By Janet K. Keeler
It’s hard to beat the Fort Myers area for outdoor adventure activities.
The fishing is amazing in Lee and Charlotte counties and proof of that are the masses that descend for tarpon fishing tournaments every year.
Picturesque barrier islands and miles and miles of shoreline attract shellers and paddlers. Birdwatchers are almost as abundant as the birds.
It’s not all touchy-feeling nature activity. Visitors challenge themselves on water skis and parasailing high above the beach. And on Jet Skis, too.
10 ways to be adventurous in the Fort Myers area...
GET YOUR PADDLE ON
The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail shows off some of the best outdoor features of Lee and Charlotte counties. The 190-mile marked paddling trail, perfect for canoes and kayaks, winds through inland tributaries and the coastal waters fed by the Gulf of Mexico. The trail rambles through Estero Bay, down the Caloosahatchee River and into Pine Island Sound. A trail map that notes good stops along the way helps visitors plan their paddles and to know which areas are good for novices and which are better for experts. Make sure to bring along binoculars for birdwatching and maybe even a fishing pole. Keep an eye peeled for manatees, too.
INTRO TO THE EVERGLADES
Just 40 miles from Fort Myers is Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on the eastern edge of the Everglades. A 2.5-mile elevated boardwalk meanders through pine flatwoods, then into wet prairie and around a marsh. It’s part of the Atlantic Flyway so besides birds, the sanctuary attracts a lot of birdwatchers. There are lots of programs including guided walks, one in the swamp itself, and nighttime tours. There are occasional swamp buggy tours too which last about three hours and get participants farther into the unique terrain of the Everglades.
STAND UP AND PADDLE
The protected water of the Southwest Florida Intracoastal Waterway is the perfect playground for pros that tote their own paddleboards or beginners just learning to balance on the outsized boards. Once you get the hang of standing up and paddling, you’ll be enchanted by the natural surroundings including mangroves and manatees. Paddleboard Adventures gives lessons and rents equipment, but even better are the guided tours that can be tailored to the experience level of the participants. They even have sunset tours that might be the perfect time to pop the “will you marry me?” question. Just don’t drop the ring in the water.
DON'T LET THE BIG ONE GET AWAY
Tarpon are caught all along the west coast of Florida, but anglers come from far and wide to take part in late spring tarpon fishing tournaments in the sounds of Pine Island and Gasparilla. The purses stretch into the thousands and might even include a new boat. You don’t have to be competing to try your hand at landing a coveted silver king, one of Florida’s most popular sport fish. They are fighters and could wrangle for 30 minutes or more before they can be brought to the boat and then released. You’ll get a special thrill when you see the fish jump acrobatically from the water while still on the line. There are lots of charters to help you land your first tarpon, including Reel Fishing and Saltwater Spoiled. Book early, especially in the busy months.
Sanibel Island is one of the best places in the world to hunt for shells and it’s easily accessible with plenty of roads and accommodations. Nearby Cayo Costa State Park is even better for shelling and since it’s only accessible by boat or kayak, the beach is not as picked over. Visitors can take home whatever they find, as long as there aren’t live critters in the shells. Take the ferry for a day trip to hunt for whelks, augers and jingles and maybe the rare junonia. Pitch a tent or reserve a rustic cabin and stay a few nights to explore one of Florida’s remaining undeveloped beaches.
TROMP THE SWAMP
It’s about 60 miles from Naples to Chokoloskee, the start of a swampy experience that will have visitors walking waist-high in the waters of Big Cypress Swamp National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. A naturalist is the guide on this 3.5-hour eco-tour. Expect to see interesting vegetation on your swamp walk that might include the illusive ghost orchid. Wildlife sightings can include white-tailed deer, red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, egrets, herons and woodpeckers. Oh, and maybe a few gators. Groups are limited to 12 and walks are held in the mornings and afternoons.
EXPLORE ON TWO WHEELS
There are about 25 miles of paved bike trails on Sanibel Island and the generally flat terrain attracts all levels of bikers. For travelers who haven’t brought their own bikes, there are a number of rental outlets, including Billy’s and Finnimore’s on Periwinkle Way, the main shopping and dining strip through the island. Many hotels loan bikes for free or a small fee. A popular spot for visitors that can be pedaled to is the historic lighthouse on the eastern tip of the island. Toward the middle of the island is the entrance to the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. There is a 4.2-mile paved road through the 6,300-acre refuge that encompasses about a third of the island. Bikers share this road with drivers but the speed limit is 15 mph.
GET ABOVE IT ALL
Fort Myers Beach is the waterfront playground of Lee County. Arcades, hotels, ice cream stands, bathing suit shops and more attract beach lovers in droves. Parasailing is a popular activity here and if you’re ready to strap on the harness, then Holiday Watersports is ready for you. Parasailors take off from the deck of a six-passenger boat which provides the power to get the parasail aloft. Participants fly solo or with family and friends, and either way get a great view of the beach, Gulf of Mexico and Intracoastal Waterway.
Florida Tracks and Trails in Punta Gorda, less than 30 minutes north of Fort Myers, is the place to play in the mud. The park is designed for many vehicles including ATVs, dirt bikes, go carts and golf carts, though the latter doesn’t exactly scream adventure. There’s also a mud zone where the boggin’ happens. There’s food and drink at Tiki Beach and a chance to cool off in the swimming hole. Rentals include safety equipment.
ANOTHER WAY TO WATER
The Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway are big draws for boaters, paddlers and anglers. Water skiers and wakeboarders can find a home for their activities at Eden Ski Lake and Revolution Cable Park. Eden has a 900-yard-long lake with two slalom courses. The water level is regulated so it’s skiable at all times. Revolution caters to wakeboarders and kneeboarders, though water skiers are welcome, too. The park is run on a cable system with five towers and up to seven riders can be on the system at the same time.