With some of the most Instagrammable beaches in the US, it’s easy to see why clued-up travellers are increasingly flocking to this region. With dozens of arcs of flour-soft sand, lapped by seas a glittering shade of azure, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the Caribbean. Scattered across the Gulf of Mexico, with islands as small as a pinprick on the map, the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel is Florida in its purest form.
“The destination is one of Florida’s first and foremost eco-minded areas,” says Wendy Schnapp, co-owner of Tarpon Bay Explorers. “It practically invented eco-tourism in Florida.”
Far from its boisterous neighbours, the region packs a punch when it comes to back-to-nature escapes, and Schnapp’s unmissable go-to for first-time visitors is the 6,400 acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Region on Sanibel Island. “You can’t beat the refuge’s diversity of wildlife, its wonderful Visitor & Education Center, great trails for walking, cycling and paddling, and all the fantastic tours and equipment rentals available to suit families and nature enthusiasts of all ages,” says Schnapp.
There are 245 species of bird that soar through the mangrove estuary each year, and the refuge even has its own Big Five to tick off, including white pelicans, mangrove cuckoos, reddish egrets, roseate spoonbill and yellow-crowned night-herons. Make a beeline for this untamed subtropical wilderness from January to March to catch the best birding action, take a two-wheeled tour along its enchanting trails to spot alligators basking in the sun, and for close encounters with endangered manatees and dolphins, paddle slowly along Tarpon Bay during summer; meetings with both of these captivating creatures is definitely bucket-list material.
Don’t miss out on the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve either, suggests Schnapp, home to otters, alligators, turtles and wading birds. This 3,500-acre wetland area is a place to break from the bustle. “Its extensive boardwalk and trail system makes you feel like you’re walking back in time to when Florida was much less inhabited.”
“For a window into the Everglades ecosystem, head to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary with all of its diversity of habitats and wildlife,” she says. Its two-and-a-quarter-mile mile boardwalk loops through ancient forest, where punters walk in the shadows of towering trees thought to be more than 600 years old and more than 100ft high, and winds across pine flatlands, where Corkscrew’s inhabitants — alligators, Florida brown bears, gopher tortoises — crowd around pools of water. If you’re super-lucky, you may even spot a flash of the Florida panther.
Finally, if you’re looking for a hidden gem that’s way off the tourist trail, venture over to Buck Key, suggests Schnapp. Uninhabited and undeveloped, this wild isle, fringed with a tangle of mangroves, is the kind of place you could spend hours exploring in a kayak, watching on tenterhooks for fearsome meetings with alligators, and spectacular sightings of birds. There’s every chance you’ll spot dolphins and manatees here, too.
Tarpon Bay Explorers offers a variety of nature tours and rentals in J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Region, to help you see the Refuge in its entirety —by land and by water.