By Gabriele Walkow
Home to sun-kissed beaches, dazzling teal waters, islands extraordinaire and amenities galore, Lee County is a premier Southwest Florida vacation destination for Allegiant travelers. Only a short half hour drive from the Punta Gorda Airport, Fort Myers and environs is also home to marvelous off-the-beaten path attractions and adventures.
Vibrant downtown Fort Myers, known as the River District, is a bustling historic and cultural center. Explore the original brick-lined streets and charming restaurants, shops, art galleries and performing arts venues. Take the historic downtown walking tour and hunt for antiques. There’s something for everyone here!
Children of all ages will enjoy the Imaginarium Science Center. This hands-on science and aquarium museum provides hours of fun and entertainment for the entire family through hands-on exhibits. Then, peek inside the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. These beautiful homes of famous next-door neighbors Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, located on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, are home to botanical gardens, Edison’s laboratory and a museum with the world’s largest collection of his inventions and memorabilia.
Southwest Florida’s #1 family entertainment destination, the Shell Factory, Nature Park & Fun Park is close by in North Fort Myers. The many indoor and outdoor attractions will provide hours of fun for the whole family. Best of all, entry is free (except to the Nature Park) and so is the parking.
Fort Myers Beach, one of the world’s safest beaches, is known for its shallow waters, no undertow, family-friendly resorts, quaint cottages, succulent seafood restaurants and energetic nightlife. Times Square, a pedestrian-friendly shopping and dining area, is the perfect place to have lunch. Home to award-winning resorts such as Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina and Best Western Plus Beach Resort Hotel on Fort Myers Beach, Fort Myers Beach also hosts the beach’s biggest event, the Fort Myers Shrimp Festival every March.
For further undiscovered adventures and attractions take the three-mile Sanibel Causeway, which spans San Carlos Bay and connects Sanibel and Captiva Islands to the mainland. Here, protected white-sand beaches brimming with shells, unmatched wildlife viewing and a family-focused village atmosphere await discovery. Both islands have received a multitude of awards. Most recently, Family Vacation Critic named Captiva Beach among the 10 Best Beaches for Families in 2016; U.S. News & World Report listed Sanibel Island among the top 10 Family Beaches in the U.S.; and Fodors.com included Sanibel and Captiva Islands in a roundup of America’s Most Beautiful Barrier Islands.
Known for the incredible variety of shells on their shores, these sister islands are hidden gems offering visitors an invitation to a relaxed, slower pace of life where old Florida charm and warm hospitality welcome visitors. Beaches range from Lighthouse Park at one end of Sanibel to Captiva’s romantic beaches where sunsets draw a nightly crowd.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island is an off-the-beaten-path must-stop. Opened to the public in 1995, this museum operates as an information and reference center for national and international scientists, students and shell enthusiasts.
Art galleries inspire on both islands, including Captiva Island’s eclectic Jungle Drums Gallery with its unforgettable collection of wildlife art. Find seashell shops, resort clothing boutiques and jewelry stores under bougainvillea, shady ficus trees and swaying palms. Restaurants offer savory seafood as well as a range of menus from Mediterranean to New American.
Rent bikes and explore 23 miles of paved bike paths on Sanibel Island. There are even bikes for two and wheelchair bikes. Captiva Cruises offers a mix of dolphin and wildlife cruises, sunset voyages and beach and shelling excursions to secluded Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Useppa and Boca Grande. Don’t forget your camera!
Head to the quirky and cool artists’ enclave of Matlacha, which is its own small island dotted by colorful shops and galleries, delightful seafood markets and funky waterside restaurants. Home to bohemian charm, this artist paradise is sure to capture your imagination! Continue down the road to have a look at pretty and pristine Pine Island.
Then visit Gasparilla Island to mingle with the Vanderbilts and visit with the Bush family at The Gasparilla Inn & Club, voted #1 resort in Florida in 2016 by both Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. This classic resort, located in picturesque Boca Grande, has been welcoming guests since 1913. The historic village of Boca Grande makes for a beautiful day of off-the-beaten path exploration. Be sure to visit the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse.
The annual Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament takes place May 25 and 26. The World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament draws anglers from around the world to compete for prize money that can total up to a quarter of a million dollars.
For more information on Lee County’s many hidden gems and more, visit fortmyers-sanibel.com.
Book your Lee County adventure at allegiant.com.