Sunshine and Seashells: South Florida

Sanibel Seashells
Sanibel Seashells

Recommended Time: 1-2 weeks

I know what you’re thinking. Florida in the summer?! C’mon, now. But it’s true! July and even into early August is a great time to visit the west coast of Southern Florida. The off-season means lower prices for resort hotels, and dwindling crowds on the still-pristine beaches.

Start you journey in Fort Myers Beach, a bustling small city with white-sand beaches and a plethora of adventure outfitters. Whether you want to rent a kayak, go parasailing, or even take a guided Jet Ski tour in search of dolphins, you can do it all right from the beach in Fort Myers.

Dolphin Tour

Awesome dolphin tour!

Then slow things down a bit and head to Sanibel Island, known as the seashell capital of the world. The drive over the three-mile causeway seemingly takes you a world away, where the pace of life is slower, and the palm trees are taller than any building. Sanibel and Captiva islands are known for their stunning sunsets, fantastic seafood, and untouched quality. Ride a bike along miles of trails in search of wildlife. Assume the famous “Sanibel Stoop” position as you scour the beach for shells. Or kick up your adrenaline just a bit and watch dolphins jump in the wake on the Sanibel Thriller speedboat tour. Whatever you do, the island life will have you leaving all of your cares behind—and mailing home an embarrassingly large seashell collection!

A glorious Sanibel sunset

A glorious Sanibel sunset.

En route to the Florida Keys, you’ll pass Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, both of which are vibrant Oceanside cities, famous for their eclectic culture and spring break parties. Nicknamed the “Venice of America” Fort Lauderdale is famous for its canals and 23 miles of golden sand beaches. Stop in Miami to soak up its Cuban culture and hoppin’ nightlife.

Miami Beach

Miami Beach

Photo: Ricymar Photography.

Then it’s back to nature. Encompassing 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is considered the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. The prime spot for wildlife viewing, the Everglades is home to turtles, herons, crocodiles, manatee, and many more species. Pack your binoculars and take a short walk on the Anhinga Trail, climb the 65-foot observation tower at Shark Valley, or take a guided tram or boat tour to see the animals that call the park home.

Photo: Sheila Sund.

Next, it’s on to the 120-mile stretch of islands known as the Florida Keys, connected to mainland Florida by 42 bridges that span U.S. 1, the Overseas Highway. Dubbed “America’s Caribbean,” the five main sections of the Keys each have their own flavor and fame.

Photo: Lars Plougmann.

Key Largo is the gateway to the keys, and offers some of the best scuba diving in the continental U.S. Lots of outfitters offer daytrips to reefs and wrecks, or you can opt to explore the ocean via a glass-bottom boat. Islamorada, called the purple isle, is known for its many fishing charters and quaint art galleries. Located in the middle of the island chain, Marathon is home to 5-star resorts, and the start of the famed “Seven Mile Bridge,” connecting the south side of Marathon with Little Duck Key. The Lower Keys offer lots of opportunities for outdoor adventure and wildlife spotting. And finally you come to Key West, the Southernmost city in the continental U.S., located 100 miles from Key Largo, and only 90 miles from Cuba. It’s a vibrant small city known for its notable residents (Ernest Hemingway lived there from 1931-1961), arts and culture, and its daily sunset celebrations on Duval Street.

Photo: Key Life Pie.

Do you have any tips to add to a Southern Florida road trip itinerary?

Places

Fort Myers Beach

Fort Myers Beach, FL, United States

Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island, Lee County, FL, United States

Fort Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale, FL, United States

Miami Beach

Miami Beach, FL, United States

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park, Monroe County, FL, United States

Florida Keys

Florida Keys, Monroe County, FL, United States

Key Largo

Key Largo, FL, United States

Fort Myers Beach

Fort Myers Beach, FL, United States

Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island, Lee County, FL, United States

Fort Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale, FL, United States

Miami Beach

Miami Beach, FL, United States

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park, Monroe County, FL, United States

Florida Keys

Florida Keys, Monroe County, FL, United States

Key Largo

Key Largo, FL, United States

Visit Ithaca Encourages People to do Exactly the Opposite

Due to a "ridiculously stupid winter," Visit Ithaca encourages people to go to Florida instead.
Due to a "ridiculously stupid winter," Visit Ithaca encourages people to go to Florida instead.

Let’s be real. It’s freaking miserable in New York State right now. February is always a rough month, but for some reason, it’s particularly bad this year—“ridiculously stupid,” you might say. Although the snow totals aren’t as great here in the Finger Lakes as what our neighbors to the northwest experience in Buffalo, it’s not too much fun to be here in the winter. And anyone who tells you differently—aside from hardcore skiers and kids with a snow day—is lying.

But that’s not stopping national news outlets from talking about a small Upstate New York town today—and for once, the story isn’t about an impending snowstorm!

Visit Ithaca, the tourism board for Tompkins County—one of 14 in the Finger Lakes—decided that with the wind whipping outside and the temperatures dipping below zero, they’d rather be in Florida. And so should everyone else.

The VisitIthaca.com homepage pop-up encourages people to visit the Florida Keys, causing one Florida tourism rep to wonder about job security.

The VisitIthaca.com homepage pop-up encourages people to visit the Florida Keys, causing one Florida tourism rep to wonder about job security.

“That’s it. We surrender. Go to Key West instead.” That’s what the pop-up banner on VisitIthaca.com read on Monday, February 16. Despite how “gorges” Ithaca may be—and it is beautiful in the winter, too—the tourism folks aren’t sugar coating how much that fresh layer of powder actually sucks. It’s too darn cold to enjoy all that beauty. Come in the spring.

I’ve lived in Corning, NY, all my life—just under an hour from Ithaca. I love living here. It’s so picturesque. The 11 glacially-formed, crystalline bodies of water stretch out like fingers. 130+ wineries and vineyards dot their shorelines. Idyllic small towns that have been equated to Norman Rockwell paintings are in abundance, each one more charming than the last. It’s one of those gems of a destination. You come here, and you know you’ve discovered someplace special.

But there’s a reason winter is the slowest season.

I used to work in tourism marketing for the Finger Lakes region, and while there are a lot of things to do here in the winter, a mid-February vacation wasn’t always the easiest sell. Any talk about Upstate NY in February is about leaving it.

Except for today, ironically enough.

Sure, when the Today Show, CNN, Yahoo! Travel, People magazine, and a whole host of other outlets covered the story, they relayed Ithaca’s message to “visit the Florida Keys this week,” because “it’s for the birds here now.” But what that actually did was put Ithaca—a town encased in snow and ice—on everyone’s radar. Not convinced? Their webpage that typically has 1500 hits a day during the winter got more than 80,000 today!

It seems so counterintuitive. What tourism organization in their right mind would use those precious tourism dollars to promote another destination? Even a representative for the Florida Keys was surprised, calling it the “wackiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life from a tourism marketing standpoint.” But a county tourism office couldn’t dream of buying the publicity that Ithaca got today. It’s genius, and I bet there’s a lot of PR people out there who wish they’d thought of it first. Despite the fact that no one wants to come here in February, people may now be more apt to visit “when things thaw out”—just as Ithaca suggests. Which, let’s be honest, is good for the entire Finger Lakes region.

So, I tip my PR hat to you, Visit Ithaca, for suggesting people do exactly the opposite. What a brilliant way to ensure visitors to the region for many months to come.

The 14 Best Travel Moments of 2014

Rainbow over Costa Rica
Rainbow over Costa Rica

Each year, we like to look back on some of the highlights from our year of travels. Check out the post from 2013! We did a lot of traveling this year, going everywhere from Washington D.C. to New York City, Charleston to Orlando, Cancun to Costa Rica. We’ve decided to each pick our seven favorite travel experiences, and share them with you in no particular order.

Feel free to share your favorite travel experiences in the comments below!

Kim’s Top 7

Be Free, Little Turtles!

What fun it was to release several hundred baby sea turtles to the ocean one evening in Cancun. I got to hold three of them, feeling their flippers beat against my fingers as they squirmed to be set free. There is no flash photography allowed, as it could disorient them, but watching the tiny turtles slip and slide their way to the ocean in the dim light is something I won’t forget anytime soon.

Escape to Alcatraz

After a failed attempt to see Alcatraz last year due to the government shutdown, I was bound and determined to see the famed prison this year while I was at a conference in San Francisco. It was surreal to walk the hallways and see the cells that hardened criminals once inhabited. And what an eerie calmness passes over you when you go out to the courtyard area of the prison which overlooks the city, seemingly a world away.

Science, Stars, and Sharks… Oh, My!

Exploring the Nightlife of the California Academy of Sciences was a real highlight for me this year. What a fun place! With a rainforest, aquarium, natural history museum, and planetarium, this place has a little bit of everything. This adults-only event happens every Thursday night, and I just so happened to be there for Sharktober, which was awesome!

Christmastime in the City

As an Upstate New Yorker, I’ve long wanted to go to NYC to see the Rockefeller Christmas Tree and the beautiful seasonal window displays, and this year, we finally got to do it! The City is one that always hustles and bustles, but there’s something special—almost magical—about it on an evening in December, and I’m so glad I finally got to experience it, cup of hot cocoa in hand.

Home Away From Home

I’ve often heard that some people find their “home away from home” while on vacation, but it hadn’t happened to me before. That all changed in Costa Rica. The nine beautiful days we spent at the Beach Bungalows in Tamarindo were absolutely perfect—both in our surroundings and the company. Our hosts Trish and Claudio were the friendliest, most generous people we’ve had the pleasure to meet while traveling, and they made our time there an absolute joy. And, of course, we loved spending time with their beautiful dogs, Stella and Parker. What a paradise they have created in this seaside town!

Soaking in the Hot Springs

I have wanted to go to Costa Rica since high school, and one of the things at the top of my list was to soak in some natural hot springs. Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort was certainly the place to do it, with the beautifully manicured grounds, and gloriously warm water cascading throughout the resort near Arenal Volcano. Whether you wanted to sit under a waterfall, or relax in a shallow pool, the options were limitless, and there seemed to be enough room for everyone to enjoy the water—something I had been worried about since it’s such a big attraction. It was a great way to spend an afternoon!

Christmas in Costa Rica

Kyle and I have been talking about spending Christmas at a beach for a long time, and this year, we finally did it! How amazing it was to spend the entire day splashing in the waves, and soaking in the sun. This year convinced me I’d trade a snowy Christmas for a sandy one any year!

Kyle’s Top 7

Visiting the Newseum in D.C.

Opened in 2008, the Newseum was created to educate people on the five freedoms provided by the First Amendment. Out front is a display of the front page of a newspaper from every state (and several countries) for that particular day. Aside from this very cool street-side display, the Newseum has some fantastic exhibits worth checking out. Highlights for me included sections of the Berlin Wall, a collection of historically significant headlines (e.g. outbreaks of war), a memorial to fallen journalists including a truck shot up in Sarajevo and a truly touching 9/11 memorial. Overall, I can’t think of a single exhibit that was lacking when compared to the rest – this is a must for anyone interested in some of the biggest moments in history for the last two centuries.

Whitewater Rafting in Costa Rica

I’ve been whitewater rafting a couple of times in the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon when I was a kid. The rapids are class II/III there, but are overall pretty easy to navigate. The opportunity to go again in Costa Rica was one of the things I was most excited for, and the Río Colorado just north of Liberia did not disappoint. We took a tour from our hotel in Tamarindo to reach the Cañón de la Vieja Adventure Lodge – about an hour drive. This tour featured several activities, which we’ll write about in the future, but the rafting was by far the best. There are a handful of calmer spots for you to catch your breath and overall, beginners will have no trouble tackling these rapids; however, there are a couple of thrilling drops to ratchet up the experience. You WILL get wet and it is awesome!

Wormsloe Historic Site

I wrote about this one recently, but let me sum it up for you. Wormsloe is a beautiful plantation built by one of the members of the party that founded Savannah, Georgia. Unlike other plantations in the south, this historic site doesn’t feature an extravagant mansion with large, well-groomed grounds. Instead, Wormsloe is more like a nice nature park centered on the long-abandoned ruins of one of the first homes in the area. It is known best for its gorgeous driveway, which is frequently photographed, but I really liked the tabby ruins themselves. This was my favorite part of Savannah.

Xcaret: The History of Mexico

Part of a group of attractions aimed at educating people on the history, traditions and ecology of Mexico, Xcaret is a park about an hour outside Cancun’s Hotel Zone that features a dinner show similar to Medieval Times – except that this one is infinitely better. The food is good, but the show is awesome, transporting you from ancient Maya to present day and highlighting much of the musical tradition of Mexico. Standout moments included a recreation of two ancient sports from the region: pok-ta-pok and pelota purépecha (similar to field hockey, but with FIRE). This was one of the handful of touristy things that we got to do in Cancun while we attended TBEX and it was a real joy to experience.

Visiting Charleston Plantations

More plantations… really? How many plantations can one person enjoy in a year? Yes – more plantations, but only because each plantation has its own feel. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens features the traditional southern plantation home surrounded by gardens that have been allowed to grow in a more uncontrolled fashion. This means it has a much more natural look and ensures you’ll see more wildlife – we saw alligators, turtles and a bald eagle here. Middleton Place on the other hand is beautiful in that aristocratic sense – its gardens are carefully manicured and beautifully kept. Overall, both are absolutely worth the visit.

The Rides in Disney

We had a rough time in Florida this year, but problems aside – Disney has world-class rides. I’m a big fan of Expedition Everest – I love everything about it from the set dressing to the rapid shifts in direction. Kim on the other hand – she’s all about Space Mountain.

Visiting Central Park for the first time

Despite having been to New York City a number of times, somehow neither of us had ever managed to make it over to Central Park. It’s kind of a weird oversight, I know. We visited in late spring and lucked out as the weather was perfect. As we walked around, Kim pointed out that this was the first time she’d ever really liked NYC. Until that moment, both of us had always seen NYC as a dirty, busy, necessary evil that we had to visit for work or to see a Broadway show. It took us walking around the oasis that is Central Park to understand that NYC doesn’t have to be about fighting your way through crowds and running all the time. Instead, you can enjoy lunch by the boat pond, watching as people of all ages sail their miniature boats. You can stroll about, just taking in the well-kept park as people walk their dogs or play pick-up games around you. Finish out your trip by riding the carousel at least once – it certainly isn’t the most amazing carousel of all time, but it just feels like something you have to do. Overall, walking through Central Park was a standout New York moment for both of us.

Cheers to many more adventures in 2015!

The Adventurous Side of Sanibel Island

Sanibel Seashells
Sanibel Seashells

I had always been intrigued by this mystical island where stunning seashells washed up on the shore by the droves. I love collecting shells from every beach I visit—not that I ever actually do anything with them, but it’s fun nonetheless. So, when Kyle and I needed to get away a few weeks before our wedding in the summer of 2012, we couldn’t think of a more perfect escape than Sanibel.

Now, I know what you’re thinking—Florida in July? I know, we were crazy—and in hindsight, we should have packed a LOT more sun screen—but honestly, I think it’s the best time to go. Crowds are thin and prices are low. We stayed at the beautiful beachfront Sanibel Inn for less than $200 per night, roughly half of what the same room would go for when the snowbirds are flocking to Florida in the winter. We stayed in a beautiful room with a patio, where we enjoyed listening to the waves. What was better—the property had beach access! When we weren’t taking advantage of some great island activities, we were splashing in the ocean, diving for sand dollars.

Thrills in Sanibel

Speaking of activities, we got to try some fantastic ones in Sanibel. One of my very favorite memories from any trip Kyle and I have taken is the afternoon we spent with Sanibel Thriller Cruises. We’d heard this was a speed boat tour, where the boat left such a massive wake that dolphins would jump and play in it. We got in line more than an hour early so we could make sure we got good seats—in the back! The boat circumnavigates both Sanibel and Captiva islands, and a very informative guide narrates as you pass by points of interest. Everyone cheered as the boat roared out of the sound and into open ocean, with a pod of dolphins leaping along behind us.

That sight alone probably would have been enough for me to remember my time on the Sanibel Thriller, but there was a whole different kind of excitement in store. As we rounded the tip of Captiva Island, we noticed very ominous clouds forming ahead. We could see the rain off in the distance, and knew we had to go through the storm to get back to the dock we’d departed from. We continued our tour along the backside of the islands for another twenty minutes or so before we got really nervous. The guide told us to hold on tight to everything we’d brought on the boat, and to put any electronics away as best we could. Then the rains hit—fast and furious! I am not a huge fan of getting caught in a rainstorm. I squeal when a few sprinkles hit me. But there was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide from the relentless, pounding rain. About 30 seconds in, everyone in the boat realized all we could do was laugh! The captain drove us as quickly as he could, the high speeds making the rain smack us in the face that much harder. Finally, the rain let up, and we were all completely soaked from head to toe. Once the boat docked, we all got off, shaking the water off and wringing our hair out, laughing wholeheartedly. We knew we’d all share that memory forever. There’s something really special about that.

Parasailing, and more dolphins!

Since Ft. Myers Beach is a little less than half an hour away from Sanibel, we decided to check it out during one of our four days in Florida. We booked a parasailing adventure with Paradise Parasail. Although this was a bit out of our comfort zone, we’d heard it was the best way to see the shoreline, so we decided to give it a try. The whole experience was quite serene, actually—drifting high above the boat we’d just been seated on, and out over open water. We saw plenty of stingrays and fish. The only thing that was disconcerting was the fact that we’d bought the package with two “dips” into the ocean at the end of the ride. I was so afraid we’d land on a shark! But alas, we simply bounced in and out of the ocean without incident, and were back on the boat in no time.

Once safely on the beach, I’d already started planning the next day’s adventure. Activity companies were set up in the sand, and the one next to the parasailing tent was advertising guided dolphin waverunner tours. Ummm… awesome! We woke up early the next morning to catch the 9:30 a.m. tour around Estero Island, complete with wildlife , mangrove forests, and beautiful little bays. Kyle drove the waverunner, and I held on tight in the back, enjoying the scenery. The first hour or so of the hour-and-a-half tour is through the inner part of the island. You’re traveling at slower speeds and passing under bridges. But the last half hour is when you really tare loose, and roar down the open sea, parallel with Ft. Myers Beach. Just like the Sanibel Thriller, the waverunners kick up enough wave action to get the dolphins excited, and a few jumped along behind us much to my absolute delight! Such a great way to start any Florida morning!

What to know if you go:

Stay:

Sanibel Inn
937 East Gulf Drive
Sanibel Island, FL 33957
239-472-3181239-472-3181

Play:

Sanibel Thriller Cruises
634 N. Yachtsman Dr.
Sanibel Island, FL 33957
239-472-2328239-472-2328
$43/adult

Paradise Parasail
Ft. Myers Beach, Florida
239-463-7272239-463-7272
Rates range from $47-75 per person

Adventure Watersports, Inc.
Ft. Myers Beach, Florida
239-849-6342239-849-6342
Dolphin tours, kayak and SUP rentals, sail and banana boat rentals

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