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Kicking back at the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

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Sometimes you and your girls want to splurge on a skies-the-limit, sophisticated getaway filled with extravagant shopping, luxurious spas, opulent hotels, cutting-edge chefs, and private clubs filled with beautiful, beach bronzed people. FYI:Fort Myers & Sanibel would not be a good fit.

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On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person whose ideal retreat might include a few quirks, such as not allowing street signs, stop lights, high rises or fast food chain restaurants (other than one or two that were grandfathered in before the new zoning laws went into effect), where relaxation is an art form and “shelling” is the new clubbing, then you will love Fort Myers & Sanibel laid-back, let’s get comfy vibe.

Here’s what makes it so lovable:

You can bike it:

Sanibel Island is a barrier island, about 12 miles long and 4 miles wide, just off the southwest coast of Florida by Fort Myers. It’s nice and flat, ergo, perfect for exploring by bike.

You can rent bikes from Billy's Rentals, Finnimore's Cycle Shop, and Tarpon Bay Explorers. If that’s still too much exertion for you, Billy's also offers two-hour guided Segway tours of the island.

You can shell it:

Sanibel is famous worldwide for its fabulous shelling beaches. Due to the island's unique geographical position, lying East to West instead of North to South, it attracts an abundance of unusual shells. Over 250 different seashells can be found here so grab a bag and start your own shell collection.

If you’re curious about any of the treasures you’ve found (perhaps a prized junonia shell) or just want to learn more about sea shells in general, head over to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the most comprehensive shell museum in the Western Hemisphere. There are some captivating exhibits such as “Mollusks, Medicine, and Man” as well as a wall filled with Sailors’ Valentines, an intricate art form developed in the early 19th century by women in the Caribbean. Strike up a conversation with Dr. Jose Leal, the charming Museum Director/Curator, who is happy to take a peek at any interesting finds. The day we were there, a visitor has just dropped off a lettered olive shell that he had found. It turned out to be a very rare mutation of the shell, which totally made Dr. Leal’s day.

Dr. Leal explained to us, “There are so many different shells here. It’s like gambling. You just keep hoping that the next find will be even more rewarding. It’s easy to become addicted to shelling.” But since it’s legal and calorie-free, what the hay.

You can boat it:

One of the best places to see wildlife here is J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States, and the best outfit to explore it with is Tarpon Bay Explorers, their licensed concessionaire. Tarpon Bay Explorers offers a variety of nature tours and rentals, from guided Kayak & canoe tours, where a naturalist (very well-trained and the one on our tour was hysterically funny) will lead you through the mangrove forest pointing out some of the 272 species of birds that live here such as roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons, ibis, cormorants, and pelicans. If you’re lucky, you might encounter some dolphins, alligators and manatees.

In case you’re wondering J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge was named for Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jay Norwood Darling, who was also the first environmentalist to hold a presidential cabinet post, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration.

You can island hop:

Island hopping here is almost as easy as channel surfing. For a scrumptious meal, flag down a ride on one of Captiva Cruises excursion boats. They have narrated cruises to picturesque, upscale Useppa, which is one island I wouldn’t mind being shipwrecked on. Publishing magnate Barron Collier, who would often invite his buddies DuPont, Edison, Ford and Rockefeller over for some sport fishing, owned this private island back in the 20’s.

We chose to visit the quirky island of Cabbage Key, where in 1938, mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart (America’s answer to Agatha Christie) built her winter retreat. It has since been turned into the exceedingly popular Cabbage Key Inn & Restaurant. If you want to spend the night among the cabbage palms, you’ll need advance reservations since there is only a handful of rooms and cozy cottages available. But the real draw here is the restaurant. Not only is the seafood scrumptious (thumbs up for the house smoked salmon, peel & eat shrimp and the died-and- gone-to-heaven fresh Stone Crab claws and their signature drink, the Cabbage Creeper- made with Pina Colada mix, rum and a coffee liqueur float) but it’s almost sacrilegious to leave here without ordering the "Cheeseburger in Paradise” aptly named for longtime regular, Jimmy Buffet who (as the story goes) was inspired to write his famous song here and not in the Caribbean.

You can’t miss noticing the autographed dollar walls, since every square inch is covered with bills. Back in 1941, a fisherman was heading out for a day of harpoon fishing. In case he wasn’t lucky, he signed a dollar bill and taped it to the wall, ensuring that at least he’d be able to buy a ‘cold one’ upon his return.

This unconventional practice took off and today the restaurant walls are covered with (our server’s best guess) over 70,000 autographed bills. See if you can find the dollars signed by Jimmy Carter, JFK, and Hemingway. A nice touch is that any bill that falls to the ground is donated to charity.

The colorful fishing village of Matlacha on Pine Island, the charming harbor town of Boca Grande on Gasparilla and the romantic Lovers Key State Park on Estero Island are also worth a hop-see.

You can shop it:

While the area doesn’t offer many fancy, big name designer stores it does have a fun, eclectic mix of indie shops at Periwinkle Place, which surround a central park in the middle of Sanibel. Here you’ll find the Simply boutique, which sells effortless lifestyle clothes and the original Chico’s, which was founded here 25 years ago.

There are many good antique stores and art galleries including Wild Child Art Gallery which features the works of 120 Southwest Florida artists.

You can eat your way around it:

From the outrageously kitschy Bubble Room on Captiva Island (the front room theme is “its always Christmas at the Bubble Room”) with its diverse menu (humongous award-winning desserts are served by “Bubble Scouts,”) to upscale luxury resorts such as Thistle Lodge Beachfront Restaurant at Casa Ybel Resort, the local cuisine does not disappoint, particularly if you’re a seafood lover.

For a memorable meal you can head over to The Old Captiva House at 'Tween Waters Inn. This historic resort is justifiably proud of its #1 rating on TripAdvisor for their inspired “New Florida” island cuisine. Everything they serve is homemade including the fresh-baked bread accompanied by glorious sunset views.

You can be blown-away at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates:

In Ft. Myers, one must-see is the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, for a tour of the illustrious inventor’s 1886, 14 acre estate, laboratory and 20 acre botanical garden. Did you know that among his many other inventions (which can be found in the listing of his 2,332 worldwide patents) Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, also created the very first strand of electric Christmas lights. During the Christmas season of 1880, these strands were strung around the outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory. After checking out the main houses (don’t miss Henry Ford’s vehicles dating back to 1914) head over to the painstakingly restored Edison Botanic Research Lab & museum, followed by a stroll through the Estates magnificent gardens, containing more than 1,700 plants from six continents. Originally it served as an experimental garden for industrial products, however Mrs. Edison later gave the garden an aesthetic turn with plantings of roses, orchids and bromeliads.

Where to sleep:

The West Wind Inn, a small, family-owned motel built in the late 60’s, is a throwback to a time of wholesome family fun (reminiscent of the Dirty Dancing resort) complete with a shuffleboard court. It may be a no-frills place but for the price offers quite a bit. For starters, the beach is right in your back yard, perfect for glorious sunset views from the screened balconies, or for watching the dolphins do their morning aerobics. The rooms are rather spartan but the bed is comfy and the mini kitchen has a full size stove, microwave, refrigerator, and all utensils. This comes in handy after shopping at the Sunday Farmer’s Market, open from November to April, where you can pick up everything from hand made soaps, fresh bread, mozzarella basil, amazing homegrown tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, strawberries, assorted pickles, freshly baked strudel, etc.

If you don’t feel like cooking, the onsite Normandie Seaside Pub offers some tasty food. For breakfast I had the most delectable Greek omelet, which they obliging made with egg-whites only.

If you have a plenty of sand dollars to spend, then Captiva’s picturesque South Seas Island Resort and wildlife sanctuary offers a variety of upscale accommodations, ranging from single guest rooms up to luxurious six- bedroom homes.

Don’t Misc. Events:

One of the most popular festivals is the Sanibel Shell Fair, established in 1937, where every March shell fanatics gather to show off their finds. Last year was their 75th anniversary so they went all out.

Check out the stunning and truly one of a kind seashell wedding dress created by artist and interior designer, Melinda Graham.

At Fort Myers you (joined by at least 50,000 other fans) can attend the amazing Sand Sculpting Championship. Competition is fierce, as contestants from around the world vie for Quick Sand Speed Sculpting and Master Sculpting awards.

For detailed information about this destination please visit www.FortMyersSanibel.com.

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