Places to Love: Fort Myers & Sanibel Island, Florida
Fort Myers and Sanibel, Florida is known for warm sun and beautiful beaches, ranging from family- (and dog!) friendly to virtually unspoiled. It’s a place where an abundance of protected habitats give way to soft adventures, where birdwatching is savored and seashells seriously collected. But there is more to the region than beaches. Here, you’ll find a thriving farm who shares its knowledge of sustainably growing food with challenged communities all over the world. You can find inspiration exploring the winter homes of two of the world’s greatest inventors. Add in great food, a one-of-a-kind art scene, live music and slowed down beach culture, and it’s easy to see why Fort Myers, Sanibel and its surrounding islands are places to love.
PLACES AND STORIES TO LOVE
Whenever I’m in Florida, I can’t wait to get to the ocean. On this trip, I joined Captain Brian Holaway, a boat captain and certified master naturalist, on a journey to Cayo Costa. One of Florida’s largest barrier islands, Cayo Costa boasts eight miles of untouched beaches with incredible shelling. Brian spends around 240 days a year out on the waters, leading historic and natural tours of the area. The two of us combed Cayo Costa’s beach for shells (I even found a sand dollar!), and explored the primitive island. In addition to shelling, you can find hiking, biking, beaches and camping.
Near the wild island of Cayo Costa, you’ll find Cabbage Key. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there’s been an inn here since 1944, with many of its cabins date back to the 30s. Things haven’t changed much on Cabbage Key in the last 90 years—it still holds firmly on to its laid-back vacation vibes. On Places to Love, I met up with Rob Wells, who grew up on the island. It was idyllic as it sounds: an 80-acre paradise of which only 20 are developed. You’ll find paths weaving through lush greenery, people kicking back on quiet beaches, and zero cars.
Though some choose to stay at Cabbage Key, you can just visit for a few hours. And there is good reason to! Known by many as “the bar with all the money on the walls”, the Cabbage Key restaurant opened 60 years ago. Thought the space boasts fire places, original hardwood floors and Cypress walls, it’s the thousands of one-dollar bills taped to every surface that people remember. On any given day, there is approximately $70,000 worth of bills taped all over the restaurant. Whatever money falls from the ceiling is given to charity – roughly 15 to 20 thousand dollars annually.
IF YOU GO
People have called Cabbage Key home for eons. In fact, there’s a Calusa Indian shell heap located on Cabbage Key. The Calusa Indians were known to have lived in the Pineland area for about 2000 years until the mid-1700s.
Learn more about visiting Cabbage Key here.
The Edison and Ford Winter Estates
When you think Fort Myers, spring breakers may come to mind. However, it was once the favorite winter escape for one of the world’s greatest inventors: Thomas Alva Edison. Sitting along the Caloosahatchee River, the Edison estate features his beautiful 1885 Seminole Lodge (still furnished with furniture and inventions from Edison), and 20-acre botanical garden with 7500 plants from 450 different species and six continents. There’s also a lab and workshop, left just the way it was when Edison worked there.
If you’re wondering why it’s called the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, it’s because Henry Ford spent his summers next door. Longtime friends, the Ford family first visited the Edisons in Fort Myers in 1914, and two years later, Ford purchased the property next door. Ford’s Craftsman bungalow estate, The Mangoes, includes lush grounds brimming with. The onsite museum dedicates 15,000 square feet to the legacy of Edison and Ford.
Did you know?
While in Florida, Edison spent much time attempting to invent rubber from an American plant. The goldenrod plant came close, but in the end, not close enough.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates
2350 McGregor Blvd
Fort Myers, FL 33901
ECHO Global Farm
With its sunshine and humidity, the Florida climate makes for some excellent farming. However, at ECHO Global Farm, it’s about more than growing local produce. Globally, over 500 million farming families rely on one or two acres to eke out a living. ECHO is dedicated to helping families make the most of those small scale farm through face-to-face, hands-on training all over the world. Additionally, ECHO introduces sustainable plants, techniques, and technologies to farmers. One way they do this is by researching best farming practices for the world’s most challenging agricultural climates are regions. At their North Fort Myers Farm, ECHO recreates landscapes—from urban areas tropical highlands—and troubleshoot those regions’ biggest hurdles, like lack of soil. Their education efforts change the lives of millions.
IF YOU GO
ECHO started in 1970s, when Indiana businessman Richard Dugger led a group of high school students on a visit to Haiti. After the trip, he founded ECHO (Educational Concerns for Haiti Organization). Today, they focus on farming and now serve over 190 countries worldwide.
ECHO Global Farm
17391 Durrance Road
North Fort Myers, FL 33917
Sanibel Community House
Sanibel island is known for its seashells. And if you love art like me, crafting with them seems like the perfect daytime activity. On Mondays, the Sanibel Community House hosts the meeting of the Shellcrafters, a group that’s met weekly for years. They create one-of-a-kind pieces of art, including animals, jewelry and even floral arrangements. A shellcrafting class is held every Monday as well, 10:00 a.m. sharp. It’s free, but you pay for supplies. Children are put on the easiest of animals, while adults will try jewelry or even flowers.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
The unspoiled beauty of Sanibel is legendary. Sixty-seven percent of Sanibel Island is designated as a natural wildlife habitat, and home to 245 species of birds. One of the best places to enjoy Sanibel? At the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Ding Darling, a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist, loved the area so much that he was instrumental in purchasing sixty-four hundred acres of it to keep it safe from development. Today you can walk, cycle or drive through the refuge along the four-mile wildlife road for a nominal fee. And there are so many ways to enjoy some of the most beautiful and abundant bird life you’ll ever see. It’s calm, serene and almost like an impressionist painting.
If you go
Use the bathroom. In 2018, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge won Cintas’ America’s Best Restroom Award. You’ll find manatee sculptures made of recycled bike tires, beautiful underwater mural, and educational information in the stalls.
Learn more about Ding Darling here.
Matlacha is a tiny fishing village known for its one narrow street. It’s so pint-sized you have to keep zooming in on a map just to find it! Here, you can explore art galleries and laid-back seafood restaurants. Of course, no trip to Matlacha is complete without visiting Leoma Lovegrove’s gallery. Leoma is an impressionist-expressionist painter known worldwide for her vivid colorful paintings. With its distinctive pink roof, polka dotted walls and mix of art, pop sculpture and gift ideas, Lovegrove’s gallery sets the tone for the island’s entire art district. Out the back door, guests find unexpected treasure in the form of a relaxing technicolor botanical garden with a view of the tranquil waters of Matlacha Pass.
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IF YOU GO
Lovegrove Gallery & Gardens
4637 Pine Island Road NW
Matlacha, Florida 33993