See This, Skip That: Fort Myers and Sanibel

PHOTO: A bird flies off a rock, on Sanibel Island, Fla.

In some ways, the Ft. Myers/Sanibel area is quintessential Florida, from the beaches to the fairways, and thanks to some pretty enviable weather. But this beautiful spot in the southwestern shores of the Sunshine State is also a destination all its own: history, culture and nature collide here, offering a unique travel experience that other Gulf Coast areas simply can't match. Here's proof.

See Underwater, Skip the Museum

The USS Mohawk is a former U.S. Coast Guard cutter that was involved in more than a dozen attacks against Nazi subs during World War II. It was sunk off Sanibel Island in July of 2012 and is now an artificial reef. Located a bit more than 25 miles offshore and 90 feet down, it's paradise to the more experienced diver, for sure. But this summer, it's especially worth the plunge, as it hosts an underwater exhibit of works by Andreas Franke; the Austrian artist superimposed images of models in WWII-era dress onto pictures he took of the Mohawk, encased them in Plexiglas, and then hung them off the side of the submerged vessel. Come October, the images will resurface and go on display at the Alliance for the Arts in Ft. Myers.

See Pink Gold, Skip the White Sand

Ok, don't skip the white sand; the beaches here are spectacular, and that soft sand sure feels good between the toes. But in the water just off that beach, some of the finest shrimp in Florida thrive. It's sweet, so some people gobble it up raw. But it's also pink, and hence the apt moniker – pink gold. And even if you prefer it steamed or fried or grilled, if there's one seafood splurge on your next visit here, make it this one.

See Downtown, Skip the Shore

Certainly, the shores here are a major draw. But don't let that keep you from heading into downtown Ft. Myers, which has undergone "an amazing renaissance in just the last two or three years," according to Tam Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau. For a nostalgic flare, the streets have been repaved with brick. Mom-and-pop shops rule. And nightlife options are buoyed by an exploding culinary scene; Chef Marbin Avilez at the Firestone Grille, for example, is drawing repeat crowds with his Oven-Roasted Butterfish, featuring Atlantic cod marinated in a honey soy sauce. There's an Art Walk the first Friday of each month, a Music Walk the third Friday of each month and a year-round Farmers Market every Thursday.

Mind the Stop Sign, Forget the Street Lights

Call it island living. When you visit Pine, Sanibel and Captiva, don't bother looking for traffic lights. Traffic flow – which is never hurried – is driven only by the occasional stop sign, plus a healthy dose of common courtesy.

See the Forest, Skip the Beach

When you manage to pull yourself away from the water, consider a drive inland to a 13,000-acre ancient forest. It's the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which houses nature exhibits and interactive displays. You can take a self-guided tour along a two-mile boardwalk that exposes alligator holes, mammoth cypress trees and lakes where myriad bird species come to play.

See the Shells, Skip the Metal Detector

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