Florida: Go southwest for beaches and wildlife in Fort Myers and Sanibel
Scotland on Sunday travel
When you tell people you’re going on holiday to Florida they assume you’re going on a bustling and relentless trip to Disneyland.
But just a three-hour drive away on the state’s west coast there is the promise of glorious sunshine all year round, an abundance of delicious seafood and endless fun activities.
Surrounded by tropical landscape, the best way to experience Fort Myers and Sanibel is by staying on the edge of what may be the finest beaches in the whole of the US.
With a sundeck and swimming pool overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Outrigger Beach Resort in Fort Myers offers a relaxing environment where you can take in unrivalled sunset views.
Our five-day trip also allowed us to stop off at the more upmarket Sundial Beach Resort at Sanibel, offering a range of facilities including a spa, kayaks, tennis courts and bike hire.
Many Americans travel to this part of the country during the winter for guaranteed sunshine, and from hiking in forests and cycling beside the canals, to kayaking through the narrow waterways of nearby barrier islands, Lovers Key State Park has something for everyone.
The two-mile white sandy beach is popular for sunbathing and shelling, while you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of dolphins and manatees.
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both picked Fort Myers Beach as their vacation retreat and the beautiful Winter Estates are now named after these innovators. Their bungalow styled properties are situated among 20 acres of botanical gardens with more than 1,700 plants and one of the largest banyan trees in the US, with a canopy of almost an acre.
I must admit to not being a fan of rum before this trip, but Wicked Dolphin Distillery put an abrupt end to that.
Here you get a tour of the family-run facility to see how a dream became a reality, ending with a taste of their rums which come in an array of flavours including coconut, pineapple and the best-selling vanilla bean. A swift dram may not to be enough to quench your newfound thirst for the spirit, with almost all our group deciding to purchase a memento to take home.
An evening stroll along the pearly white beaches is an experience not to be missed. Watching my first sunset across the Gulf of Mexico, with the glistening light sparkling on the waves, I was stunned by its beauty. And if you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of dolphins dancing through the waves as the golden sunshine drops below the horizon.
To take your sunset experience to the next level, there’s no better place to watch from than the water of Estero Bay, a long, shallow inlet of the Gulf of Mexico. A kayak eco-tour is not only a fun way to spend an evening with friends but also allows you to explore the winding mangrove tunnels and experience the plentiful wildlife in the quiet of twilight – you might even be fortunate enough to spot an alligator or manatee.
Sanibel Island has a laid-back vibe and whether you choose to spend your time on the beach, wildlife watching or pedalling along the many protected bike paths, there is so much to do.
You are never likely to go hungry either, with an endless choice of superb eateries with the local seafood to die for.
I came on this holiday living a somewhat shallow life when it comes to eating fish. I can safely say I am now a changed man, devouring crab, salmon, grouper, shrimp, lobster and calamari in the five days we were there.
Fish Tale Waterfront Dining in Fort Myers Beach and Traders Restaurant in Sanibel were personal highlights, offering seafood caught from the waters only miles away from where we were dining. The latter also treated me to my favourite food of the trip – melt in the mouth ribs in a bourbon barbecue sauce served with dauphinoise potatoes. Heaven on a plate. As you’d expect in the US, most restaurants offer overly generous portions and none more so than The Island Cow on Sanibel which serves traditional American grub from a humongous menu.
We spent the entire trip scouring land and water for alligators and in the end the only one we saw in the flesh was served up as an appetiser with a spicy mayo.
A trip on a Captiva Cruise to the remote island of Cayo Costa from Sanibel was well worth the $14 fee to see dolphins jumping on the waves being created at the back of the boat. It’s an opportunity for a picnic and to take in the sunshine on miles of pristine beaches. The return half-hour trip even treated us to a sighting of a bald eagle – a rare occurrence to say the least.
Named after the cartoonist, the J N “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has more than 7,600 acres for visitors to explore, with the chance of spotting manatees, alligators and migratory bird populations. Hop on the tram where a guide will talk you through the species found there or create your own adventure by foot, bike or kayak along the trails.
Wild animals in need of medical attention are catered for by the Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW). A tour of the facility shows how dedicated staff and volunteers tend the needs of injured animals from armadillos to alligators and help get them back into the wild.
Just ten minutes away from the airport, we even found time to grab a few bargains at Miromar Outlets to add to our already bulging suitcases.
Flights from Edinburgh to Fort Myers Beach are priced around £500-£600, but this includes two stop-offs – one of which is likely to be in London – meaning it took me almost 24 hours to travel from my flat in Edinburgh to the Outrigger Beach Resort. But the journey is worth it and with more companies offering deals to the southwest of Florida, there could be more Britons out in shorts and T-shirts basking in 25C heat among the Americans who are putting on their coats during their “cold” winter season. They’ve clearly never been to Scotland!
Outrigger Beach Resort, Fort Myers Beach, standard rooms from $130 (£103) per night, www.outriggerfmb.com
Sundial Beach Resort & Spa, Sanibel Island, studios from $159 per night for a studio, sundialresort.com
Edison & Ford Winter Estates, entry from $25 per adult/$15 per child, www.edisonfordwinterestates.org
Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife entry from $12 per adult/$7 per child, http://crowclinic.org
A boat trip to Cayo Costa starts from $14 per adult, plus a $2 State Park fee, www.floridastateparks.org