Sanibel and Captiva Islands make a great jumping off point for exploring the fascinating Southwest Florida region – from the Florida Everglades to islands you can reach only by boat. If you are like most island visitors, you will want to merely languish in the loveliness of Sanibel and Captiva. The region, however, holds a lot of treasures, so I suggest at least one foray across the causeway.
If you cannot bring yourself to make that drive until you absolutely must, consider a boat day trip instead. Rent a boat at one of the local marinas, ask for a chart and instructions, and head north to visit one or more of the islands accessible only by boat: North Captiva, Cayo Costa, or Cabbage Key. North Captiva and Cayo Costa offer great beaches and shelling. Cabbage Key requires a stop for lunch or at least a beer. Not only accessible by boat, Boca Grande nonetheless is easier to reach from Sanibel-Captiva by water. Rent a golf cart at one of the marinas to explore its historic sites, shops, and restaurants.
This is an umbrella name for a number of conservation lands, including Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and a couple of state parks. Leave the islands early to drive to Highway 41 through the heart of the Everglades region. Visit the national lands’ visitors centers to get your bearings and options for hiking, biking, paddling, and touring. For best wildlife sightings, follow Loop Road off 41 or stop at H.P. Williams Roadside Park or the Oasis Visitor Center for alligators. Plan on lunch in funky, old-time Everglades City.
Downtown Fort Myers: Edison and Ford Winter Estates is worth the trip off-island on its own merit. Plan on spending the morning, then head into the heart of downtown for lunch at Ford’s Garage, to keep in theme. Spend the day shopping and visiting attractions such as the Southwest Florida Museum of History, the Butterfly Estates, and the Imaginarium Science Center. Stay for an early dinner at The Veranda and a performance of the Florida Repertory Theatre at the historic Arcade Theater.
Known for its fine dining, golf, shopping and arts, Naples’ center lies about two hours south of the islands. For shopping, take Highway 41 and stop along the way at Coconut Point, Mercato, and Waterside shopping centers – right off the main thoroughfare. While at Waterside, stop at the nearby Baker Museum for an eyeful of art, including some impressive Chihuly pieces and American masterpieces. Fifth Avenue South is THE place to be downtown for shopping and dining. Try Osteria Tulia for lunch, or head to the nearby Third Street South district for more choices. You’re close to the beach and Naples Pier now, so take time for a walk. Don’t miss Naples Botanical Gardens south of downtown. If you’re going to stay for a performance at Fifth Ave’s Sugden Theatre, I suggest dinner at Bha Bha Persian Bistro.