Escape Winter on Florida's Beaches and Waterways

Trade that snow for southwest Florida's sun and sugary-white sand.

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Photo By: The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: @ Lee County Convention and Visitor Bureau

Photo By: The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: © The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau

Photo By: The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: Island Inn/Matthews Lodge

Photo By: The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: Westin Cape Coral Resort and Marina

The Great Calusa Blueway

The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail, which leads into Sanibel and Captiva bays, makes a perfect introduction to the Gulf waterways. Whether you’re a novice or an expert, this 190-mile marked trail invites canoeing, kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding. As you explore the tidal flats, mangroves, oyster bars and other diverse ecosystems, you're likely to spot Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, manatees, shorebirds and lots of other wildlife. With more than 80 access points to choose from, you can make your trip as long or as short as you like.

Shelling on Sanibel

The beachcombers you see doing the “Sanibel stoop” – that is, bending over to sift the sand for treasures —come from all over the world. Sanibel has a reputation as one of the best places for shelling in North America, thanks to an underwater shelf that helps protect fragile shells from breaking in the waves. The best time to stoop is at low tide, or just after a storm in the Gulf has pushed the shells inland. If you’re a collector, look for a hotel that offers rooms equipped with sinks and work tables for cleaning your finds.

Fort Myers Brew Trail

Let Bury Me Brewing deliver its small batch, craft beers to your party in a hearse, or play cornhole and board games with the kids at the family-friendly Momentum Brewhouse. Ten locally-owned breweries and one rum distillery along the Gulf Coast offer plenty of choices for enjoying your favorite brews and spirits. Follow the just-launched Fort Myers Brew Trail and sample the PB & Jealousy ale, made with wild berries and peanuts, at Big Blue Brewing or see how beer is made at Cape Coral Brewing Company.

Cayo Costa State Park

You’ll have to go by boat or ferry to reach Florida's beautiful Cayo Costa State Park, which lies west of Cape Coral and slightly north of North Captiva. This 2,426-acre paradise is worth the trip. Primitive cabins and tent campsites are available, and visitors can rent kayaks, bikes and paddle boards. Bring your saltwater fishing gear, or go snorkeling or scuba diving along the nine miles of pristine beaches. You’re likely to see porpoises and shorebirds, and manatees and sea turtles sometimes bob along in the waves.

Cabbage Key

Like Cayo Costa, Cabbage Key is only accessible by boat. Visitors say its cabbage palms and wooden cottages give it an authentic, "old Florida" look, even though it's only about 20 miles northwest of Fort Myers. The historic Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant sits on a 38-foot high Indian shell mound; while you're there, tape a dollar bill to the walls for luck, like thousands of tourists have done before you. This quiet island, which lacks cars and paved roads, has a rustic, natural, laid-back vibe.

JetBlue Baseball Park

Baseball fans, when your sunburn drives you off the beach, head to Fort Myers (it's only about 20 miles from Sanibel), where the Boston Red Sox hold their spring training in JetBlue Park. Named for an airline that operates out of Boston’s Logan International Airport, the park was built to the same dimensions as Fenway Park, the team's home field. Pick up a cap or autographed ball at the souvenir shop, and don’t leave without chowing down on an authentic Fenway frank. Find more information about visiting during spring training here.

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

t’s not uncommon to see birds in the trees at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge—but spotting a flock of big, bright pink roseate spoonbills on the branches is a breathtaking site. They’re among the 245 species of birds that share this Sanibel refuge with alligators, turtles, river otters and many other creatures. "Ding" Darling, named for a wildlife conservationist and syndicated cartoonist, is home to the largest mangrove ecosystem in the U.S. It's a perfect place to kayak, canoe, fish and hike. Take the 4-mile wildlife drive to look for marsh rabbits, raccoons and even the occasional bobcat.

Island Inn, Matthews Lodge

Island Inn, established in 1895, is the oldest resort property on Sanibel. It's now being refurbished, with the first phase of its makeover set to open in January 2018. The new Matthews Lodge will offer 12 luxury suites with Gulf views; they'll be furnished with full kitchens, flat screen TVs, private balconies, smartphone docking stations and other amenities.

Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grille

Nobody solves crimes like Doc Ford, a former national security agent turned marine biologist. Then again, Doc Ford isn’t real. He’s a character created by novelist Randy Wayne White. Before he hit the bestseller lists, White was a charter boat captain and guide who sold his surplus fish to a local restaurant. Today, he’s part of the team at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, where the menu takes its inspiration from Caribbean cuisine. The seafood is fresh, the music is live at the Ft. Myers and Captiva locations (there’s also a restaurant on Sanibel), and patrons are welcome to dine on the waterfront.

Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village

Your pups deserve a vacation in the sun, too. Bring them to The Nauti Mermaid, a waterfront bar and grill at the Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village. A special canine menu includes indulgences like grilled filet mignon and desserts with berries and bacon, served in a Frisbee so you can play catch later. Rather dine in your room? Ask for Westin’s Heavenly Pet Treatment. The resort, which is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation, just opened a sailing school. Wanna-be captains can earn their certifications through the acclaimed Offshore Sailing School while boating on a Leopard 48 catamaran.