The 190-mile saltwater paddle trail that weaves its way along the mangrove islands and sugar-sand beaches of the Fort Myers area offers world-class fishing and birdwatching, remote sites for a romantic picnic or camping and a veritable playground for geocachers.
Tour for a Day or More
The Calusa Blueway is part of a greater, 1,600-mile paddling trail that runs the entire length of Florida's coastline. In January 2009, Mathew Keene, a 23-year-old from Cocoa Beach, was the first to circumnavigate the state on the recently completed Saltwater Paddling Trail. On his journey, he saw what many consider the best stretch of coastal paddling in the country.
But you don't need to set aside six months to share Keene's experience: The Calusa Blueway has dozens of great day trips for paddlers with all levels of experience. Order printed maps or download a copy from the web site (www.calusablueway.com), or use your smart phone and download the free app at the iTunes store; pack a lunch, some sunscreen and a life jacket; and you'll be ready to go.The Blueway is divided into three sections: Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound and the Caloosahatchee River. Estero Bay, Florida's first aquatic preserve, remains a pristine maze of mangrove islands similar to what the Calusa warriors paddled more than 1,000 years ago.
If you paddle Pine Island Sound, you can find a beach all to yourself on one of the Blueway's undeveloped barrier islands or visit one of the "civilized" areas and dine in a waterfront restaurant.
Finally, travel up the Caloosahatchee, the trail's newest segment, for some of the state's finest birdwatching and light-tackle fishing.
Watch for Wildlife
Birdwatchers from all over the country come to the Blueway each winter to add to their life lists. Roseate spoonbills, great blue herons, snowy egrets, as well as bald eagles and American oystercatchers, are just a few of the species you will see.
As you paddle, keep an eye out for manatees, gentle sea creatures that live here year round, gathering in large groups inland during winter months and dispersing throughout the Blueway’s waters during spring, summer and fall.. They may be seen feeding along the shallow grass beds in the spring and summer, as well. No trip is complete without a visit from The Blueway's bottlenose dolphins, and in the summer if you are lucky, you might even see a sea turtle or two as they nest on local beaches.
Anglers should bring a rod and reel. The Blueway is a haven for snook, redfish and spotted sea trout. There are even stories of anglers hooking tarpon, the silver king of gamefish.
Pine Island Sound has become a hotspot for kayak fishermen in recent years, and their light, silent craft can penetrate far into the backcountry (where traditional fishing boats cannot). Kayak anglers are required to purchase a fishing license, just like their boating counterparts, and must follow legal size and bag limits. You can get fishing licenses at www.MyFWC.com.
The Calusa's Trail
From 500 to 5,000 years ago, this area was home to Florida's only true maritime tribe: the Calusa. They were masters of their environment, building temples atop shell mounds and canals deep into the mangroves. As you paddle along the trail, you will see telltale signs of this ancient warrior people.
One of the highlights of any trip is stopping at Mound Key Archaeological State Park, an island accessible only by kayak or private boat. This place once served as the capital city of the mighty Calusa and was also the site of a Spanish fort and the first Jesuit mission in the New World.
As you stand on top of this 31-foot-high shell midden at the mouth of the Estero River, you get a view that is normally only enjoyed by the residents of the condominiums across the bay. Here, visitors can still see evidence of the intricate system of canals that allowed the Calusa to pull their dugout canoes right up to their thatched huts.
Today, the dugout canoes and conquistadors are gone, but those who paddle the Calusa Blueway will get a taste of what the area looked like when Florida's first people ruled the coast.
If You Go
Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, 239-338-3500, www.FortMyersSanibel.com and calusablueway.com