Don’t you just love it when life comes together? After quite the rocky end to 2018, I started the year expecting January to be much the same. But then I was offered a five day trip to Florida and just like that my woes were in the bin, and I was Instagramming the upcoming trip to my limited followers like I was some sort of influencer. #blessed.
After a temporary hiccup in the form of a drone trying to scupper my plans, most inconvenient, I was on a plane and headed stateside. Destination: the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.
Situated on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, Fort Myers and Sanibel are a little slices of tropical paradise. Abundant with wildlife and unspoilt beaches, they couldn’t be further from the theme parks of Orlando or the vanity of Miami beach. And, if I needed any other reason to visit, the temperatures reach a balmy 28 celsius in January. Sold.
If it’s white sand beaches, you’re after then you’ll find them by the bucket load. There’s mile after mile of untarnished, beautiful coastline (it’s pure Instabait), which means you’re never too far from being able to jump on a paddle board, hop in a kayak or just comb the shore for shells. Shells are a big deal here, they even have a museum dedicated to their journey, which I assume must be longer than: living, shell, sand. Any visitors please report back. With January temperatures perfect for us Brits, but Floridians deeming it too cold, you’ll often find yourself with huge stretches of beach to yourself.
With over half of the sugarcane produced in the US coming from Florida, in 2012 it was decided that it would make sense if they utilised it and didn’t send it all off to be pumped into Apple Jacks but, instead made local rum. For those not familiar, Apple Jacks are a neon-coloured cereal that if sold here would be swiftly banned by Jamie Oliver. And so Wicked Dolphin Distillery was set up in Cape Coral just 35 minutes from the sugarcane fields. Seven years on and the award-winning rum, which is made from 100% local ingredients, is sold throughout Florida and the South-eastern states. Free tours run three times a week and allow you to sample the rum and learn the process behind its production. Pro-tip (I am the pro, I drank a lot of it) vanilla bean rum may be their best- seller but check out the mango flavour for a mouthful of alcoholic sunshine. After being told we had racked up the most samples (living up to the Brits abroad stereotype, good work) we left feeling not dissimilar to how a baba cake must do, rum soaked.
Hotels On The Beach
Our first three days were spent at The Outrigger Beach Resort situated on Fort Myers Beach. The hotel has 144 guest rooms, two restaurants, a pool, tiki bar, live music daily and the opportunity to book water-sports or hire bikes. Whilst the outside of the hotel looks like it’s seen better days, inside the rooms are bright and large with beds so comfy that it was only the lure of pink sunrises that got me up. What the hotel might lack in modernity it more than makes up for in natural beauty. Situated on the edge of the beach, you can practically fall out of bed and land in the sand.
The second half of our trip was spent at Sanibel’s Sundial Beach Resort & Spa. A step up in terms of luxury, the hotel offers a range of apartments, making it ideal for families and groups. My suite came with not one but two bathrooms, three double beds and a living area with full kitchen. Had I been staying longer I would have made much more of my time in the apartment, but there was so much to fit in from paddle boarding and tennis to, (thinking about) going to the poolside gym and indulging my inner glutton at breakfast, which was a veritable feast, serving everything from omelettes made to order to frosted doughnuts (sorry again Jamie).
All American Dining
One thing you can guarantee is that you’ll never go hungry in Florida, ordering a two scoops of ice cream one day, saw me walk away with almost an entire tub precariously balanced on a cone. Being so close to the water, seafood naturally takes centre stage, expect to find plenty of mahi mahi, grouper and shrimp tacos on the menu.
Head to Fish-Tale Waterfront Dining for local seafood served on their tiki terrace or book a table at Traders Restaurant where you can find excellent ribs if seafood isn’t your thing. For all out American dining then it has to be The Island Cow where to start you won’t get bread but you will get cornbread dotted with sprinkles, drinks are refilled constantly and almost everything on the vast menu is beige. My idea of gluttonous heaven.
Shopping on holiday is not really my thing, not unless we’re off to potter about a local market and even then, I have to be lured in by the promise of food. So, when we were sent off to Miromar Outlets I was expecting to spend the next couple of hours aimlessly wandering up and down some sterile corridors trying to increase my step count and waiting for lunch. How wrong I was. Voted the ‘Best Factory Outlet Mall’, for the last 20 years in a row, it’s home to over 140 top designer outlets giving discounts of up to 70%. Think of the headache that is Westfields. Well reverse it, add in blue skies, palm trees, ornate fountains filled with exotic fish and top it all off with a lake complete with resident alligator (didn’t see him either). Then you’ll have Miromar Outlets.
Once you’re done shopping head to Ford’s Garage restaurant, where you can tuck into their outrageously decadent burgers, sweet potato served with caramel sauce, (I kid you not) and onion rings the size of small plates -luckily everything I had just bought had an elastic waistband. They’ve gone all out with the Ford memorabilia; think, tyres as sink basins, food served on car parts and staff dressed in garage overalls – there’s even a car suspended from the ceiling.
If you and your beau wanted a little seclusion back in the day then you might have headed off to Lovers Key State Park, which up until the 1960s was a collection of islands only accessible by boat. Then they built a road to the islands and the lovers presumably scarpered having to make do with their car backseat. Luckily the land was saved from the clutches of the developers and remains a nature haven. The 1616-acre park has over 2 miles of unspoilt beaches and woods and if you’re up for a little adventure then there is plenty to be had. You can kayak through the inner waterways or walk the island pathways. We chose to cycle the island trails, after getting the hang of bikes with back brakes, we went on the search of alligators and gopher tortoises. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful (again) but we did see plenty of gumbo limbo trees known as tourist trees due to their sunburnt, peeling appearance.
As the former captain of my nature quiz team at primary school, quite the accolade I know, I was all ready for our next journey into the depths of nature. This time we were headed to J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel. Like Lovers Key State Park, the land was set to be built on, but conservationist Jay Darling urged President Truman to sign an Executive Order to create a national wildlife refuge. Stretching across 6,400 acres, it’s made up of submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes and acres of mangrove forest and can be explored by bike, foot or car, they also offer tours. And unlike a park, the refuge exists for the preservation of wildlife, humans come second. With many migratory birds stopping by, January is the perfect bird watching season. Look out for pelicans, osprey, herons, ibis and roseate spoonbills, which unlike flamingos don’t rely on their diet to turn them pink. Once again, we were on the hunt for alligators. I’ll tell you now, we didn’t see any alligators. Not one. Throughout the whole trip. Maybe for the best though, because they can run up to 45 mph and I, unsurprisingly, can not. We did however see several mangrove tree crabs and the top of a manatee, or at least so we were told, it was rather a long way off, so could have been a rock.
Over two thousand years ago, it was the Calusa Indians who dominated the region. As a form of protection against high tides and hurricanes they built mounds and you can see one of these on Estero Island just off Fort Myers Beach. Check out the museum, Mound House, to learn more about the area’s history or do as we did and head out on a sunrise kayak. Sitting in a kayak watching the egrets fly amongst the mangrove trees and the palm trees slowly turning to silhouettes against the golden sky was a real ‘I feel alive’ moment. A chance to forget about the hectic pace of London, breathe in the fresh air and appreciate the beauty of this section of the sunshine state.
If it’s total seclusion you need, then you can’t do much better than Cayo Costa. The island is only accessible boat and the closest thing to paradise you’ll find in Florida. Pack up a picnic and hop aboard a Captiva Cruise for the short journey from Captiva Island, it only goes a handful of times a day so make sure you don’t miss your return, unless you plan on recreating Shipwrecked. Watch out for dolphins who will often put on a show frolicking in the boat’s wash, it’s a truly magical if you’re lucky enough to experience it. Not to boast but we did also see a bald eagle. If you’re looking for luxury this isn’t it, this is natural and raw (definitely don’t forget insect repellent) so if you’re after a 5* hotel the wooden camping cabins might fall rather short of the mark. That said they get booked up quickly because those who have been to Cayo Costa know that the unfiltered beauty of pine woods and shell laden beaches can’t be beaten. And to top it all off as we arrived back at Captiva, a manatee, definitely not a rock, emerged from the depths of the marina to say hello. Trip made.
Whilst you could quite easily spend your days lying on the beach slightly sozzled from Wicked Dolphin Rum, we recommend dragging yourself off the sun lounger and heading to Edison and Ford Winter Estates. Sat on the edge of the Caloosahatchee River and set in 20 acres of garden, the site is home to 400 species of plants including an incredible Banyan tree thought to be one of the largest in the US and the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. You can also explore the 1928 Edison Botanical Research Laboratory, it’s the only lab in Florida to be recognised as a National Historic Chemical Landmark and it’s where Edison test 17,000 plants in the search for a source of rubber. I’m not usually one to fangirl over inventors, but it was quite incredible to see the lab of a man we owe so much to. Car fans should head to the museum to see Thomas Edison’s 1916 Model T that Ford gave as a birthday present.
If white sandy beaches, pink sunrises and glowing sunsets sound like your sort of thing then ditch London next January and head to Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel. Five days in the sun with the atmosphere so laid back and the friendliest people you could meet and you couldn’t feel further from London’s bleak mid winter.