the causeway are the shellacious beaches of crescent-shaped Sanibel and Captiva islands; their unusual east–west orientation acts like a scoop for seashells stirred up by storms. Small shells seem to wash up on Sanibel's eastern Lighthouse Beach, while larger shells aggregate farther west along Bowman's Beach (239-395-1860; leeparks.org), where beachcombers strike the hunched "Sanibel stoop'' pose. December through April is considered the best shelling season, particularly at low tide after a storm, when sandbars are most exposed. Though the offshore currents are tricky, the sunset views are unrivaled at Turner Beach, which straddles silted-in Blind Pass between Sanibel and Captiva (239-432-2006; leeparks.org). There is metered or fee parking near all locations; the state parks have the largest lots.
375 Sanctuary Road West
Naples , Florida
Tel: 239 348 9151
The National Audubon Society's 13,000-acre preserve, located 20 miles inland of Bonita Springs, protects pine flatwoods, open prairie, and North America's largest stand of old-growth bald cypress, a moss-draped redwood relative that can exceed 130 feet in height and 25 in girth. A 2.25-mile handicap-accessible boardwalk leads through the pristine forest and over wetlands and shallow "lettuce lakes" that are prime feeding grounds for alligators and wading birds. Almost 200 bird species have been spotted here, including yellow-billed cuckoos, painted buntings, and America's largest nesting colony of wood storks. While this is a self-guided walk, volunteer naturalists along the route will answer questions. Depending on the season, you may spot alligators moving through the grasses, black bears in the pinelands, or raccoons and otters. Given the shade thrown by the towering cypress trees and a thriving population of larvae-eating mosquito fish, this is a pleasant nature call, even in summer.
Open daily 7 am to 7:30 pm, April 11 though September 30, 7 am to 5:30 pm, October 1 through April 10.
2350 McGregor Boulevard
Fort Myers , Florida
Tel: 239 334 7419
One of the town's earliest homeowners, Thomas Edison, once lamented, "There is only one Fort Myers, and now 90 million people are going to find it out." Well, the city has grown since Edison's time, but the inventor's 1886 home remains just as it was during his lifetime. You can tour the house, botanical gardens, and the laboratory where he conducted his experiments and took catnaps on a cot. Then go next door to tour the bungalow of Edison's close friend Henry Ford, which is decorated as it was in the 1920s. Upon request, a living-history actor plays the role of Thomas Edison, Mina Edison, Henry Ford, or Clara Ford, and speaks about his or her experiences in Fort Myers.
Gulf Coast Visitor Center
State Road 29
Everglades City , Florida
Tel: 239 695 3311
Although this is the third-biggest national park in the Lower 48, there is only one access point from Florida's Gulf Coast—Everglades City, on the park's northwest border. Here the landscape is much different from the classic saw grass prairie, hardwood hammocks, and cypress swamp characterizing the east side of the 2,358-square-mile park, the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi River. Instead, the dominating feature is the mangrove forest of the Ten Thousand Islands, a labyrinth of ever-shifting islets and channels that is critical habitat for numerous species of fish and birds, as well as such endangered animals as the saltwater American crocodile. The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is the gateway for exploring the grandest mangrove swamp in North America. Park naturalists lead 90-minute boat trips, or you can rent a canoe and poke around Chokoloskee Bay and the Turner River by yourself to spot alligators, greenhouse frogs, bats, and butterflies. For experienced paddlers, this is also the northern launching point of the Wilderness Waterway, a winding, 99-mile inland route south to Flamingo, which takes nine days by canoe and requires a park permit. North American Canoe Tours (239-695-3299; evergladesadventures.com) can arrange day trips or multiday expeditions.
The park's Gulf Coast entrance is open around the clock. Visitor center is open daily from 9 am to 4:30 pm.
137 Coastland Drive
Copeland , Florida
Tel: 239 695 4593
Would you hike off the path and wade through waist-deep pond-apple sloughs to see the rare ghost orchid? You don't have to be obsessed with orchids to enjoy this four-hour ranger-led trek through Fakahatchee Strand Preserve Park, where real-life orchid poaching became the subject of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and the movie Adaptation. You'll also have a chance to see otters, Florida black bears, Everglades minks, and Florida panthers. Wear long pants and sturdy shoes, and bring along food, water, and DEET-fortified insect repellent. (See the website for tour information.)
The Gulf of Mexico's warm, shallow waters and protected estuaries make southwest Florida an angler's paradise. The sheltered Ten Thousand Islands are a favorite spot for backwater fishing and saltwater fly-fishing, especially for snook and tarpon. From Chokoloskee, an end-of-the-road hamlet surrounded by Everglades National Park, Capt. Charles Wright offers trips in either powerboats or sea kayaks (239-695-9107; chokoloskeecharters.com). Capt. Michael Van Jones of Fins-N-Grins (239-784-2442; charterfishingmarcoisland.com) in the Marco Island fishing village of Goodland will hook you up with redfish, sea trout, snapper, and even sharks. The Naples-based 45-foot Lady Brett (239-263-4949; tincityboats.com) and the 43-foot Sea Quest (239-765-7665; seatrekfishing.com), based in Fort Myers Beach, offer deep-sea charters in search of the big stuff, like goliath grouper, barracuda, and king mackerel. Farther north, Captiva-based guides Jim and Jimmy Burnsed lead private fishing trips, from two-hour jaunts to all-day backwater excursions (239-472-1779; sanibelcaptivafishing.com), that can also include shelling and snorkeling. It's also possible to wet a line from dry land: Naples Pier and Sanibel's Fish Pier are hot spots for catching pompano and Spanish mackerel. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (888-347-4356; myfwc.com) requires a recreational saltwater fishing license for non-Florida residents over 16 years old unless you're fishing from a licensed charter boat.
With more than 130 courses, southwest Florida suits golfers to a tee (sorry, we couldn't help ourselves). Although the majority are private, there are also several dozen public and semiprivate links (the latter accept nonmember players, especially outside the January–March high season). The nationally known Tiburón Golf Club is the centerpiece of the Naples Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, with two Greg Norman–designed 18-hole layouts known for their wetland water hazards and stacked-sod bunkers. The long (7,288 yards), demanding Gold Course is the site of the annual Merrill Lynch Shootout. Another Naples course, the 7,171-yard Lely Flamingo Island Club, was the vision of Robert Trent Jones, Sr., who did duffers no favors by sculpting hourglass-shaped fairways and undulating greens. Hidden in the countryside east of Fort Myers, the Jack Nicklaus–designed Old Corkscrew Golf Club is considered one of the best new courses in the country. A bear at nearly 7,400 yards, it hosted the 2008 Florida State Seniors Championship. The city of Fort Myers owns the recently renovated 6,772-yard Eastwood Country Club, regarded as one of the best public courses in the region. Set amidst a Sanibel Island wildlife reserve, the Dunes Golf & Tennis Club plays short (5,578 yards), but its ever-present water hazards can leave all but the most precise golfers over par.
1 Wildlife Drive
Sanibel Island , Florida
Tel: 239 472 1100
If you're lucky, you'll encounter alligators, manatees, loggerhead sea turtles, roseate spoonbills, and even the 11-foot female American crocodile that loves to sunbathe on Wildlife Drive. You'll see and learn plenty in this well-managed preserve, which you can explore by bicycle, four-mile drive, open-air tram ride with naturalist, or two-mile boardwalk trail. You can also paddle a kayak or canoe through Tarpon Bay's mazelike mangrove forest, by yourself or with a guide (239-472-8900; tarponbayexplorers.com). Within the 6,400 acres of wetlands, sabal-palm savanna, and mangrove forests, there are 32 different mammals, 51 types of reptiles, and 238 recorded bird species, including bald eagles, mangrove cuckoos, and two dozen warbler species. Bird-watching is best in the early morning, an hour before or after low tide. Mosquitoes and the annoying no-see-um sand flies are most prevalent at dawn and dusk—avoid those hours, and bring insect repellent at all times.
Wildlife Drive is open Saturdays through Thursdays from 7:30 am until a half hour before sunset. The Education Center is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, November through April, 9 am to 4 pm May through October.
137 12th Avenue South
Naples , Florida
Tel: 239 261 8164
With cement made from sand and seashells, Palm Cottage was built in 1895 by a Louisville newspaper publisher, one of the city's founders, who spent many winters in Naples. Once the scene of countless glamorous parties, Palm Cottage is now home to the Naples Historical Society and is filled with period furnishings, memorabilia, photographs, paintings, and other artifacts documenting the history of Naples.
Call ahead for guided tour information.
Wild alligators, panthers, white-tailed deer, and wild turkey—who knew a Florida cattle ranch could be so exotic? Babcock Wilderness Adventures' 90-minute swamp buggy tour of the Babcock Ranch, the largest cattle operation east of the Mississippi River, traverses five ecosystems, from open prairie to cypress swamp (8000 State Road 31, Punta Gorda; 941-637-0551; www.babcockwilderness.com). For those in search of aquatic life, dolphin sightings are almost a sure thing on Captiva Cruises' Dolphin Watch and Wildlife Adventure Cruise. The waters of Pine Island Sound are home to one of the world's largest populations of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. While the playful creatures jump in the boat's wake during the 90-minute excursion, volunteers from the Sanibel and Captiva Conservation Foundation narrate. (McCarthy's Marina, Captiva Island; 239-472-5300; www.captivacruises.com). Everglades Area Tours' half-day fishing and kayaking outing to the Ten Thousand Islands begins aboard the "mother ship" that Captain Charles Wright pilots to a remote island beach, where the kayaks are deployed (City Seafood Café dock on Begonia St., Everglades City; 239-695-9107; www.evergladesareatours.com). While paddling and casting your line, you may spot dolphins, manatees, loggerhead sea turtles, bald eagles, and ospreys. Everyone returns to the beach for a seafood lunch that might include the fresh catch grilled on an open fire. After lunch, you can fish or beachcomb for seashells, but if it's shells you're after, you're better off on Mike Fuery's Shelling Tour. Captain Fuery, a local shell expert, has been guiding trips for 30 years. Out on remote barrier isles such as Cayo Costa, common finds include sand dollars, lightning whelk, lettered olive, and angel wing shells. Find the rare brown-spotted milky junonia, and you'll get your photo in the newspaper (Tween Waters Inn Marina, Captiva Island; 239-466-3649; www.sanibel-online.com/fuery).
Fort Myers , Florida
Diehard fans from Boston and Minnesota come to Fort Myers in December to buy tickets for exhibition games during Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins spring training. But even if you can't camp out for tickets or get them online, you can still watch the Red Sox's morning practice (February through March). Take a bus from the City of Palms Park stadium (2201 Edison Ave.; 617-482-4769; www.redsox.com) to the practice facility. The Minnesota Twins work out in March at Hammond Stadium in the Lee County Sports Complex (14400 Six Mile Cypress Pkwy.; 800-338-9467; www.twinsbaseball.com). Both teams offer special events at the stadiums, allowing fans a chance to meet the players. Also, you can catch the Twins' minor-league affiliate team, the Fort Myers Miracle, playing at Hammond Stadium from April through August (239-768-4210; www.miraclebaseball.com).