A perfect gateway to the great outdoors, Southwest Florida has a treasure chest of natural wonders. Coastal wetland preserves, forest-lined rivers and an ocean teeming with marine life set the stage for a wide range of activities that explore Florida's wild side. Wherever you go, wildlife is sure to play a starring role, with frolicking dolphins, massive manatees and prehistoric-looking alligators all part of the great Floridian menagerie. This is also a bird lover's paradise with some 250 species spotted here.
Rivers, mangrove-fringed wetlands and of course the gentle surf of the Gulf make for a fantastic set of watery adventures. Out on Fort Myers Beach you won't have to go far to find outfitters – you can hire wave runners for zipping out across the sea (perhaps spying a few dolphins along the way) or take it slow atop a stand-up paddleboard and enjoy the scenery while getting a full-body workout. For panoramic views parasailing will take you high in the sky for sweeping vistas of the sparkling coastline. Mid-Island Water Sports (midislandwatersports.com) is a reputable, family-run company that has all the gear you’ll need. It also offers dolphin-watching tours. Holiday Water Sports is another top choice, with three locations on Fort Myers Beach, and they also rent out kayaks and Hobie catamarans.
The 6.5-mile Estero River starts as a black water stream that curves its way through lush scenery before intersecting with the mangrove islands of Estero Bay. This makes a great setting for a kayak or canoe ride, and you'll likely see cormorants, yellow-crowned night herons and egrets along the way. Estero River Outfitters (esteroriveroutfitters.com), conveniently located right beside the river, rents (and sells) kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. If you're out for a big day's paddle, you can stop along the way at Mound Key, an important ceremonial site for the Calusa Indians, and at Koreshan State Historic Site (floridastateparks.org ), a park that was once the epicenter of a utopian community back in the 1890s.
If you're handy with a rod and reel, this area offers some exceptional backwater fishing. Redfish, snook and snapper are among the common catch, along with the occasional pompano and Spanish mackerel. There are a handful of fishing charters operating here. One of the best fishing guides is Captain Mike, who leads half-day trips aboard his 28-foot fishing cat for Good Time Charters (goodtimecharter.com).
One of the stars of Florida's marine life is the elusive manatee, a slow-moving 1000-pound mammal whose grazing habits (on freshwater and saltwater plants) have earned it the moniker 'sea cow'. One of the best places to see them in the wild is at the aptly named Manatee Park (leecounty.gov), which is set around a warm-water tributary of the Caloosahatchee River. In the colder months (especially December through February), manatees can often be seen here, as they swim upriver to escape the colder Gulf temperatures. There's also a butterfly garden, accessible nature paths and a kiosk where you can rent kayaks for a paddle out on the Orange River.
As any local will tell you, you can't come to Fort Myers Beach without taking a cruise out onto the Gulf. On top of ocean breezes and great views the opportunity to see marine life is unparalleled – especially if you have an interest in seeing dolphins. Tour operators, like Estero Bay Express (esterobayexpress.com), can get you close to these playful creatures as they leap and frolic through the boat's foaming wake. You can also see pelicans diving for fish, osprey soaring overhead and perhaps a doe-eyed manatee or two.
Out on Sanibel Island the 6400 acres of JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is home to one of the largest mangrove forests in the country. It's also a renowned spot for seeing migratory birds, with some 245 different bird species spotted here throughout the year. Roseate spoonbills, mangrove cuckoos and reddish egrets are among the refuge's 'big five' list. You might also see magnificent frigatebirds, great crested flycatchers and bald eagles. Walking trails range from 1/4 mile to four miles, and there are also small observation towers for serious twitchers. Tarpon Bay Explorers offers guided kayak tours around the biologically rich mangrove ecosystem.
Laughing Gulls at Lovers Key State Park. Photo by Andrea Westmoreland / CC-BY-SA 2.0
Walks on the Wild Side
Lovers Key State Park offers speedy access to nature, with a serene reserve encompassing coastal wetlands just a 10-minute drive from the people-packed sands of Fort Myers Beach. There are over five miles of walking trails here and, if luck is on your side, you might see roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, marsh rabbits and other creatures. Off shore, bottlenose dolphins and manatees are among the many residents.
For a stroll into one of Florida's primordial landscapes, head to the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, around 14 miles northeast of Fort Myers Beach. This wildlife-filled preserve has a 1.2- mile boardwalk that runs past creeks and bayous, with cypress trees towering overhead and sun-dappled ferns flickering in the breeze. Keep an eye out for great blue herons, redheaded woodpeckers and snowy white egrets. In the water you might also see turtles, otters and alligators, with iridescent dragonflies zigzagging past. Stop in the interpretive center to get an overview of this important 3500-acre watershed.
Pretty beaches and scenic wetlands are only a small part of the region's natural beauty. You'll also find serene botanical gardens that showcase cultivated species from Florida and beyond. The sprawling Edison & Ford Winter Estates houses a 20-acre botanical garden that features more than 1700 plants from six continents. Royal palms, tropical fruit trees, soaring strands of bamboo and brilliantly hued orchids are among the many living treasures here, along with a towering banyan tree believed to be the largest in the continental US.
Inside a 3600-square-foot glass conservatory, paths wind past tropical plants and small waterfalls of the Butterfly Estates. Of course, the real attraction is the assortment of colorful butterflies that flit around freely inside the manicured green space. Naturalists at this eco-friendly non-profit give the lowdown on the varied species and explain the development from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis before emerging as a fully grown butterfly. It's located right in downtown Fort Myers.