By Patty Ryan
Fifty miles of Florida beaches draw tourists to the Fort Myers area, famous for Sanibel and Captiva Islands, but the region’s back bays and rivers hold a special lure for eco-tourists and nature lovers.
Some days a manatee leads the way, or perhaps a roseate spoonbill, providing vivid inspiration for those who seek to vacation responsibly and protect the coastal region’s natural gifts.
The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail invites a quiet glide through waters that once served as byways for the indigenous Calusa tribe.
Whether by canoe, kayak or paddleboard, visitors can easily immerse themselves in this serene side of Florida, which has a culture of preserving wetlands while still encouraging people to enjoy them.
Birds, Birds, Birds
More than 248 species of birds roost at the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, including favorites such as the Mangrove Cuckoo, the Reddish Egret and the Yellow-crowned Night Heron. The Discover Nature phone app helps visitors interpret the 6,400-acre preserve, named for Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist and conservationist who fought to spare the area from development.
About an hour’s drive southeast of Fort Myers is the entrance to the 13,000-acre Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which touts the world’s largest virgin bald cypress forest and the nation’s largest nesting colony of endangered wood storks. Check the website to learn whether the sanctuary’s famous and prolific “super ghost” orchid is in bloom.
And just 20 minutes from downtown Fort Myers is the Six-Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, part linear swamp, part wildlife corridor. A 1.2-mile trail leads visitors past wading birds, otters and alligators, from the safety of a boardwalk. The preserve is also the site of the area’s first LEED-certified green building.
Warm Up to Manatees
In the winter, endangered Florida manatees lumber up the Caloosahatchee River and find warm waters inland near the Florida Power and Light plant. Visitors can watch from Manatee Park, situated along a tributary. The best time to spot a manatee is late December, January or February, when the Gulf of Mexico dips below 68 degrees.
Romantic and Remote
Secluded Lover’s Key State Park offers 2 miles of beaches and more than 5 miles of secluded trails. It’s a place to enjoy hiking, paddling, fishing and bicycling. As the name implies, it’s also famous for weddings.
Butterflies Up Close
Native butterflies are the stars at The Butterfly Estates, a glass-enclosed conservatory in the downtown Fort Myers river district. Visitors can learn how to create their own butterfly gardens at home.
City of Owls
The official bird of Cape Coral is the burrowing owl for good reason: The sprawling city west of Fort Myers is known for having the state’s largest population of the tiny threatened owls, which nest in tunnels underground. Tours are offered by Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, and the annual Burrowing Owl Festival in February marks the start of nesting season.
A Paddlers’ Playground
Whether adventurers set out for days or just hours, the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail provides the panorama of sky, water and shoreline. The trail stretches 190 miles along Florida’s west coast from Cayo Costa State Park south to Bonita Beach, and inland through rivers and tributaries. There’s an app (Calusa Blueways), and the website has downloadable maps.
Outfitters stand ready to rent out kayaks or paddle boards and lead the way, among them, Lovers Key Adventures, Kayak Excursions, CGT Kayaks and Tarpon Bay Explorers. The possibilities? Yoga on paddle boards, fishing from kayaks or paddle boards, paddling with the manatees, sunset paddling and full-moon paddling.
Instead of carbon footprints, leave your own. True Tours offers guided walks through the Fort Myers area, including a Haunted History Tour, a River District Historic Tour and a Flavors of Matlacha Island Tour. Check this guide to walking tours for more foot travel ideas downtown. For a schedule of guided walks at parks and preserves, visit the Lee County Parks & Recreation home page.
Water-based ecotour companies can lead you to dolphin sightings, remote beaches and fishing spots. Check websites for tours and schedules. Among the options: Captiva Cruises, Adventures in Paradise, Captain Brian on the Water, Tropic Star, Fish Tale Marina, and Pure Fort Myers. In addition, Everglades Day Safari includes transportation from Fort Myers in its full-day and half-day tours of the Florida Everglades. The Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism promotes responsible travel and certifies companies that are “committed to using best practices for ecological sustainability, natural area management and quality ecotourism experiences.”
Mounds of Shells
Sanibel Island has rich deposits of seashells, collected daily by tourists, replenished hourly by nature and celebrated in March with the annual Sanibel Shell Fair and Show. Captiva Island and Lovers Key State Park also draw collectors, and tour boat operators sponsor shell-themed outings. Live shelling, the harvesting of living shellfish, starfish or sand dollars, is prohibited. But if you’d like meet the mollusks, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum can make some introductions through live tank talks and beach walks.
Shell collecting in the region goes back at least 2,000 years. Native Calusa Indians harvested seafood from the Gulf and turned shells and fish bones into tools and weapons. Their massive shell mounds are now historic sites, including the Mound House on Fort Myers Beach and the Mound Key Archaeological State Park on Mound Key. The Mound House has an underground exhibit showing the inside of a mound.
DINING AND FOOD
Farm to Table
Farm-to-table dining gets no more direct than at Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm, where the restaurant is at the farm. The menu promises wholesome ingredients “made with our organically-raised and pastured 100% grass-fed beef, heritage breed red wattle pork and eggs from heritage chickens.” The member-supported farm is open to visitors Thursdays through Sundays, and the restaurant is open those days for brunch and lunch. An admission fee is waived if you dine there. Here are some other farm-to-table ideas in Southwest Florida.
The fishing village of Matlacha, on Pine Island, takes pride in its locally caught seafood. Once a fish packing house, the Olde Fish House is now a marina, restaurant and fish market. Blue Dog Bar & Grill and Yucatan Waterfront also serve fare from local waters.
Pine Island, known for agriculture, takes its mangoes seriously, with a MangoMania Festival every July. Roadside stands peddle the fruits of the island’s labor the rest of the year. For farmer’s markets in the Lee County area, check Local Roots.
Planes, Buses, Trams, Bikes
The determined can find alternatives to rental cars. It’s possible to fly to the region’s Southwest Florida International Airport, take a LeeTran bus to the Beach Park & Ride on Fort Myers Beach and then catch a trolley or tram. Seasonally, the LeeTran trolleys also operate in the downtown Fort Myers area.
Cape Coral and Fort Myers participate in The Nickel Ride, a program that carts riders around in electric vehicles as a way to support local businesses. And save your nickel: The rides are free. For details, download the Nickel Ride phone app.
Most bike rental companies will deliver to hotels, and Southwest Florida Critical Mass organizes safety-conscious bike rides. Look for details on the group’s public Facebook page.
The Florida Green Lodging program keeps a registry with hundreds of eco-conscious innkeepers committed to recycling, energy efficiency or water conservation. The Hyatt Coconut Plantation, part of a larger Hyatt complex that overlooks the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, received one of the program’s higher honors: three palms, on a scale of one to four. So did the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina on Fort Myers Beach. Both have outfitters on site. For dozens of other green accommodations, including the popular Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island, check this Eco-Friendly Resources link from Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau.
Under the Stars
If you’re planning to stay overnight along the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail, state parks are an eco-friendly option. On the north end of the trail, Cayo Costa State Park has tent sites and cabins with picnic tables, a grill and potable water. There are also tent sites inland on the Estero River at Koreshan State Park, which contains a historic village settled by a communal religious sect in 1893.
Paying it Forward
North Fort Myers is home base for ECHO Global Farm, which develops sustainable farming solutions to combat hunger around the world. Volunteers can sign up to work shifts at the farm, whether for a few hours or for multiple days.
With a three-month commitment, longer-term visitors can volunteer at CROW, a wildlife rehabilitation clinic on Sanibel Island. A short-tailed hawk, a bald eagle and a gopher tortoise have been among the patients admitted.
Lee County Parks & Recreation has workdays at preserves and will accept short-term help.
The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation organizes local residents in the ongoing effort to preserve coastal habitats, but says visitors can help too, by independently collecting trash and plastic left at beaches. No need to sign up. Just pick up.
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