Set your sights on this under-the-radar region in southwest Florida, and you’ll discover cracking, white-sand beaches, fascinating wildlife, outdoorsy adventures and true escapism. Once the sole preserve of in-the-know locals, The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is starting to appear on the tourist trail as word gets out about its heavyweight reputation for nature escapes and exceptional wildlife.
Far from the buzz of Florida’s better-known resorts, this laidback region sets itself apart with sensational islands, tangles of mangrove swamps, and low-key nature trails. “Our area is different for one primary reason — the majority of the island areas are protected, preserved and enjoyed as natural Florida,” says Captain Brian Holaway, who’s been guiding out of Captiva Island for over 20 years.
Brian spends his days navigating the waters, taking guests out to beachcomb for shells and hop onto islands accessible only by boat to explore wild nooks and crannies. “The first place I’d take a nature-loving visitor is Cayo Costa State Park — the biggest barrier island on the west coast of Florida. It’s pretty undeveloped, with 11 different ecosystems, unique plant communities, and miles of pristine beaches.
“For true escapism and to completely hide away, head to the island’s northern end. It’s very peaceful here with nature trails, camping, and quiet beaches,” Brian explains.
Wildlife buffs will be in their element from the minute they arrive: hop in a kayak and pootle along waterways for encounters with manatees, alligators, turtles and iguanas. “Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are usually visible during boat trips, too, while spotting migrating birds in the winter (January-March) is an unmissable experience, especially the white pelicans,” says Brian.
This go-slow region also packs a powerful punch when it comes to nature trails: think cycling along secluded beach paths and walks through sleepy villages. For impressive and remote walks, Brian likes to pace the pathways of the Randell Research Center, Cayo Costa State Park beaches and Cabbage Key, with its small, circular nature trail.
“But for a hidden gem that’s a bit of a local’s secret, the CREW nature trails (within the largest intact watershed in southwest Florida) are hard to beat,” he adds. Mooch around this wild and untamed swamp and you’ll likely glimpse alligators sunning themselves on boardwalks, snakes hiding in shrubbery, swallows and woodpeckers — even bald eagles — and miles of wildflowers.
In a region that basks in year-round sunshine, it’d be rude not to explore its chilled-out shores, too. “Lovers Key, close to Fort Myers, is definitely in my top five places to visit,” says Brian. Think startingly clear waters and soft sands where sultry afternoons can be spent swimming, snorkelling and dining in ocean-to-table restaurants. Lovers Key State Park is ideal for nature lovers, with dreamlike lagoons where you can potter around in kayaks or boats and marvel at gin-clear waters and countless migratory birds. And finally, for that envy-inducing snap, take Brian’s advice and head to Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island: “For the best sunset you’ll ever see.”
Captain Brian Holaway offers guided trips for shelling, photography, exploration and education.