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

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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