Fort Myers, known for its nature and historical estates, serves as a gateway to a stretch of islands including the Sanibel area, known for its famous shelling beaches.

A thriving city rich in history and nature, serves as gateway to a stretch of islands known for their white-sand beaches, bird life and recreational opportunities.

The city hugs the shores of the wide Caloosahatchee River, which created the town and levered its importance during the Seminole Wars. Since the early 1800s, settlers and visitors of fame and wealth came to the Fort Myers and Sanibel area, most notably light bulb inventor Thomas A. Edison, who built his home, laboratory and botanical gardens between the river and McGregor Boulevard, the town's most celebrated drive, thanks to Edison. He lined the old road with stately royal palms that remain a signature today. His contributions to the city (he also plugged Fort Myers into electricity) are celebrated on his birthday every February with the Edison Festival of Light Pageant, culminating in a nighttime parade.

Edison eventually persuaded his friend Henry Ford, of automobile fame, to purchase the house next door and both homes are open today to inform visitors of local history, along with other historic museums and sites. One of the area's most unusual historic attractions, Koreshan State Historic Site, memorializes a turn-of-the-20th-century utopian cult that brought culture to the wilderness. It is located in Estero in the vicinity of Florida's youngest state university, Florida Gulf Coast University, located in Fort Myers.

Professional theater, a sophisticated performing arts hall and two sports parks, which host the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins for spring training, provide entertainment in the Fort Myers area.

Downtown is evolving into a lively night scene where clubs, coffee houses, street performers and cafes draw a young, artsy crowd. For nature lovers, parks preserve fragile habitat while providing trails for hiking, biking and paddling. Manatee Park is home to a herd of endangered Florida manatees that come to winter in its warm waters every year. Visitors can kayak among them or listen to their singing through special hydrophones.

Host to the largest population of burrowing owls in Florida, and North Fort Myers, home to the vintage Shell Factory & Nature Park, face Fort Myers on the Caloosahatchee River's northern banks. Pine Island, a long island that holds tenaciously to its deep fishing and farming heritage, hides in the Intracoastal Waters off Cape Coral. Ancient Calusa Indian mounds and a funky small-town artist village bring culture-seekers to this island that celebrates its signature crop each July at the Mango Mania festival.

Main among Fort Myers' litany of barrier islands are Fort Myers Beach, a bustling beach town priced for families; Sanibel Island, centered around its famous shelling beaches and birding mecca at J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge; Captiva Island, a jumble of quirky shops and restaurants; and Bonita Beach, where the Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail begins to head north 90 miles. The Fort Myers and Sanibel area is also home to the one-of-a-kind Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, plus a historic village and a couple of nature attractions. Its Tarpon Bay lies along the Blueway and is part of the wildlife refuge. Roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, ospreys, manatees, dolphin, sting rays, tarpon and bob cats dwell in forests and waters of the refuge.

Besides canoeing and kayaking, the islands lure with nature boat tours, fishing and shelling charters, a sailing school, boat rentals, parasailing, sightseeing voyages, and cruises to the upper islands, reclusive and accessible only by boat. Shelling, secluded beaches, nature hikes, camping, lunching and cottage or home rentals beckon adventurers to these castaway islands and have since the days of Zane Grey, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Hedy Lamarr. Teddy Roosevelt based his circa-1914 fishing excursion on Captiva Island, a favorite haunt also of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who penned her Gifts From the Sea there.

With its gentle Gulf of Mexico waves, shell-strewn beaches, neighborly attitude and laid-back tempo, Fort Myers and its islands coerce a mood of creativity and inspiration. Today's tales of wily Doc Ford take their setting from the islands, written by local mystery writer Randy Wayne White. Artists from Robert Rauschenberg to the lady on Pine Island who paints postcards on coconuts have found their Muse here. No one who visits fails to be moved by what's natural.

When You Go...

Fort Myers – Islands, Beaches and Neighborhoods

Places to Remember