Not a "Florida person"? Maybe it's time to reconsider. Florida remains Canadians' biggest winter destination, and there's more to it than the commercialism of Orlando's theme parks or the party-hardy vibe of its young-and-restless beaches like South Beach in Miami. If your family is looking for a warm-weather escape with plenty of opportunities to frolic in the surf, gather seashells and commune with nature in a distinctly laid-back, logo-free (yet luxe) kind of environment, look no further than Florida's southwest coast. Think: Estero, Sanibel and Captiva Islands (north of Naples, south of Tampa).
Fly into Fort Myers' Southwest Florida International Airport and drive your rental car about 45 minutes to the Gulf of Mexico's coast. If you're staying a week, consider starting in the beach town of Estero Island, where you can experience white sand beaches and a youthful yet family-friendly vibe. Next, move to the sleepier and higher-end Sanibel Island – you'll feel the mood change as soon as you cross the new Sanibel Causeway bridge – where shell boutiques, restaurants for almost every taste and budget and quaint book and antique shops abound, along with a historic circa-1844 lighthouse at the tip of the island. Lighthouse Park Beach is also a perfect swimming, fishing and picnicking spot, not to mention, again, shelling.
Finally, cap off your vacation with a couple days in Captiva Island. Captiva is all about nature, with wildlife preserves and beaches setting the tone. From luxury to economy (the latter being a relative term), almost anyplace you'd stay at is on the waterfront, and quiet, quiet, quiet. Some may find it boring, but to the captains of industry who own multi-million dollar vacation homes on the island, it's just what the doctor ordered: peace and privacy.
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2. Sea & shells
When we arrived in Point Estero Beach Resort late at night after a long, diverted flight, we walked on the deserted beach with a full moon overhead. Shells glowed on the white sand, and my five-year-old let out a whoop of joy "We're rich! Rich!" she cried, grabbing up handfuls of shells and stuffing them into her bag.
If collecting seashells by the shore doesn't get you delightfully in touch with your inner kid again, nothing will. Sanibel and Captiva, barrier islands connected to the mainland by a three-mile causeway, both get shells by the boatload washing ashore. In fact, forget downward dog: your new "positions" while you're on vacation are going to be the Sanibel Stoop and the Captiva Crouch. Knees bent, hands combing the sand, eyes scanning for just the right shell. Literally dozens of types can be found, from multicolored scallops to lions paws, lightning whelks and the rare junonia (a once-in-a-lifetime find, locals say).
If you want to try the variety a few feet out from shore, dredged up by the churning surf, buy a shelling net from a local gift shop – they hold up better than anything from Dollarama. But remember: Lee County (which includes Estero, Sanibel and Captiva) prohibits 'live shelling." This means empty shells are fair game, but if you spy any mollusks or crabs living within the shell, immediately put it back where you found it.
One side-effect of this policy in Estero's calm waters has been a boom in sand dollars. Wade out in the chest-deep water and you'll find yourself stepping over a near-solid surface of the flat little critters in some cases. They offer some fun for curious kids. Pick them up gently (they have little spikes all along their sides) and flip them over; many have tiny, baby crabs hiding on their bodies. The sand dollars leave a yucky yellow dye on your hands. Neat-o!
Swimming in Estero's beaches is great for kids, with its shallow, gradually sloping shore, minimal tide, and baby-powder-soft beaches. Sanibel's sand is a bit grittier (though not by much), but it also offers a larger variety of shells. Captiva's sand is grittier still, and the beaches have more surf action, and in some areas, rocky shoreline, so smaller kids will need more hands-on supervision. On the plus side, don't be surprised if dolphins swim past you in Captiva.
No visit to the area is complete without a trip to Sanibel's Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, where kids can go on a scavenger hunt, learn about the indigenous Calusa Indians (known as the Shell Indians for their mastery of fishing and use of shells in the making of tools), and see a strangely compelling, if slightly creepy, town fair diorama made entirely out of tiny, painstakingly glued shells.
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3. Gators, storks, cattle and wild pigs
The massive (6,400-acre) J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel is home to birds galore (220 species, both native and migratory), alligators and more. It's also part of the United States' largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem. (Mangroves are the only tree species that can grow in salt water; lick a leaf and you'll see what it does with the salt. It excretes it through its leaves). Take a narrated tram tour and you'll get a more comprehensive look at the species calling this place home.
Another option would be to rent bikes or kayaks from one of the many rental shops to see the island's land and water routes up close.
For a totally different wilderness adventure, drive over to Crescent B Ranch, whose 90,000 acres in Punta Gorda straddle Lee and adjoining Charlotte counties. The working ranch is home to free-roaming Florida cracker cattle, wild turkeys, a band of merry little semi-wild hogs that will chase your swamp buggy for part of its tour, as well as a pair of rescued panthers who have their own enclosure. The buggy tour passes through gator territory, so don't fall out! (And don't be afraid to bite back: the snack bar has Gator Bites. Your brother-in-law is right: tastes like chicken.)
4. Luxe lodgings families will love
So long as you have a rental car, you can enjoy Sanibel and Captiva from lodgings on Estero, about half an hour away. But if you want to experience both worlds, splurge and start your stay at a deluxe waterfront condo at Estero. Both the Gullwing Beach Resort (from $489 per night high season, $259 low for a one bedroom condo with pullout couch) and neighbouring Pointe Estero Beach Resort (from $429 per night high season, $239 low), both owned and managed by Sunstream Hotels & Resorts, offer extremely spacious and comfortable lodgings complete with screened balconies, full kitchens and ensuite laundry, two full bathrooms, and attractive decor.
The Gullwing's condos range from one to three bedrooms, while Pointe Estero's have one and two bedrooms. Both feature outdoor pools and hot tubs, and picture-perfect private white-sand beaches. Starting your stay in these lodgings will give you a pampered and family-feeling start to your trip (plus fresh laundry) before heading out to Sanibel and Captiva.
Sanibel and Captiva both have a number of resorts and hotels, both luxurious and modest. None are "taller than the highest palm tree," however, adding to the natural and non-resorty atmosphere. We stayed in the modest but quaint West Wind Inn (From $202 per night most of the year, $249 per night between December 21 to January), which, even with kitchenette, felt kind of cramped after our luxe condos, but was clean, had a great pool and poolside bar (kids will love swimming in pink-, violet- or red-lit water after nightfall) and private beach access. Captiva and Sanibel both have endangered sea turtle nesting sites, so avoid any taped-off areas on the dunes, and keep your blinds tightly drawn at night if you're there between May 1 and October 31, when a strict lights-out policy ensures turtle hatchlings don't get lured off-track by hotel lights.
Page 3 of 45. The old-school beach vibe of Sanibel
If you went on beach vacations as a child, you'll love the town of Sanibel. It's a low-key tees and flip-flops kind of place, where you can rent bikes to explore by wheel. There are no traffic lights on the island, making drivers more pedestrian-conscious, and contributing to the small-town feel.
The town offers ample places to chow down on inexpensive yet delicious thin crust pizzas and old-school burgers and handmade milkshakes (try Cheeburger, Cheeburger, a positively Atomic Age relic that, as it turns out, is part of a chain – who'd a thunk it?). The Island Cow is a popular family choice with a real cottage-country vibe. Because this is coastal Florida after all, almost all restaurants offer fresh seafood, casually prepared. Don't leave without some grilled grouper or Key West shrimp. And get your daily latte fix at the quaint Sanibel Bean .
Visit the historic Sanibel lighthouse. It offers gorgeous sunset views, and the beach all around it is ripe with prime shelling opps!
6. The dolphins
There's no comparing wild dolphins to their caged counterparts at marine amusement parks. Wild dolphins are free, and if they choose to race your boat, it's out of choice, not because they earn their meals by performing. Don't miss Captiva Cruise's dolphin boat tour, which departs from McCarthy's Marina in Captiva Island. You don't touch or feed the dolphins, but to watch them swim powerfully alongside the boat, leaping occasionally into the air, or racing right in front of you, is to marvel at soul-stirring beauty.
The dolphins like attention, so to keep them near the boat, you need to whistle, cheer and applaud – so bring your loudest kids!
You'll see random dolphins (and maybe even a manatee or two) during Adventures in Paradise's two-and-a-half-hour sea life encounter excursion departing from the Port Sanibel Marina to the outer islands. You'll land on a small island that's only accessible by boat and shell along pristine beaches. The tour is guided by a naturalist, and the kids can net various small creatures, which are held for a few minutes in a touch tank, while the naturalist offers a short marine biology lesson, then all are returned to the wild.
7. The souvenirs
Got friends you need to bring something back for, or space on your travel wall of fame that you want to fill? Here are some unique choices.
Babcock's Wilderness Nectar, produced from palmetto blossoms at the Crescent B Ranch. This light amber honey has a light, bright sweetness, perfect for spreading on soft untoasted bread. Or spooning into your mouth.
T-shirts from Beach Stuff at Captiva Village Square. Or buy a giant inflatable beach toy (we ended up with a four-foot dragon our daughter named Chowder); the store will inflate it for you in a jiff, then deflate it for your trip home.
Souvenir tees or hoodies from Cheeburger, Cheeburger. The retro lettering and styling (especially of the black and white ringer tee) will have total strangers asking where you got it.
Shells. Don't forget to bring back a bag or two!
For more information, visit the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau at
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