Relax on the region's stunning beaches

Shell-strewn beaches, artist enclaves and old-world charm mark Fort Myers and the surrounding islands off Florida’s Gulf Coast as a laid-back alternative to the state’s skyscrapers and theme parks, says Jonny Payne.

A sign on a shop window reads: ‘Opening hours: Tuesday to Friday: 10ish to 5; Saturday 10ish to 3; Sunday: By chance’. This is Matlacha, a sleepy fishing village off the Fort Myers coast that does things its own way, in its own time.

Just along the road past charming cottages and decorated telegraph poles, a tiny painted caravan adorned with mermaids, fish and portraits of The Beatles sits outside a small, equally colourful gallery.

Florida LovegroveDelve inside the colourful Lovegrove Gallery & Gardens
WTG / Jonny Payne

I set foot inside and am welcomed by Leoma Lovegrove, an eccentric character who’s dressed in flamboyant white sunglasses, a paint-flecked shirt and multicoloured shoes. The artist is surrounded by bright canvases and recycled items that have been given a new lease of life under a veil of pigment.

As I emerge into the garden, I’m met with a cross between an Alice in Wonderland garden and the set of a Yellow Submarine video. Beyond a large tribute to The Beatles and dandelion-clock-like flowers made from empty water bottles, is a small wooden jetty that looks out onto a secluded mangrove-fringed quay. I sit here for a while in the incredible stillness that’s punctured only by the calls of birds in the surrounding trees.

Island hop

Matlacha (pronounced Mat-la-shay) is just one of a number of islands off Florida’s southwest coast and is the gateway to the largest, Pine Island, where I take to the waters on a kayak. Gently paddling along the Great Calusa Blueway, I venture off into the waterways and tunnels created by the vast mangrove system.

Dolphins glide by, ospreys circle above and every minute or two mullet leap comically from the water and return with a splash. I’m also ever alert for a glimpse of a manatee, which are today hiding in the depths.

Florida wildlifeKeep an eye out for the area's abundant wildlife
Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau and WTG / Jonny Payne

But I’m soon granted a brief sighting of arguably the world’s strangest-looking sea mammal on Sanibel Island. During a cruise around Tarpon Bay in the J. N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a small brown snout surfaces around 15m (50ft) away before quickly vanishing. Pelicans, herons and cormorants gather nearby amongst nests on mangrove islands that have grown atop oyster beds, and alligators lurk amidst the reddish-brown mangrove swamps.

Linked by a causeway from Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel Island has no traffic lights, a gentle speed limit of 35mph and no building higher than the tallest palm tree. This haven for the well-heeled is particularly known for its shells, and quite rightly. I walk along Lighthouse Beach and immediately find examples of all shapes, sizes and colours carpeting the foreshore – it’s an incredible sight that has led many to visit solely in search of the best shells to add to their collections.

Across a small bridge is Captiva Island, a millionaire’s paradise that’s akin to a Beverley-Hills-on-sea, with its palm-lined boulevards and gigantic mansions surrounded by immaculate bougainvillea-cloaked gardens. Nearby, there are quirky art galleries and cosy cafés in colourful clapboard-clad buildings and a popular locals’ beach.

Sanibel beachGo shelling on Sanibel Island's beaches
iStockphoto / Thinkstock and WTG / Jonny Payne

From Captiva, I take a boat across Pine Island Sound to Cabbage Key, a tiny island built on a Calusa Indian shell mound. Here, a quaint quay is overlooked by the Cabbage Key restaurant that, barring a couple of holiday cottages, is the only building on the island. Inside, its walls are covered with thousands of signed dollar notes. Following the lead of fishermen before him, singer Jimmy Buffett (who allegedly wrote his song Cheeseburger in Paradise about Cabbage Key) added his signed note, and visitors have continued the tradition ever since.

Explore historic Fort Myers

Unlike the towns and cities on Florida’s east coast, high-rise buildings are the exception rather than the rule in Fort Myers, and this has helped to maintain an Old Florida charm that’s typified by the city’s colourful Downtown.

Old FloridaDiscover historic Fort Myers and the Edison & Ford Winter Estates
Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau / WTG

For a true insight into Old Florida, head to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates: inventor Thomas Edison and automobile mogul Henry Ford once owned neighbouring 19th-century houses perched on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River. Take the time to explore these houses, spend time in the fascinating museum housing Edison’s inventions, and wander around the charming gardens.

Where to eat:

Florida foodSample Cabbage Key's crab, The Island Cow's muffins and Fresh Catch Bistro's scallops
WTG / Jonny Payne

The Island Cow: A great place for breakfast on Sanibel Island, this lively and quirky diner has an extensive all-day menu. Be sure to check out the funky interiors and toilets.

Cabbage Key: Order a ‘cheeseburger in paradise’, sample locally caught stone crab and taste a Cabbage Creeper cocktail. Don’t forget to add your signed dollar note to the thousands already adorning the walls.

Fresh Catch Bistro: A great place to watch the sunset with a Martini in hand and a forkful of lobster – snag a beachside table on the terrace for the best views of Fort Myers Beach.

The Bubble Room: This eclectic Captiva eatery is decorated with Christmas items, film star caricatures and old juke boxes. The emphasis here is certainly on quantity, with gigantic steaks and huge slices of cake.

Thistle Lodge: A more formal restaurant than most in the area, this Sanibel Island establishment is perfect for an intimate night out and has an extensive wine list.

Where to stay:

Fort Myers Beach: The lemon-meringue-pie-coloured Sandpiper Gulf Resort (tel: (1) 800 584 1449; sits on the edge of a long, white-sand beach. Poolside double rooms are available from £96 per night and beachfront doubles from £128 per night.

Sanibel Island: The large Sanibel Inn (tel: (1) 866 565 5480; complex boasts well-equipped suites with a beachside location and sea views. Gulf view guest rooms are available from £83 per night and beachfront suites from £134 per night.



When to go: January to April is high season, while summer (June to September) signals the humid rainy season. May and October are good times to go with cheaper accommodation than in peak season and warm, relatively dry weather.

Getting there: The nearest airport is Southwest Florida International Airport, but no direct routes currently operate from the United Kingdom. Miami International Airport is two and a half hours away by road.

Getting around: Hiring a car is essential for those wishing to explore the area. Pick-up is available from Miami International Airport and Downtown Fort Myers.

More information: Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (tel: (1) 239 338 3500;

Holiday deal: Five nights in Fort Myers with Virgin Holidays (tel: 0834 557 3870 in the UK;, including direct Virgin Atlantic flights from London Heathrow to Miami and room-only accommodation at Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina in Fort Myers Beach, starts from £855pp (based on two sharing) with departures on 17 June 2013. Subject to change.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.