Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva, Florida: A Paradise of Sand Dollars, Dolphins, and Key Lime Pie

Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva, Florida: A Paradise of Sand Dollars, Dolphins, and Key Lime Pie

I finally got that getaway many parents dream of—the one where you sneak away for a long weekend with nothing but your own rolling suitcase and some friends.

Four of my mom friends and I easily said yes to our well-deserved vacation with no kids and no partners, and headed to Florida’s southwest coast. It was no surprise we were exceptionally good at the relaxing and “soaking up the sun” part, but we were surprisingly unable to leave our families very far behind, at least in our minds. Much of our trip was spent pointing out what our families would love about this sweet paradise. By the third day, we were making plans to return, kids and partners in tow.

Tips for Visiting Sanibel Island


Estée Pouleris

View from Sundial Beach Resort & Spa on Sanibel Island


We all flew into Ft. Myers airport on our first day, about a two-hour direct flight from New York City’s major airports. We quickly grabbed our luggage and had a taxi van take us on a 40-minute drive to our hotel, Sundial Beach Resort & Spa on Sanibel Island. This resort was built in the late ‘70s and has recently been renovated. All rooms come with a kitchen, balcony, towels, daily maid service, etc. The design of the building includes several boardwalks leading out to the beach, so no matter which bank of units you stay in, you’re just steps away from one of the best shelling beaches in the world.

This hotel really caters to families. The largest of the five beachside heated pools has a fun slide, and the other four are more basic but each has a pool house with bathrooms. Sundial also has tennis on the grounds, bike rentals, paddleboards, kayaks, and free beach chairs and umbrellas. In addition, there are four restaurants on the property and a market if you prefer to cook in your kitchen. Technically you can go to this resort and never leave, but this area of Florida has so much to offer you’d be missing out on a lot.

Our favorite part of Sanibel was the incredible mile-long white sand beach right at our hotel, which is famous for its incredible shelling. Sanibel boasts more than 250 species of shells frequently found along the coast. We had a guide from the Sanibel Sea School, which has an office on the hotel property, take us on a walk along the beach and show us different types of shells. She also told us about the incredible kids camps they offer, including an overnight survival camp where your kids spend the night on a deserted island with chaperones from the school. She taught us this area of Florida is so famous for its shelling because of how the island is positioned in the Gulf of Mexico. Its east-west orientation differs from the other barrier islands, making it an ideal place for an abundance of shells to wash up on its sandy beaches. Captiva Island shares the same orientation in the Gulf and makes for exceptional shelling, too.

While on Sanibel, we also visited a shell museum, which to my surprise fascinated me beyond my expectations and I wasn’t ready to leave. The small museum, Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, showcases shells from all over the world. I was amazed to see shells in every color I’ve ever seen. The shapes and designs were mesmerizing and left me feeling like Mother Nature is far more creative than us humans will ever be. This museum gave me an appreciation for shells, and I definitely recommend making a visit to the shell museum if you have time. 

Our favorite restaurant on Sanibel was The Island Cow. This charming, cow-themed restaurant serves a plate of chocolate chip muffins when you sit down instead of a bread basket. It’s easy to fill up on these delicious treats, but be sure to save room because they have an insanely long menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We lunched on conch fritters, crabmeat stuffed shrimp, coconut fried grouper, crab legs, and scallops. The Island Cow also offers a kids menu, lots of games like corn hole, a small zoo in the back of the restaurant, and lounge chairs to enjoy libations while you wait for your table…on island time.

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Tips for Visiting Fort Myers


Estée Pouleris

Thomas Edison's Estate


The following day we drove back into Fort Myers. This is a very culturally rich area of Florida. It was once the winter vacation destination for both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Both estates are available for tours. A drive to Thomas Edison’s property is a must, even if you don’t do the tour. It has perhaps the largest banyan tree I’ve even seen with a statue of Thomas Edison in front of it. A photo opportunity in front of this NYC-block-sized tree is too good to pass up. This tree is located right next to the gift shop which sells refreshments, which were much appreciated on the hot day we visited. This area of Fort Myers also has the famous McGregor Boulevard, which is where the royal palms line the street, giving this charming city the nickname “City of Palms.” 


Estée Pouleris

Artifacts at Mound House


After our inspiration by Thomas Edison’s estate, we decided to dig deeper into the history of this area of Florida. We visited a new museum called Mound House and it’s not only a museum, it’s also a live archaeological site. The areas the public can access showcase the Calusa Indians, who inhabited the land in the 1500s. They used shells to build mounds, allowing them some height in this very flat area of Florida. The height gave them a breeze, protection from flooding but also look out points for intruders. In the basement of the Mound House, they preserved a former dig site where you can see a slice right though the mounds, which is comprised of layers of shells. This area was my favorite part because it’s rare to get a glimpse of a real dig site and actually see what you were standing on. Behind the museum, you can take a tandem kayak tour though Estero Bay, where the staff will guide you on an entertaining eco-tour to immerse yourself in the gorgeous surrounding and see fish, manatees, dolphins, and various birds, including eagles.

If you’re not a history buff, or your kids aren’t old enough to enjoy the incredible story behind Fort Myers, there’s still a ton of family attractions to enjoy. The main town of Fort Myers is full of colorful surf shops, great restaurants, and dozens of hotel options, including camping. The village is filled with several mini golf courses, some with live gators and other fun family entertainment. There are also plenty of gorgeous white sand beaches and many great fishing spots in this area.

Tips for Visiting Captiva Island


Estée Pouleris

View from the water tower at Cabbage Key


Our third day was my favorite. We woke early for our morning shell walk and took a 15-minute drive to Captiva Island, where we booked a cruise for the day though Captiva Cruises. Our captain and mate were great and summoned dolphins to chase our wake, as well as pointed out manatees. They were very knowledgeable about the area and showed us old historic ice houses which were huts on stilts in the middle of the ocean that used to hold ice long ago for fishermen to store their catch before taking it to the markets. These are no longer used now that the fishing industry changed, but seeing these historic ice houses felt very special, especially since hurricanes continue to destroy them and they are not being rebuilt.

Our first stop off the boat was to the island of Cabbage Key. This is a small island with just a few vacation homes with the exception of one very famous one: The Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant. Rumor has it that Jimmy Buffet wrote Cheeseburger in Paradise after dining here, so of course we had to order cheeseburgers. The burgers were fantastic, but the menu has a little bit of everything so if that’s not what you’re looking for, they likely can accommodate you. This restaurant is also known for their Key lime pie, so of course we all ordered that, too. This Key lime pie was a frozen, delicious slice of paradise and we devoured it while a warm beach breeze blew through the restaurant.


Estée Pouleris

Path at Cayo Costa


Our next stop off the boat was to Cayo Costa, another island. This one is technically a state park and is only accessible via boat. We entered the island from a dock and followed a boardwalk as it snaked through very thick fauna. The trees suddenly ended and opened up to a wide pristine white beach with calm turquoise waters. It was simply stunning. The nine miles of beaches on this island are famous for sea turtles. We didn’t see any turtles but we did some of the best shelling of the whole trip, including dozens of sand dollars. Afterwards, we boarded the boat and headed back to the marina where we said farewell to the amazing staff and made our way to dinner. 

For dinner, we walked about a block to Keylime Bistro, which is right in the middle of the charming and colorful Captiva village. We sat on the patio and listened to live music, sipped keylime margaritas, and dined on fresh stuffed grouper, shrimp scampi, and bruschetta. For dessert, we had to try their famous Keylime pie (yes, it was our second dessert of the day). This pie was room temperature and very creamy. I think the flavors popped a little more in this version of pie, but I recommend trying both Keylime Bistro and Cabbage Key’s versions of Key lime pies.

For a nightcap we went another block away, still within the village, to the famous Bubble Room. Now this is a must-see. This restaurant is filled with toys, old Hollywood collectibles from the ‘30s and ‘40s, antiques, and servers dressed in Boy Scout uniforms. They serve lunch and dinner, and of course their menu has as much personality as the décor with names like Caesar Romano, the Turk Douglas and the Guy “Lamb”ardo. Since we already had dinner, we enjoyed drinks, the ambience…and a third dessert of the day. We couldn’t pass up their award-winning sweets and hey, we’re fun to travel with. My favorite was the slice of Orange Crunch Cake, which is moist yellow cake layered with an almond brown sugar crunch and covered in orange cream cheese icing. My mouth is watering as I’m writing about it and I’m definitely taking my family back here. After our third dessert for the day we called it a night and made the short drive back to Sanibel.

Our last morning before the flight, we all hit the beach for our last morning walk. There’s a rare shell that is said to wash up about once a week called the Junonia Seashell. We made it our mission to find this shell and get our photo in the paper. To our dismay, it escaped us. Hopefully when we return with our families we’ll have better luck.

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Tips for Visiting Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva

  • Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva all have great options for accommodations.
  • See The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel for a comprehensive list of offerings.
  • Rent a car so you can explore.
  • Bring water shoes, as much of the shore is filled with shells. Surprisingly, the bottom is mostly soft sand once you’re in the ocean. I found most kids started with shoes but didn’t need them by the end of the trip.
  • Definitely bring your typical beach supplies like sunscreen, hats and bug spray.
  • The Sundial Beach Resort & Spa provides toys, floaties, and rafts for free.
  • The kayaking behind the Mound House is very cool. Even if you skip the main museum, this tour is exceptional.
  • Best place to see dolphins and manatees for us was on the boat we took with Captiva Cruises.
  • The Shell Museum was surprisingly exciting and even has a fun touch tank for little ones.
  • The Banyan tree on Thomas Edison’s property is so huge it’s worth taking a drive over just to admire its massive size.
  • There is a national wildlife center that covers much of Sanibel Island called the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. You can tour this various ways: by car, kayak, biking, walking trails, or a 1½-hour tram ride. Best for children 10 and older.
  • My favorite restaurant was The Bubble Room. It’s worth going, even if just for dessert.
  • Best time for shelling is one hour before low tide (low tide happens twice a day, pick the lower of the two tides, your hotel should have this information).
  • There are several world-class golf courses in the area.
  • National Seashell Day is June 21. I’ll be sending my daughter with my collection of shells from this trip to share at show and tell that day!


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