Far from the madding crowd of tourists, Rosalind Sack travels to Fort Myers and Sanibel to discover the laidback Florida of days gone by…and a tempting haven for foodies.
Away from the throngs of eager tourists, the hectic theme park rides of Orlando in the north and the deafening nightclubs of Miami to the south, you will find an altogether different side to Florida, America’s Sunshine State.
Fort Myers, the hub of southwest Florida, is connected by bridge to Cape Coral, on the mainland and to Sanibel Island to the west, which sweeps along the coast like a brushstroke of white sand. It’s here where you will discover an altogether more laid back Florida; where you can unstrap your wrist watch, because time is immaterial. Switch off and while away the days shelling on the beach, gazing seaward at dolphins playing in the waves, or messing around in boats (‘Wind in the Willows’ Ratty would be in his element). There’s something about this region that feels very special indeed.
It’s not just opportunities for relaxation that are bountiful in supply here. With craft breweries, award-winning rum distilleries, even artisan chocolatiers starting to make a name for themselves, it is also a flourishing base for food and drink entrepreneurs and festivals. So prepare to return home from a holiday here with a healthy bronze tan, a refreshed body and mind… and a couple of pounds heavier!
A stay at the rather grand Westin Cape Coral – which features super foods on all menus, organises daily group runs, loans out gym gear to use in their poolside health suite and bikes free of charge – may help you to avoid the holiday bulge a little. This hotel was originally built as apartments and every room has a mesmerising water view across the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and the Gulf of Mexico, and to the mangroves and islands beyond. When it comes to rooms, much like their attitude to portion sizes, even the smallest offering here is huge.
Take advantage of their sunset dolphin tours, kids’ club, BBQ doughnut boat hire and water taxi to Fort Myers beach, then wind up your day with a seafood feast at Pinchers Crab Shack, just a short stroll along the palm tree-lined marina. Nothing requires very much effort here, it’s all on tap.
For those who, like me, enjoy getting out and about and exploring, head into downtown Fort Myers to seek out the newest and most exciting foodie ventures. Big Blue Brewing craft brewery and bar, housed in a former bingo hall, recently opened its doors on SE 10th Place and is already proving a hit with locals and visitors alike, with its outdoor veranda bar, giant games, fire pit and live music nights. Head Brewer James Retzler, a former sommelier turned beer guru, has worked with a number of local producers to create some really interesting brews. A word of warning though, American beers tend to be rather alcoholic, so take note of the ABV – and book a taxi!
If your tipples of choice are spirits, rather than beers, then the Wicked Dolphin craft rum distillery on SW 3rd Place is definitely worth a visit for a free tour and tasting (you will need to book ahead). Set up in 2012, family-owned Wicked Dolphin has grown to become one of the largest rum distilleries in the US, producing 45,000 bottles a year and sold in seven states. Made using only Floridian sugar and natural flavours, their innovative list of flavours reads like a mouth-watering dessert menu, with the likes of coconut, apple pie and blueberry sitting alongside the classics.
Now, I’ve never thought much of American chocolate, but I have been converted by another of Fort Myers’ talented entrepreneurs, Norman Love. Having worked for the Ritz Carlton hotel chain for many years, Norman wanted to ‘bring artistry to chocolate in the US’ so, in 2001, he started making chocolates for friends and family on a stainless steel table in his office. Now, Norman Love Confections produces 60,000 pieces a day and his flagship store on Lindbergh Boulevard has been known to have policeman controlling the traffic at Christmas and Valentine’s. It was named by the Telegraph as one of the best chocolate shops in the world and has become a destination in itself – its lime green boxes and bags, tied with brown ribbon, have become iconic. ‘Americans eat with their eyes,’ he told me and, with that in mind, his creations are among the most beautiful chocolates I’ve seen – moulded, crimped, speckled, airbrushed and dusted to chocoholic perfection. They will quickly melt in the hot Floridian sun, so it is virtually obligatory to devour your purchases in one sitting; I can attest that they are far too tempting to make it all the way home!
After all that indulgence, it’s surely time for some relaxation and I would heartily recommend a visit to Edison and Ford Winter Estates on McGregor Boulevard in historic downtown Fort Myers – a wide avenue shaded by enormous palms. This was the sunny winter retreat for inventor Thomas Edison, who completed his home there in 1886, and his friend, automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, who first visited in 1914 and purchased the neighbouring estate two years later.
The 20-acre estate houses 15 historic structures, including the men’s family homes, a Botanic research laboratory, museum and concrete swimming pool complete with diving board, which have been reserved to look as they would have in the 1920s. These sit in beautifully serene botanic gardens brimming with exotic plants and trees, including a towering banyan tree, coconut grove, lily pond and orchid-lined lane. There are daily tours and presentations, as well as special events scheduled throughout the year, so do check ahead to see what’s on.
Continue along McGregor Boulevard and over Causeway Boulevard and that sense of relaxation will, no doubt, heighten as you reach Sanibel and Captiva Islands, which are rich in natural beauty, with beautiful sweeping swathes of lush subtropical foliage, unspoilt white sand and bright turquoise waters. There are over 50 miles of sandy beaches here and no street lights, so the native nesting turtles and other wildlife are left undisturbed. Budding young scientists can sign up to a programme of eco-activities at the Sanibel Sea School, while children will also adore exploring Sanibel’s 330-acre J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to many exotic species of plants and birds, and the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. With more than 400 varieties of multicoloured shells littering the beach, particularly after an especially low or high tide, shelling has become a national pastime. In fact, its popularity here has given rise to the term the ‘Sanibel Stoop’ which refers to the bent-at the-waist posture of people combing the beaches searching for shells!
Hurricane Charley devastated the area in 2004 when it passed directly over North Captiva Island near Cayo Costa, severing it into two parts. After extensive restoration projects to repair buildings, roads and bridges, as well as replant trees and plants more suited to Southwest Florida’s hurricane season, the area is back on its feet.
If you’re just visiting for the day, the charming Captiva House Restaurant is a beautiful spot to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, cocktail in hand. First built as a school for children of the island’s pioneer settlers, it retains much of its original charm and is among Captiva’s top-rated restaurants. Naturally, their speciality is seafood, serving heavenly snapper, lobster, grouper, seabass, mahi mahi, blue crab, scallops and more often fresh off the boat that day.
Even better, why not treat the islands as your very own idyllic back garden and rent a house or condo, pitch a tent, or check in to one of the luxurious hotels and resorts here. There are a number of intriguing independent shops, boutiques and art galleries, where you can lose a few hours and stock up on souvenirs. You won’t want to stay indoors for long though – after all, sunshine is in rich supply here – so why not make the most of the abundant cycle paths and enjoy a two-wheeled meander, practise your swing on one of the two public golf courses on Sanibel, or book yourself in for a tennis lesson. Watersports and fishing are also popular pastimes in the waters around the islands, so you can join organised trips or rent your own boat or kayak.
Captiva Cruises run regular boat trips between McCarthy’s Marina on Captiva to neighbouring islands, Cabbage Key, Useppa, Cayo Costa and Boca Grande, as well as sunset tours, wildlife and shelling cruises. Around 400 dolphins have made the warm clear waters of Pine Island sound their very own playground and you’d be highly unfortunate not to see some of these graceful creatures frolicking through the surf beside your boat.
Reminiscent of old-time Florida, Cabbage Key and neighbouring Useppa island – a luxury resort of private homes with a captivating history of inhabitants including the native Calusa tribe, Spanish explorers, even the CIA – now enjoy a sedate pace of life. It may sound corny, but these islands really are the stuff of dreams; brimming with lush greenery and palm trees, car-free and accessible only by boat.
Keeping to the foodie theme, lunch is a must on Cabbage Key – so-called because of the abundance of cabbage palms on the island. There’s only one place to dine, the laid-back Inn and Restaurant, which commands a striking position on an ancient Calusa Indian shell mound overlooking the small marina and boathouse. The island hideaway was said to have inspired the wonderfully-named song that made rocker Jimmy Buffett famous, Cheeseburgers in Paradise. Over the years, patrons – which include movie stars, famous novelists and former presidents – have plastered every available inch of wall and ceiling space in the restaurant with thousands of signed dollar bills. The fare here isn’t limited to hamburgers; the shrimp, salmon and stone crab are the freshest you will find, while the giant portions of key lime pie are unmissable.
If you are overcome with sugar and miss the boat home, the inn has six guest rooms, while there are seven two and three-bed wooden cottages on the island available to rent. Built on stilts just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge, there are few better locations, either for a romantic trip, or a family adventure.
For more information, visit fortmyerssanibel.com