After several years of being a mom and working from home, I finally got that getaway many parents dream of. I was lucky enough to sneak away for a long weekend with nothing but my own suitcase and some girlfriends. We are all from different big cities in the US but agreed on checking out Florida’s southwest coast. It’s not shocking that we were excellent at relaxing and soaking up the sun, but we were all a little surprised how much of our trip was spent pointing out what our families would love about this friendly paradise. We’ll definitely be coming back, next time with our kids and partners.
Our first day we all flew into Ft. Myers airport. After grabbing our luggage a taxi van gave us a 40 minute drive to our hotel, Sundial Beach Resort & Spa on Sanibel Island. All rooms in this recently renovated hotel (built in the 70’s) come with a balcony, kitchen, towels, daily maid service, etc. The layout of the buildings each have their own boardwalk which leads out to a pool and the beach. No matter which which unit you reserve, you’re just steps away from one of the best shelling beaches in the world. Although each section has their own pool, there a large pool off of the main reception area with a slide and a bar. All pools are heated and have bathrooms nearby. This hotel also has tennis on the grounds, paddleboards, kayaks, bike rentals, and free beach chairs and umbrellas. Sundial also has four restaurants on the property and a small grocery market/deli so you can cook in your room if you prefer. If you’re looking for a really easy vacation, you can go to this resort and never leave, but this area of Florida has so much to offer you’d be missing out a lot of fun.
Sanibel claims over 250 species of shells regularly found along the coast. The mile long white sand beach right at our hotel (famous for it’s shelling) was my favorite part of this island. Sanibel Sea School has an office on the hotel property which gave us a guided walk along the beach and pointed out different types of shells. They also offer incredible kids day camps as well as an overnight survival camp where your kids spend the night on a deserted island (with chaperones from the school). Sanibel Island’s east-west orientation in the Gulf of Mexico differs from the other barrier islands, making it an prime location for an excess of shells to wash up on it’s sandy beaches. Captiva Island shares the same orientation and incredible shelling.
While on Sanibel we also visited Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, which to my surprise fascinated me beyond my expectations This small museum has an incredible collection of shells from all over the world.The shapes, sizes, colors and designs were mesmerizing and left me feeling like mother nature is far more creative that us humans will ever be. They also give interesting facts about the critters who live in the shells or use them as part of their habitat. Did you know a mimicking octopus gets it’s name not just because it blends in with it’s surroundings, but because it acts like it’s predators by changing shape and mimicking it’s behaviors? This museums was full of fascinating tidbits of information like this. I am grateful for the appreciation of shells and mother nature this museum gave me. I definitely recommend making a visit to the shell museum if you have time.
Our favorite restaurant on Sanibel was the Island Cow. Be warned, this charming, cow themed restaurant serves a platter of chocolate chip muffins instead of a bread basket and it’s easy to fill up on these delicious treats… but be sure to save room. Island Cow has an crazy long menu and offers a huge range of mouth watering options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We lunched on crabmeat stuffed shrimp, conch fritters, crab legs, coconut fried grouper and scallops. They also offer a kids menu, fun games like corn hole and a small zoo in the back of the restaurant and lounge chairs to enjoy refreshing drinks while you wait for your table…on island time.
The following day we drove a rental car into Fort Myers. This part of Florida has a lot of history – it was once the winter vacation destination for both Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. We drove to Thomas Edison’s property but didn’t do the tour. It has perhaps the biggest banyan tree I’ve even seen, I’m talking NYC-block-sized tree with a statue of Thomas Edison right in front. A photo opportunity in front of this tree is too good to pass up. It’s located right next to the gift shop. Be sure to also check out the famous McGregor Boulevard where royal palms line the street, giving this city the nickname ‘City of Palms’.
Inspired by the Edison’s estate we decided to learn a little more about the history of this area of Florida. We checked out a new museum called the Mound House. This is a museum as well as a live archaeological site. We learned all about the Calusa Indians who lived on the land dating back to the 1500’s. They built large mounds out of piles of shells, allowing them some height in this very flat area of Florida. The height gave them protection from flooding, a breeze and also look out points for intruders. My favorite part was the basement of the Mound House where you can see a slice right though the mounds which is made up of layer upon layer of shell. If interested, behind the museum you can take a tandem kayak tour though the Estero Bay. Along the tour you can see gorgeous surroundings, fish, dolphins, manatees and various birds including eagles.
There’s still a ton of family attractions to enjoy if you’re not a history buff, or your kids aren’t old enough to enjoy the incredible story behind Fort Myers. Fort Myers is full of great restaurants, colorful surf shops, dozens of hotel options including camping. There are also mini golf courses, some with live gators and plenty of gorgeous white sand beaches and many great fishing spots in this area.
My favorite day was my third day. After a morning shell walk we made a short 15 minute drive to Captiva Island where we booked a cruise for the day though Captiva Cruises. Our captain and mate were informative and friendly and summonsed dolphins to chase our wake as well as pointed out manatees. They showed us old historic ice houses which were huts on stilts in the middle of the ocean. These used to hold ice long ago for fishermen to store their catch before taking it to the markets. Over the years as the fishing industry changed these are no longer used but seeing these historic ice houses felt very special, especially since hurricanes continue to destroy them and they are not being rebuilt. Our first stop off the boat was to the island of Cabbage Key. This is a small island has a few vacation homes with the exception of one very famous one, The Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant. Rumor has it that Jimmy Buffet wrote Cheeseburger in Paradise after dining here, so of course we had to order cheeseburgers. The burgers were delicious, but the menu has a little bit of everything so if that’s not what you’re looking for they likely can accommodate you. In addition to cheeseburgers, this restaurant is also know for their keylime pie – so we all ordered that too. This keylime pie was a frozen delicious slice of paradise and we devoured it while a warm beach breeze blew through the restaurant. My favorite part was the décor of the restaurant. The walls and ceiling are covered in dollar bills taped on by customers, who leave messages and their names on the bills. JFK even has a bill here which he signed. This charming restaurant is surrounded by nature trails and a water tower which you can climb to the top get a 360 degree view of the island. We didn’t do the trails on this trip, but I’ll definitely be checking them out when I return.
Our next stop off the boat was to Caya Costa, another island. We tied our boat to a dock then followed a boardwalk as is snaked through very thick fauna. The trees suddenly ended and opened up to nine miles of wide pristine white beach with calm turquoise waters. It was simply stunning. This beach is famous for sea turtles. We didn’t see any turtles but we found dozens of sand dollars and other exquisite shells. We spent long enough here to soak up a lot of vitamin D, fill our shelling bags with gorgeous treasures provided by mother nature and work up appetite. We boarded the boat and headed back to the marina where we said farewell to the amazing staff and made our way to dinner.
For dinner we walked about a block from the dock to Keylime Bistro which is right in the middle of the tiny and and colorful Captiva village. We sat on the outside and listened to live music, sipped margaritas and dined on shrimp scampi, fresh stuffed grouper and keylime bistro bruschetta. Of course we had to try their famous Keylime pie, it’s always a good day when you have dessert twice. This pie was room temperature and very creamy. I think the flavors popped a little more in this version of pie, but I recommend trying both Keylime Bistro and Cabbage Key’s versions of keylime pie.
To wrap up our night we went another block away, to the famous Bubble Room. Now this is a must see. This restaurant is filled with old Hollywood collectibles from the 30’s and 40’s, toys, antiques and servers dressed in Boy Scout uniforms. The Bubble Room serves lunch and dinner. Their menu has as much personality as the décor with names like the Turk Douglas, Caesar Romano and the Guy ‘lamb’ardo. Since we already had dinner we savored drinks, the ambience…and a third dessert of the day. My favorite was the slice of Orange Crunch Cake – this is moist yellow cake layered with an almond brown sugar crunch and covered in orange cream cheese icing. After our third dessert for the day we called it a night and made the short drive back to Sanibel.
Our last morning we all hit the beach for our last morning walk before our flights. We heard about a rare shell that is said to wash up about once a week called the Junoina Seashell. We competitively made it our mission to find this shell and get our photo in the paper. To our disappointment the shell escaped us. Maybe when we return with our families we’ll have better luck.
- See https://www.fortmyers-sanibel.com for a comprehensive list of offerings.
- Fort Meyers, Sanibel and Captiva all have great options for accommodations.
- Bring water shoes as much of the shore is shelly. Surprisingly once in the ocean the bottom is mostly soft sand. I found most kids started with shoes but by the end of the trip didn’t need them.
- Best time for shelling is one hour before low time (low tide happens twice a day, pick the lower of the two tides, your hotel should have this information).
- Rent a car so you can explore.
- The Sundial Hotel Resort & Spa provides toys, floaties and rafts for free.
- Definitely bring your typical beach supplies like sunscreen, hats and bug spray.
- The kayaking behind the Mound House is very cool, even if you skip the main museum this tour is exceptional.
- The Shell museum was surprisingly exciting and even has a fun touch tank for little ones.
- Best place to see dolphins and manatees for us was on the boat we took from Captiva Cruises.
- The Banyan tree on Thomas Edison’s property is so huge it’s worth taking a drive over just to admire it’s massive size.
- My favorite restaurant was The Bubble Room, it’s worth going, even if just for dessert.
- There in a national wildlife center which covers much of Sanibel Island called Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge – you can tour this various ways: by car, kayak, biking, walking trails or a 1.5 hour tram ride. Best for kids 10+.
- There are several world class golf courses in the area.