Your Guide to Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island

Beach on Sanibel Island Florida
Beautiful day at the beach on Sanibel island Florida.   Paul Carter / EyeEm/ Getty Images  

Ever wonder where Floridians go to vacation? After all, when you live in the Sunshine State what can possibly impress you? The answer is simple, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island. They have some of the most picturesque shoreline in the country, and natives of the area are well aware of this Southwest Florida location. Natural beauty is abound which is why Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island are local favorites, and are only just recently becoming more popular with visitors from out of state.

Fort Myers Beach, not to be confused with the city of Fort Myers, and neighboring Sanibel Island, make the perfect beach getaway for anyone seeking a relaxing vacation with good food, swanky nightlife, and plenty of daily activities. Besides for the beautiful beaches, both places boast high-end hotels and plenty of family-friendly resorts. Plus, lots and lots of authentic shelling, a favorite activity to many vacationers. 

What to Do: 

Fort Myers Beach, located on Estero Island, is seven miles of relaxing and calming coastline. Spend the day on the city’s beautiful beaches, or kayak over to Lover’s Key, a favorite among those seeking more private areas to relax. The small island is a nature park with lots of activities including, hiking trails, bike riding, and water sports. Nights in Fort Myers Beach are best spent exploring Times Square, the city center and known as the heartbeat of Estero. During high-season this area boasts a happening night-life.

 

Sanibel Island, is a bit more low-key than Fort Myers Beach, and perfect for those seeking a slightly less scheduled vacation. The main attraction on Sanibel Island is of course it’s white-sand beaches, but more than just that, shelling, is a popular pastime. Due to the island’s geographical orientation unique and exotic shells are constantly being pushed ashore. The J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge is a must stop on Sanibel Island. There is a free information center with a few exhibits. There is a five-mile shell road that winds through the mangrove islands.

You may drive your car or ride a bike. Cost is $5. To see the most wildlife, I suggest that you go early in the morning or late in the day. The trail is open from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Our timing was off and we didn't see many birds (they were off elsewhere feeding). We did, however, see a real, live, 3-foot alligator! Nothing is more Florida than spotting an alligator, getting within 8 feet of it without fences between you and it, and living to tell about it.

A day trip to neighboring Captiva Island, is a great change of scenery and a fun place to spend the night. Captiva is the low-key, quiet, and really relaxing sister island to Sanibel, although the activities on Captiva are just as amazing. Enjoy hiking, water sports, and lots and lots of shelling on the island's beautiful beaches. 

Downtown Ft. Myers Beach is small. About six square blocks of tourist shops and eateries. There is a beachside municipal parking lot just north of the where you can feed the parking meters at a rate of a quarter for every 20 minutes. There also is some private parking areas charging $5 for all day parking. If you want to leave the car in the hotel parking, there is a bright red trolley bus that runs often and the tariff is only a quarter. You can rent bicycles, mopeds and Harley motorcycles at several places in town.

 

There is also a long fishing pier. Access is free and you do not need the Florida salt water fishing license to fish from it.

Street performers can be found in the area after sun down.

Best Time to Go:


December thru April are the best months to visit Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island. Although you will probably encounter more tourists in the winter months, the weather during this time is ideal. Those five months are considered peak season, so plan your trip early when possible. Temperatures during that time are in the mid-high 70’s during the day and can get to the mid-50’s at night. Although, peak season means more tourists, that is not necessarily a bad thing. During the off-season, the islands may be considered a bit too quiet for those looking for a more exciting nightlife scene, or just a nightlife scene at all.

 

Best Beaches:


Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island are home to some of the cleanest, most beautiful coastline, so when choosing a beach, it’s just a matter of what scene you’re looking for, and this area has something for everyone. The public beach area located in Fort Myers Beach, is great for those looking for action. It’s right off of the main drag, so it’s close to restaurants and shopping when you want to take a break from tanning. Although you have to take a boat there, Cayo Costa, is a great lesser known beach.

Make sure to pack food and drinks, the island is strictly a nature reserve with little infrastructure. Sanibel’s Lighthouse Beach is a great location for nature lovers. Tour the Island’s lighthouse or enjoy a stroll on the nearby boardwalk. For those heading over to Captiva Island, be sure to check out the award-winning Captiva Beach.  

Where to Stay: 

The Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island area offer a wide range of overnight options, from family-friendly resorts to camping, there is really something for all tastes and budgets. The Sundial Resort and Spa located on Sanibel Island is a great choice for families. All-inclusive vacation options are available and seasonal discounts. Castaway Cottages, is another great option for those looking for some more privacy. One to two bedroom beachfront cottages are available. The quaint Manatee Bay Inn on Fort Myers Beach is centrally located and right on the water.

It’s a great little boutique hotel with a lot of Florida character. Another great Fort Myers Beach option is the Pink Shell Beach Resort on the northern tip of Fort Myers Beach, about 3/4 mile from the bridge and downtown. Rooms at the resort include a small kitchenette with two-burner stove, microwave, small refrigerator and enough dishes, glasses and silverware for four. A screened balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and Sanibel Island also comes standard. The Pink Shell is a large facility with many different types of accommodations –beach villas, suites and cottages to fit all budgets and family sizes.

There are three pools and all of the facilities are right on the beach. There are two restaurants and boats may be rented for fishing or cruising.

Where to Eat: 

From steakhouses to seafood, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel offer all types of tasty treats. Flipper’s on the Bay, located on the quieter end of Ft. Myers Beach, is headed by executive chef Juan Cruz, who puts together some of the most delicious seafood concoctions. Tuckaway Café, is a great little all-day brunch spot that serves sandwiches, waffles, and lots of tasty deserts. Of course, don’t forget to try Sanibel’s award winning, Sweet Melissa’s Café. They offer lunch and dinner and happy hour. Executive chef Melissa Donahue – Talmage prides herself on only using fresh and seasonal produce, and everything is prepared from scratch, daily.

The Mad Hatter is another great spot on Sanibel. Offering dinner nightly, this American-style restaurant, offers beautiful beach views and a wide variety of eclectic dishes. 

How To Get There: 

Ft. Myers Beach is located on the southwest coast of Florida. It was an easy drive on I-275 through the heart of St. Petersburg, over the famous Sunshine Skyway Bridge and then I-75 to Ft. Myers. It’s about a two and half hours from Miami. Fort Myers Beach, about 30-minute drive from Fort Myers the city, is located on the tip of Estero Island, one of the barrier islands off the coast. Sanibel Island is about 40 minutes west from there.

Directions: 

I-75 South to Fort Myers. Exit 21 is the best exit off of I-75 for the beaches. The route is well marked with signs to Ft. Myers Beach, Sanibel and Captiva. On the way, you'll travel on Six Mile Cypress (crossing highway 41), make a left on Highway 869 (Summerlin) which leads directly to the $3 toll booth before you cross the bridge to Sanibel Island.

 

If your destination is Ft. Myers Beach, you'll turn left on Highway 865 (San Carlos). It is about 15 miles from the interstate to Ft. Myers Beach, about 17 miles to Sanibel.

We went to Sanibel Island on our second day in the area. The first thing one notices is the lack of multi-storied hotels and condominiums. They are not allowed. The next thing I noticed is that when you drive up the main road on the island, you can't really see the Gulf of Mexico or the bay. Most of the houses and businesses are set discreetly off the road. Driving on the road at tourist speed was relaxing. The overhanging trees reminded me of some of the roads in the low country around Charleston.

Sans plantations, of course.

The J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge is a must stop on Sanibel Island. There is a free information center with a few exhibits. There is a five-mile shell road that winds through the mangrove islands. You may drive your car or ride a bike. Cost is $5. To see the most wildlife, I suggest that you go early in the morning or late in the day. The trail is open from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Our timing was off and we didn't see many birds (they were off elsewhere feeding). We did, however, see a real, live, 3-foot alligator!

Nothing is more Florida than spotting an alligator, getting within 8 feet of it without fences between you and it, and living to tell about it.

Our Internet quest for lodging had uncovered West End - Paradise, which is across from the Darling Refuge. They had no vacancies when we were coming, but we opted to stop by to see it and say hello to the owner, Peter Wilkins, who had been very nice and prompt with his email replies. His two-building resort is nestled in an upscale housing development 1,000 feet from the beach. They offer free bicycles to ride to the beach or they have a small private parking area next to the beach for their guests.

With Peter's kind permission, we sampled his portion of Sanibel Island beach and loved it. Unfortunately, we didn't get to stay long as one of those summer rain showers sent us scrambling for the van after too short a time on the beach.

Even on his remote area, we found the shells picked over by the time we arrived. Alas, it is the early birds that get the shells on Sanibel and its northerly neighbor Captiva.

The rain proved to be fortuitous for my wife. On our way back, we found the Periwinkle Place shopping center on Sanibel. It is so nestled in its environment, that from the road you would never realize that it has over 40 shops. The walkways are covered, so we, and many others, whiled away a rainy afternoon looking in the shops. Hidden (from the road, at least) was the Sanibel Island Chowder Company where we had an excellent, if late, lunch.

We won't bore you with more sun and fun play by play. Needless to say, we enjoyed our stay on the southwest Florida coast. We recommend the area for a nice, laid back type of vacation.

Directions:

I-75 South to Fort Myers. Exit 21 is the best exit off of I-75 for the beaches. The route is well marked with signs to Ft. Myers Beach, Sanibel and Captiva. On the way, you'll travel on Six Mile Cypress (crossing highway 41), make a left on Highway 869 (Summerlin) which leads directly to the $3 toll booth before you cross the bridge to Sanibel Island. If your destination is Ft. Myers Beach, you'll turn left on Highway 865 (San Carlos). It is about 15 miles from the interstate to Ft. Myers Beach, about 17 miles to Sanibel.