Travel: Fort Myers and Sanibel have it all
That’s natural delights, sport, history and lots of fun, says Ruth Brindle
Watching the Red Sox baseball team play in their Florida spring training home of Fort Myers was just one of the highlights of a fabulous trip that had also encompassed history and stunning natural beauty, not to mention deep relaxation.
I’d seen the Sox play in Boston’s legendary Fenway Park but on a weekend visit to their Fenway South stadium JetBlue Park, it felt really familiar as the iconic Green Monster wall is replicated right down to the vintage-style manual scoreboard.
A fabulous, fun day out for all ages and they won the game too which added to the excitement. Singing Take Me Out To The Ballgame and Sweet Caroline with thousands of others was quite an experience.
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We stayed just a 10-minute drive from the stadium at the Drury’s Inn and Suites Fort Myers. It was a great location for discovering the area and just a short walk from the front door is the Gulf Coast Town Centre with lots of shops and restaurants.
This was a bonus, but the hotel also offers a free, self-service cooked breakfast including pancakes and a 5.30pm to 7pm Kickback supper with a buffet that can include chilli, soups, salads, hot dogs and lots more plus free drinks including beer and wine. No wonder the dining area was full!
The food was filling and tasted good. A big bonus of staying here. The pool area and spa was great too. The main road is nearby but with loungers and hot sun that was OK.
Our suite was immense and would be big enough for a family of four. There’s a quiet bedroom separated by a door from the living area, which includes a pull-out queen sofa sleeper. There’s free Wi-Fi, a TV, microwave, refrigerator, iron and ironing board, hairdryer and coffee maker.
Fort Myers has a vibrant beach area on Estero Island, popular with families with everything you need for a day out or a longer stay and great night life too.
Away from sand and sea on the mainland we were especially keen to visit the Edison Ford Winter Estates (www.edisonfordwinterestates.org) where pioneering car maker Henry Ford and his friend Thomas Edison spent their vacations in the sun in neighbouring homes.
They relaxed here, but in Edison’s workshop he was also working hard to find an alternative source to imported rubber, which makes the gardens especially interesting with its vast collection of plants - 400 from six continents. The most likely candidate as an alternative to rubber was the plant goldenrod.
The two homes are not as grand as you might imagine but still attracted the rich and famous of the day. One of the many distinguished visitors was President-elect Herbert Hoover.
Nearby, Sanibel Island has also attracted historical heavyweights including Theodore Roosevelt who loved to vacation here on his boat before a causeway was built.
Bringing things up to date, we were on this gorgeous Gulf island at the same time as Vice President Mike Pence. As soon as you take to one of the few roads along the island you realise why it is such a special place.
The lush vegetation hides multi-million pound properties and keeps the stunning beaches hidden until you pull into one of many individual accommodations along the way.
There are no high-rises here nor chain restaurants. That’s what keeps its charm - and exclusivity. Periwinkle Way is where you’ll find several small, but cute shopping arcades with independent shops selling clothes and holiday items you might need.
Our home from home on Sanibel was the Island Inn and I think it truly reflects the best of what to expect in this part of the world.
Our stunning condo had a bedroom that could be partitioned off from a generous sitting area and patio doors out onto a balcony with sea view.
Although in February the weather wasn’t being too kind, just staying by the sea was a tonic. It was great fun to stand in front of the discreetly placed beach cam at the same time as phoning my son in the UK so he could see the view.
The main supermarket on the island is Baileys, also on Periwinkle Way. It is well-stocked, with lots of goodies although prices are not particularly cheap. One very good thing is that the Island Inn offers a concierge service in which you can pre-order some food to be in your room on arrival. Great idea for the weary UK traveller.
But whatever the weather, winter is peak season when ‘snowbirds’ from colder northern states and Canadians love to spend many weeks in Florida. This makes it busier on the roads and in the popular restaurants, but worth it to escape freezing weather. For quieter times look to the ‘shoulder’ months of May or September.
Both Sanibel and neighbouring islands, including Captiva, which you can drive to, are known for shelling. There are those who visit here who are experts at spotting a good specimen – sand dollars are prized – and those who wander slowly along picking them up on the beach take on the pose known as the Sanibel Stoop.
They are looking for whelks, conchs, olives, jujonias, cockles and tulips from all over the Gulf as well as the southern Caribbean. It’s the position and shape of the islands that effectively scoops up this treasure trove.
I chose to practice my stoop on a more remote island, reached by boat - Cayo Costa. This was shelling heaven but be prepared to take all you need with you - water, towel, umbrella etc as there are no facilities here. You have to nip back to the boat to visit a loo.
But the boat trip with Captiva Cruises (www.captivacruises.com) makes the trip a lovely, relaxing outing. There was even the extra excitement of spotting a manatee around the boat dock. These fantastic, gentle creatures can often be seen in these waters.
The island is a nature lover’s paradise.
I’ll be back as there is so much more to discover on the island and in Fort Myers.
The J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest mangrove wildernesses in the US. It’s a birdwatchers’ paradise. Walk or drive through.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the place to go to find out about, well... shells. But you can slo learn about the Calusa Indians who lived in Florida.
Cabbage Key, thought to be the inspiration for the Jimmy Buffet song Cheeseburger in Paradise and Useppa, a luxury private island club can only be reached by a boat trip with Captiva Cruises, and are worth a visit.
At the airport
Nothing beats just arriving at the airport and handing over the car over straight away to your driver. No fuss, no hassle. Lovely.
Airport Parking and Hotels (APH) offers a wide range of parking at all major airports in the UK. One week of Meet & Greet parking at London Gatwick Airport costs from £89. Price is based on travel in September 2019. To book, visit www.aph.com or call 01342 859442.
Where to stay
A stay at the Drury’s Inn & Suites Fort Myers starts from $90 per night (out of season price and approx. £69) www.druryhotels.com/FortMyers/Florida
A stay at the Island Inn Sanibel starts from $139 per night (out of season price and approx.. £106) www.islandinnsanibel.com
For more information, visit www.fortmyers-sanibel.com
We picked our Hertz hire car up at Tampa airport which has enjoyed a multi-million pound facelift and expansion in the last few years and it went very smoothly - no long queues. Our mid-size SUV was a good choice.
Car hire in Florida with Hertz.co.uk starts from £21 a day. For further road trip inspiration head to Hertz American Road Trip Planner and discover iconic and off-the-beaten track routes, downloadable maps and insider guides.