Fort Myers barrier islands offer a quieter Florida stay


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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Long after other passengers stop clapping and whistling to attract attention, I persist, leaning over the railing of the Lady Chadwick excursion boat and calling to the creatures below, "Here baby, c'mon baby."

Even as my teenage daughter rolls her eyes in embarrassment, first one dolphin -- then a second and third -- rise gracefully from the navy-blue waters of southwest Florida's Pine Island Sound.

If you go
Fort Myers and Sanibel
Information: The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel/Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, 1-800-237-6444; www.FortMyers-Sanibel.com.
Lodging: Spotlessly clean, the beachside Best Western Plus Beach Resort Fort Myers Beach features Gulf of Mexico sunsets and is within walking distance of the fishing pier and Times Square shopping district. 1-800-336-4045; www.bwbeachresort.com. The venerable Gasparilla Inn & Club in Boca Grande is celebrating its centennial through July 6, 2014, with various special events and packages, www.the-gasparilla-inn.com; 1-877-403-0599.
Activities: Captiva Cruises, 1-239-472-5300; www.captivacruises.com.
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge: 1-239-472-1100 (press 2 for low tide information); www.fws.gov/dingdarling; for tours, www.tarponbayexplorers.com, 1-239-472-8900.
Indian Princess Cruise: 1-239-765-8919. www.indianprincessfortmyers.com.
 

Leaping and frolicking in the waves, our escorts on this Florida Gulf Coast cruise repeat the scene at least a half-dozen times, each time I call out to them. We joke that I could start a new career as a "dolphin whisperer" -- and even my jaded teenager has to laugh.

Far from the screaming, sweating crowds of Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World, this is a calmer, more natural part of Florida. Boats are the ride of choice, and wildlife and history are the "theme parks."

Here, on Sanibel, Captiva and other barrier islands around Fort Myers, thrills come quietly in the form of playful pods of dolphins or the rhythmic swish of kayak paddles in a mangrove-lined estuary. Only an occasional jumping mullet or an osprey dive-bombing for fish breaks the stillness.

It's the kind of place where even jittery type-A personalities soon find themselves doing the "Sanibel Stoop" or "Captiva Crouch," local nicknames for the bent postures common to shell-seekers.

Life's stresses soon fade away in the mesmerizing hunt for the perfect shell, from angel wings, banded tulips, calico scallops and cockle shells to lightning whelks and dozens of other species that ride the waves ashore each day from the Gulf of Mexico.

Unlike most barrier islands that run northwest, Sanibel's east-west positioning and boomerang shape make for ideal natural shelling conditions. You'll find shells any time of day but the best collecting time is at very low tide when there's a new or full moon.

The late actor Raymond Burr was an avid collector and a key benefactor of Sanibel Island's Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which opened in 1995. His hat, cane and pocket square from the hit TV show "Perry Mason" are showcased in an exhibit in the Great Hall of Shells.

Don't miss the video about mollusks, or living shells, and check out "Sailors' Valentines," a display of early 19th-century shell-art created by Caribbean women for sailors to take home to loved ones.

A favorite place for Sanibel Island nature encounters is the nearby J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, named for an American editorial cartoonist and environmentalist.

More than 300 species of birds, fish, reptiles and other wildlife, including more than a dozen threatened and endangered species, find safe haven among its more than 6,400 acres of sea-grass beds, marsh and mangrove forest.

From a car, kayak or open tram ride through the park, it's possible, especially during low tide, to spot alligators sunning on logs or tri-colored herons searching for food. Visitors with app-downloading smartphones may try the new Refuge iNature Trail along Wildlife Drive; it's an interactive component designed to entice techies outside.

For non-technical types like me, however, it may prove more a distraction from the thrilling natural drama of roseate spoonbills, white pelicans and wood storks gathering on the flats at dusk. Better, in my opinion, to bring a simple pair of binoculars and a recorder to tape the thrilling symphony of sounds. (Note that the refuge is closed Fridays).

It's also a good idea to sign up before even leaving home for "Awaken," a digital ecological calendar that provides updates on natural events in the area, such as wood-stork nesting season and the best time to see certain birds or Florida manatees. Find the link at www.Fortmyers-Sanibel.com/awaken.

Back on the mainland, in nearby Estero, landlubbers can also get close to nature by reserving a tee time at Old Corkscrew Golf Course, a Jack Nicklaus championship design noteworthy for its tall pines, wilderness feel and nearby citrus orchard.

Hockey fans may want to meet the course's marketing director, Canadian-born Don Edwards, a former NHL goalie.

Reserve at least a half day to visit the Edison-Ford Winter Estates near downtown Fort Myers. It offers a fascinating look at Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, two of the world's top inventor-entrepreneurs. Both were Michigan men -- and winter-fleeing snowbirds -- so charmed that they spent considerable time here together in the early 20th century. Pause for photos of the humongous banyan tree, then join a guided tour of their freshly restored, adjoining homes on the Caloosahatchee River.

You'll see lush botanical gardens, an intriguing museum and the laboratory where Edison experimented with everything from light bulbs, cement and phonographs to making natural rubber from goldenrod.

Kids can turn on actual lights designed by the famous inventor. And everyone stares in awe at the famous cot where, nearly every time he woke up, Edison is said to have had an idea for a new invention.

End your day back on Fort Myers Beach with its 200-foot-long fishing pier, open 24/7, or join a lively pirate cruise, casino cruise or Indian Princess sunset sail, each leaving from marinas near the Skybridge.

Afterward, stop for pretty tropical drinks, fresh seafood and live music at Parrot Key Caribbean Grill. Or, head for the lively bars, eateries and boutiques on Times Square, which serves as nightlife central in Fort Myers Beach.


Susan R. Pollack is a travel writer who lives in suburban Detroit.

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