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Four ways to experience the beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

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Once only the domain of locals and snowbirds-in-the-know, Fort Myers & Sanibel is fast becoming a destination in its own right and a worthy alternative to the higher price tags and maddening crowds of Florida’s mainstream tourist draws

Flanked by gorgeous white-sand beaches, the region packs a punch for natural beauty, boasting noteworthy state parks rich with a wide variety of flora and fauna. Its emerging dining scene draws upon the bounty of ocean-fresh seafood, and puts a Modern American twist on Florida’s wealth of Southern flavors and recipes inherited from its many European expatriate admirers.

Whether you fancy nature, the beach, good food, or art and culture, there’s something to discover in Fort Myers & Sanibel.

For nature lovers

The Fort Myers region is home to seven state parks comprising a total area of around 12,000 acres, and many smaller county-managed parks, gardens and nature preserves. If you love birdwatching, kayaking, hiking and biking, these easy-to-reach nature and wildlife sanctuaries will not disappoint.

JN ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge constitutes one of the country’s largest mangrove wilderness areas, with walking trails, kayak routes, resident alligators, birdlife galore and a wealth of activities for young and old. There’s also the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, with its elevated boardwalk through the mangroves. It has been compared to a miniature version of the Everglades for its abundance of swamp- and bird-life that makes kids and nature lovers swoon.

Calusa Shell Mound Trail at JN ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge © Susan Rydberg / Getty Images

From November to March, you can get up close and personal with the adorable resident manatees at Lee County Manatee Park. Look, but please don’t touch or approach these gentle giants. The park is open year round, and kayaks are available for hire.

For quieter encounters with nature, there’s the secluded Lovers Key State Park, which, as the name implies, is the perfect beachside spot for a picnic and seaside frolic with someone special. Or on the southern tip of Gasparilla Island is the popular Gasparilla Island State Park, which boasts five beaches (perfect for watching those gorgeous Gulf Coast sunsets) and a picturesque lighthouse.

Sunset-watching at romantic Lovers Key State Park © Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

For beach bums

With over 50 miles of coastline and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches at its doorstep, you’re never far from the water in Fort Myers & Sanibel. No matter what sort of beach holiday you have in mind, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Whether you prefer a private pool on the keys of Cape Coral or a family-friendly getaway on Fort Myers Beach, find yourself shipwrecked with the snowbirds of Sanibel or take things to the next level on classy Captiva, it’s essential to while away some hours with your toes in the sand.

Sanibel Island’s standout beaches are great for birdwatching, shelling, sunset-gazing, swimming, and sandcastle building. Bowman’s Beach is a great place to start, with its wide-open vistas, azure waters and plenty of space to spread out.

Fort Myers Beach © Philippe TURPIN / Getty Images

Fort Myers Beach is one of Florida’s most popular spring break destinations, but for the rest of the year is a popular spot for family vacationing, with no shortage of dining and accommodation options catering to a range of tastes and budgets. It also hosts the world-famous American Sandsculpting Championship, which takes place in November.

If you’re looking for something a little more remote, pick your spot anywhere on Captiva Island’s western shores for prime sunset viewing.

For foodies

Southwest Florida is coming of age as a culinary destination with downtown Fort Myers (and Cape Coral) at its epicenter. Further afield, Bonita Springs, Gasparilla Island and Estero each feature upscale eateries with countless opportunities for romantic, sunset dinners and waterfront dining. Complemented by a burgeoning craft brewing industry, the region should be on the radar for any self-respecting Florida-bound foodie.

Wind down post-adventures with a flight at one of the local breweries. Image courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.

Some fine-dining favorites include Fort Myer’s cornerstone restaurant, The Veranda, which combines romance and French-inspired cuisine in a heritage setting; and newcomer Blanc, which draws from European and Asian palates to create ever-changing menus in an intimate, open setting. Of the region’s many beachfront eateries, Fresh Catch Bistro is one of the best. Reservations for sunset sittings are essential. Sublime sunsets are also on display at Mad Hatter, a cozy, casual but otherwise upscale Sanibel staple serving beautifully prepared modern American cuisine.

For music lovers, Roadhouse Café features live jazz and blues complemented by Modern American cuisine and an excellent wine list. Other than its incongruous strip mall location, there’s nothing cafe-like about this classy establishment. There’s perhaps no better down-home joint in the region to wash down your bivalves with a cold beer than Smokin Oyster Brewery, which features live music most nights and a cool, cay-side location.

Speaking of beer, the microbrewery phenomenon that has swept through the US hasn’t forgotten this part of Florida. The town’s namesake craft brewery, Fort Myers Brewing Company, was the first of its kind to the area. It retains a loyal following – as does small-batch brewhouse Point Ybel, also opened in 2013 – despite a number of newbies on the microbrewing scene.

Artsy Matlacha is lined with galleries and studio spaces, each with its own funky character. Image courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.

For culture fans

In a state not known for its cultural bounty, the Fort Myers region goes against the grain, offering a variety of fun and educational sights and things to do, ranging from visits to historical museums and art galleries to a vibrant local theatre scene and plenty of hands-on, family-friendly activities.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both spent their winters in Fort Myers, and the Edison & Ford Winter Estates is where you’ll find their lavish estates and manicured gardens, plus a museum that extensively catalogues the lives of these American innovators. Another must-visit museum is the loved-by-locals IMAG History & Science Center. A recent merger with the Southwest Florida Museum of History has brought new life, new technology and new exhibits to this family-friendly, hands-on ‘Imaginarium’ and Science Center.

For the local art scene, the small island village of Matlatcha has a cute clutch of colorful galleries and boutiques hawking original islander wares; and on the first Friday of each month from 6-10pm, Fort Myers’ galleries open their doors for the Fort Myers Art Walk.

For dinner and a show, there’s the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, which hosts regular Broadway and off-Broadway shows, or the Seminole Gulf Railway Murder Mystery Dinner Train, with its fun and suspenseful whodunnit dinners that play out as you ride in historic rail cars.

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