Park It!

The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel have several parks where you can see manatees, dolphins, roseate spoonbills and other wildlife.

A solitary bald eagle peers down at us from his perch as we bicycle down the sandy path along towering palms, seagrapes and wildflowers. He waits until we meet our guide – then bolts – his massive wings creating a dramatic silhouette against the sky. Our guide is as startled as we are. Bald eagles, he explains, are winter residents of this park. He'd never seen one here in summer.

The surprises continued. Nature flourishes in the subtropical paradise of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, nourished and protected at numerous conservation areas, wildlife refuges and state parks. My husband Patrick and I had just arrived at Lovers Key State Park at Fort Myers Beach, a 712-acre haven made up of four islands: Lovers Key, Inner Key, Long Key and Black Island, with two and a half miles of white sand beaches, winding canals and tidal lagoons fringed with mangroves. Though the beaches are ideal for shelling and hiking, we opted to begin our adventure with a bicycle tour of Black Island's maritime hammock.

The park manager led us on our journey, regaling us with history, legend and lore; pirate stories of treasures and curses, greed and death. It all began with Black Augustus – and the one spot on this island his treasure was discovered. We were left to ponder – are there others?

We pedaled through native vegetation, stopping frequently at conveniently located covered benches, where we spotted tarpon, snook and manatees splashing in the canals. We saw about 15 roseate spoonbills, Florida's "real" pink bird (flamingos are native to Africa; only the plastic ones are from Florida), woodpeckers and osprey, and learned the importance of eliminating "exotic" plant life, like Australian pine and Brazilian pepper, to allow native plants to grow and wildlife to reclaim their natural habitats.

After a stop at the Butterfly Garden and the beach, we returned to our starting point. We said farewell to our able guide - and to our "guardian" bald eagle - who reappeared to oversee our departure.

It was a spectacular day. We stayed at Lovers Key Resort, adjacent to the park, starting the day with a complimentary continental breakfast and ending with a swim in the lagoon-style pool and a lovely meal at Flippers poolside grill.

The drive from Lovers Key to Pine Island was a bit of a trek, but worth it. We boarded the Tropic Star of Pine Island for a morning nature cruise to Cayo Costa State Park. We glided through the shallow waters of Pine Island Sound, cruising into a mangrove-lined manatee hole where we watched eight of the gentle giants rolling in the water.

Seven miles long with nine miles of shell-laden shoreline, Cayo Costa is a barrier island park accessible only by boat. We learned fascinating tidbits at the visitor center, like the coontie plant has ancestors as old as dinosaurs, and the fruit of the sea grape can be eaten raw or made into jelly or wine.

A tractor-pulled tram led us on a bumpy ride through the native jungle, which is home to feral pigs, alligators, tortoises and turtles, shorebirds and living shells, including horse conchs and lightning whelks on the beach. It was postcard perfect.

Last stop: Sanibel Island, for a morning tour of J. N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge with Tarpon Bay Explorers. They provide guided tram, boat, kayak and canoe tours; ours began at the Touch Tank. Captain Bill showed us starfish, seahorses, mating crabs and other sea creatures before we boarded the pontoon boat.

Tarpon Bay, he explained, looks like a lake. But lakes have deep, fresh water and are surrounded by land. The bay is instead a shallow body of brackish water, hugged by red mangrove islands. This estuary nurtures sheepshead, mangrove snapper, redfish, snook and spotted sea trout. Rookeries host egrets, herons, white ibises, osprey and anhingas. We saw almost all of them.

Heading back, we were not alone. To our right, two gray snouts emerged from the water, so close we could see black nostrils and pink tongues. These manatees were actually smiling at us, alternately revealing heads and huge, fan-shaped tails. Dolphins playfully leapt to our left. Sadly, it was time to leave paradise, but our sendoff couldn't have been more perfect.

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