Planning a Perfect Day in Fort Myers & Sanibel Island, Florida

If you find yourself with a day of free time at this adventurous destination, here’s what to do

The Beaches of Sanibel & Ft. Myers

Shell enthusiasts will be thrilled to know that this area is home to more shell varieties than anywhere else in North America.

Here’s a little background on the beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, for those of you that haven’t been before. To start, it is a shell-enthusiast’s dream. The pristine beaches that have made southwest Florida — and particularly Sanibel — famous are literally covered with beautiful and unbroken shells of all sorts of pretty pastel hues.

I’m a self-proclaimed shelling nerd; I’m proud of it. Through first-hand experience, I can attest that shells of all types (think: letter olives, lightning whelks, and fighting conchs) can be found quite easily on the sandy shores of “Sanibel Stoop" or “Captiva Crouch." That said, if shelling isn’t your think, there’s plenty to see and do.

The best way to get the most out of an adventure on the water is by hiring a private charter for the day. While on a visit to the beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, our group went with Captain Ryan of Southern Instinct Charters on a well-planned day of exploration.

After we boarded the boat and got settled, Ryan had us cruising through the brilliant blue waters of the barrier islands with our choice of beverages in hand and classic rock blasting for our listening pleasure. Once far enough from shore, we tried our luck at fishing.

I’m admittedly not a fisher at all — though I do get quite excited by the idea of catching a fish myself. With species that include redfish, snook, trout, and flounder swimming around, Captain Ryan assured us we would catch something. And we did! It was a fun experience to be on the waters, feeling the ocean breeze, anxiously waiting for when (if) something would bite. Ultimately, we threw the two fish we caught back in to the water, but even so, a few pictures of the live fish (for the Insta) were all I needed to be pleased with the “Catch & Cook” excursion.

We continued on until we reached a deserted, untouched, white-sand beach that was only accessible by boat. Once we got close to shore, we dropped our anchor and jumped straight in to the warm, clear waters of Cayo Costa. This beach is 7 miles of shells, and it’s also lined with pine forests and mangrove swamps depending on your exact location.

Cayo Costa, which is along the Gulf of Mexico, is picturesque. At one point, I was wading in the water while watching dolphins swim in the distance. The shells I found did not disappoint. From a small conch to tiny “twisty” shells (as I call them), I amassed a nice little treasure trove, though I could have benefited from a much longer hunt.

From Cayo Costa, we made our way to another island, also only accessible by boat: Pineland, Florida. We had lunch at the famed and historic Cabbage Key restaurant, which is known for the thousands of $1 bills that have been taped to the weathered walls. The walls — and entire restaurant for that matter — are literally covered in money. After you write your name in black marker on it (the wait staff has all the marker and tape needed), tape your dollar wherever you can find an empty spot.

The front room is also the original porch of the house. It allows for a clear view of the marina and sound. In addition to all the money — which is honestly quite distracting — décor includes antique fishing gear, old photos, and all sorts of native fish on the walls.

This establishment, which has been around more than 60 years, offers a range of fresh seafood options and even offers to cook the fish you caught (that is if you just came from a fishing trip and actually caught fish worthy of eating). Guests can choose from gulf shrimp in-shell and gulf stone crab claws to grilled mahi-mahi and various fresh catches of the day.

For the non-seafood-lovers, items like cheeseburgers or chicken sandwiches are available. Wash it all down with the signature Cabbage Creeper, piña colada mix, rum, and coffee liqueur float (or a soft drink for the non-drinking crowd).

We rounded out our trip out by jetting over to Matlacha where we had the pleasure of visiting the Leoma Lovegrove Gallery & Gardens. Words don’t really do this magical rainbow land of color and coconuts justice. You won’t find a blank wall or canvas anywhere. Everywhere you turn, you see creative works of art, and though there are bright splashes of color on everything from the palm tree trunks to Leoma’s boat, there also are more than 6,000 royal blue glass Saratoga water bottles fashioned together in various clusters to make unique structures that adorn her entire garden area.

From eclectic paintings of fish, birds, landscapes, and more to Leoma’s individualistic sense of style (think signature white-rimmed, hand-shaped lensed sunglasses and self-designed rainbow heels she walks around in), this is a destination that exudes creativity.

We were lucky enough to enjoy an afternoon painting class in which we painted on actual coconuts (instead of canvases) and did a walk-through painting lesson of tropical fish. Though I’m not an artist by any means (my sister is the artistic one), I was quite proud of my “masterpieces.”

Along with wine and scoops of fabulously refreshing ice cream served in mini coconut shells, this afternoon activity was a unique way to spend some time out of the sun.

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