On Southwest Florida’s serene Gulf Coast, you’ll find a nature lover’s paradise. Whether you’re into the beach, birding, flora and fauna, fishing, shell collecting, or just getting your toes in the sand, there’s plenty of it here on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. You can spy hundreds of species of birds, manatees, dolphins, and alligators here. Mostly though, it’s a place to relax, rejuvenate, and relish seeing Mother Nature at her best. Here’s how to do it.

1. Explore Fort Myers Beach

For catching legendary sunsets, head to the Fort Myers Beach Pier. You’re also likely to spot a dolphin or two playing in the Gulf. While you’re here, swim, parasail, splash around with the kids, or simply soak up the sun. Winter and early spring are peak season in Fort Myers and Sanibel, but you’ll find lovely weather (and smaller crowds) come September.

2. Let Your Imagination Take Flight at The Butterfly Estates

Lose yourself in a mecca of butterflies and tropical plants in this 3,600-square-foot glass-enclosed botanical conservatory. The Butterfly Estates are easy to reach in the downtown Fort Myers River District, and there’s often musical entertainment and exhibits showcasing local talent. Admission is $10 for anyone 13 and older; $6 for those 3-12; and free for kids younger than 3.

3. Make Flipper-Footed Friends at Manatee Park

This Fort Myers favorite is the spot for seeing manatees in a non-captive, natural environment. In addition you can picnic, explore native plant and butterfly gardens, or rent a kayak or canoe to enjoy on the Orange River. Admission is free; parking costs $2 per hour or $5 per day.

4. Explore an Ecosystem in Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve

This Fort Myers preserve is comprised of 3,500 acres of wetland ecosystem with a boardwalk trail and interpretive center. Here, a cypress slough catches and slowly filters rainwater on its way towards Estero Bay. You can see otters, alligators, turtles, and wading birds here at any time of year, but many migrating birds and butterflies only come for the winter. Admission is free with paid parking, which costs $1 per hour or a maximum of $5 per visit.

5. Take a Walk to See Local Art

If you’re in Fort Myers on the first Friday of the month, make your way to the River District for Art Walk. This free and fun event lets you meet and chat with artists, tour galleries, shop for art and handmade items, and enjoy live music and food along the way.

6. Get Cozy at Lovers Key State Park

With a name like Lovers Key State Park, you can expect romance, and this spot delivers. Couples won’t be disappointed by two miles of beach, trails for hiking, and narrow waterways for kayaking. (You can rent a kayak or a bike here, if you aren’t bringing your own.) The resident bald eagles, dolphins, and marsh rabbits only add to its charm. Admission is $8 per car, and $2 per cyclist or pedestrian.

7. Take a Break on Captiva Island

If you want to avoid the crowds, head to Captiva’s Turner Beach, where you can collect shells, fish, or just chill while viewing a dramatic sunset. Collecting shells on Captiva is the stuff of legends; you may even find some rare or very old specimens. You can also take your pick of watersports, including paddle boarding and kayaking. For landlubbers, there’s golf, tennis, and leafy Andy Rosse Lane, which is perfect for a stroll.

8. Glide Along the Great Calusa Blueway

There’s nothing quite like the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail. Imagine a 190-mile marked canoe and kayak trail that winds through coastal waters and inland tributaries. Be ready for an encounter with nature here. Dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and birds call this piece of paradise home. The Blueway has three legs: Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound, and the Caloosahatchee River.

9. Watch the Seasons Change at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Ding Darling on Sanibel Island, at 6,400 preserved acres, is one of the largest mangrove wildernesses in the U.S. What you’ll see here depends on the time of year. January to March is all about the birds – shorebirds, waterfowl, osprey, and more. April through June, you’ll see manatee in mating season and alligators with their nests. Fish like Tarpon are plentiful, too. If you’re visiting in the last quarter of the year, there will be lots of shorebirds, colonial birds, white pelicans, and other migratory birds. Admission is $5 per car, and $1 per cyclist or pedestrian.

10. Get Into Island Life on Sanibel

Beach lovers will have a tough decision to make on Sanibel Island – Bowman’s, Blind Pass, Tarpon, or Lighthouse Beaches, or the Sanibel Causeway? There’s no wrong choice, but if you’re a windsurfer, the Causeway is for you. Rent a bike here for more island fun. Whether you’re a rookie looking for golf or tennis lessons or consider yourself a pro, Sanibel also offers plenty of places to play. You can also find pickleball – a kind of tennis/ping-pong hybrid. Set sail on a fishing charter, or take a short cruise; there are breakfast and sunset sailings, or wildlife-themed trips.

11. Kick Back on Pine Island

If you’re in search of great fishing and a completely laidback atmosphere, seek out Pine Island, the largest island off Southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast.  The waterways of Matlacha Pass and in the Pine Island Aquatic Preserve are excellent for kayaking and fishing. Pine Island also stands out for its mangroves, three aquatic preserves, and acres of palm, tropical plant, and fruit groves.

12. Seek Solace at Cayo Costa State Park

Imagine having stretches of beach all to yourself. Quiet, with just a few docked boats and a handful of people combing the beach for shells, Cayo Costa is a gem. Once the fishing grounds of the Calusa tribe, it’s secluded and known for its sparkling waters. Swim, kayak, camp, rent a primitive cabin, patiently wait for the appearance of dolphins and sea turtles, or comb the shore for that perfect shell. On the island’s interior you’ll find walking and biking trails. Cayo Costa can only be reached by boat, so if you’re not sailing one yourself, you’ll need to book an excursion to get there. Excursions cost $40-$50 per person for adults, and $25-$35 for kids through park-affiliated Captiva Cruises. Park entrance costs an additional $2 per person.

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