June 17, 2013 -- 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
Like taking you metal detector to the beach? Forget it. This type of treasure is easy to find with the naked eye and unabashed sifting through the sand with your fingers. It turns out that this region's east-west topography makes it an ideal final resting place for an amazing variety of shells – 400 varieties in all, rolling onshore by the thousands every day. Horse conches, jingle shells, giant cockles, calico scallops – take your pick. The junonia is a locals' favorite. North Captiva and Cayo Costa offer great shelling.
See Matlacha, Skip the Caribbean
It's pronounced Mat-luh-SHAY. This is the crowning jewel of Pine Island – an islet connected by a bridge – that's home to a charming, eclectic blend of homegrown galleries and shops, funky eateries and buzzing fish markets. Kayakers and cyclists, this is your playground. And there are a handful of quaint inns and vacation rentals to choose from. But don't rush your visit here; island time prevails and the mood is decidedly "laid back, like being in the Caribbean," says Mrs. Pigott.
Visit a Historic Home, Feed your Hunger
Historic homes are a tourist draw here; in Ft. Myers, the Murphy-Burroughs House, dating back to 1901 and known as the town's first luxury home, offers living history tours while the Edison & Ford Estates – winter getaways for Thomas Edison and Henry Ford – are open for tours daily. But at The Veranda, you're visiting history while savoring one of the best meals in town. Two homes, built in 1902, were joined by Peter Pulitzer (son of the publishing magnate) in the 1970s and, within a few years, were transformed into a fine-dining restaurant. The turn-of-the-century setting is charming, while the food – plenty of fresh surf-and-turf options – garners acclaim and awards.
Explore the Sky, Not Just the Water
The Planetarium at the Calusa Nature Center is the only one in Southwest Florida, and the only one west of Miami. A high-tech digital projector plays jaw-dropping shows that encompass the entire 44-foot dome, and twice-daily presentations focus on stargazing, tracking the planets and introducing guests to the wonders of the telescope. After your galactic visit, stick around and explore the rest of the 105-acre site, which features a butterfly aviary, several hiking trails, a museum, resident critters – from a fox to a skunk – and a bird display that houses permanently injured eagles, hawks and owls.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features hotel, airfare and a bevy of local deals in Ft. Myers/Sanibel.