Exploring Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island

Beach on Sanibel Island Florida

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When Floridians take a vacation they often head for Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island. The beaches have some of the most picturesque shorelines in the country making them ideal beach destinations.

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 in Florida, complete with good food, upscale nightlife, and plenty of activities during the day. Aside from the beautiful beaches, both places have high-end hotels as well as plenty of family-friendly resorts. Plus, there's authentic shelling, a favorite activity for many vacationers. 

Usa, Florida, Fort Myers Beach.The beach

Things to Do 

Fort Myers Beach, located on Estero Island, is seven miles of relaxing and calming coastline. There is much to do in Ft. Myers Beach and the surrounding areas.

  • 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 has 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-see on Sanibel Island. There is a free information center with exhibits and a five-mile shell road that winds through the mangrove islands. You may drive your car or ride a bike. The cost is $5 per vehicle. To see the most wildlife, go early in the morning or late in the day. The trail is open from 7:30 a.m. to dusk (the exact hours are posted on the website. The refuge is closed every Friday and is open on holidays unless the holiday falls on a Friday. Bird sighting is seasonal and you may just see an alligator. Nothing is "more Florida" than spotting an alligator in its natural setting.
  • A day trip to neighboring Captiva Island is a great change of scenery and a fun place to spend the night. Captiva is a low-key, relaxing sister island to Sanibel, although the activities on Captiva are just as fun. 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 there where you'll encounter metered parking. There are also private parking areas. If you want to leave the car in the hotel parking lot, take the bright red trolley bus that runs frequently for only 75 cents an hour or $2.00 for the whole day. You can rent bicycles, mopeds and Harley motorcycles at several places in town. 
  • Downtown Ft. Meyers Beach also has a long fishing pier. Access is free and you do not need the Florida saltwater fishing license to fish from it.
  • After sundown, look for street performers in the downtown area for a little entertainment.
Aerial view of Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel Island

The first thing one notices when arriving in Sanibel is the lack of multi-storied hotels and condominiums. They are not allowed. The next thing you'll notice 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 is relaxing. The overhanging trees are reminiscent of some of the roads in the low country around Charleston, South Carolina.

Shelling is a popular activity but even in remote areas, you may find the shells picked over. Alas, it is the early birds that get the shells on Sanibel and its northerly neighbor Captiva.

If you are a shopper, consider stopping into the Periwinkle Place Shops 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 if it's raining its a great place to while away a rainy afternoon looking in the shops. Take a break at the Fish House Restaurant for lunch.

Best Time to Visit

December thru April are the best months to visit Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island. You'll encounter more tourists in the winter months but the months leading up to spring are ideal.

Those five months are considered peak season, so plan your trip early when possible. Temperatures during that time are in the mid-high 70s Fahrenheit during the day and can get to the mid-50s 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 nightlife scene at all and some attractions may close or reduce their hours.

Captiva Island welcome sign in Florida
marchello74 / Getty Images

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 as 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 as the island is strictly a nature reserve with minimal services.
  • 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, 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, 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 with seasonal discounts.
  • West End - Paradise, which is across from the Darling Refuge, is a nature-oriented small resort. This two-building property 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.
  • Castaway Cottages is another great option for those looking for some privacy. One and 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 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 those with 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 comes standard. The Pink Shell is a large facility with many different types of accommodations—beach villas, suites, and cottages—fitting all budgets and family sizes. There are three pools, on-beach facilities, two restaurants, and rental boats.

Where to Eat

From steakhouses to seafood, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel offer all types of meal options.

  • Flipper’s on the Bay, located on the quieter end of Ft. Myers Beach, is headed by executive chef Juan Cruz, a native of El Salvador, 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 desserts.
  • 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 to Fort Myers Beach

Ft. Myers Beach is located on the southwest coast of Florida. It is 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 two and a 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.

Driving Directions

Take 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 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.