Now that I've shared the wonderful world of shelling with you all, I'm eager to dive into the vast list of other things that there are to do if you find yourself with a quick weekend to spend in Fort Myers, Florida.
Dive in. See what I did there?
Mound House is your first stop, and it will give you some awesome context for everything you'll be seeing next. Here, a museum sits atop a 2,000-year-old Calusa Indian Shell Mound. If you time it right, you can actually go underground and see a cross-section of the layers and layers of shells that the Indians gathered to elevate themselves and mitigate flood damage to their homes (I'd recommend calling ahead to confirm access and tour timing). Even if you don't get to see inside the mound, the museum is chock full of fascinating history and artifacts.
It should be a little before lunchtime now, so head on over to the infamous Bubble Room where it's always Christmas. There you'll dine on cake and bubble bread and sticky buns! They do have regular entrees as well, but this is one of those rare times in life when I'd suggest eating dessert first.
Whether shelling is your jam or not, you absolutely MUST hop on a half-day afternoon boat tour with Captiva Cruises to Cayo Costa. This remote island is a state park that's accessible only by boat or helicopter, and it's the best dang way I can think of to get quite literally away from it all. They even have cabins and primitive camping available, if that's your jam. While there's pretty much nothing here, that's the entire appeal of the place. That and the jaw-dropping nine-mile stretch of seashells along the shore, which gather in epic proportions due to the tides in this area.
If you're able to afford a private charter with Captiva Cruises (they're not as expensive as you might think!) it's definitely worth it to add on a stop at Cabbage Key for a quick bite. The open-air restaurant here was said to be the inspiration for Jimmy Buffet's classic hit, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” And if cheeseburgers aren't your thing, the chef makes an amazing blackened mahi-mahi with black beans and rice. You can actually rent cottages here and ogle wildlife – such as tortoises and sea otters – to your heart's content. There's not a single paved road on the island, making it the perfect haven for families wanting to explore with little kids.
If you can't spare the time or money for a trip to Cayo Costa or you just really don't like boats, the north end of Captiva Island or Bowman's Beach are your next best bets for white powder sand and authentic Southwest Florida vibes in this area (but be aware that parking can be tricky at any beach on Captiva or Sanibel). Lovers Key and Bowditch Point, back by Fort Myers Beach, are also pretty phenomenal.
Depending on your timing with all of the shore-side exploration, you may find yourself with a couple hours to kill in the late afternoon. This is the perfect time to get out of the sun for a bit at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, where you'll gain a deeper understanding of the significance of ALL those shells you saw earlier in the day. If you're feeling a little shelled-out, now may be a good time to rent a bike or surrey. Or hop on a banana boat. Or catch some fish.
For dinner, watch the sun go down at the marina where Gramma Dot's is located. Parking is plentiful but be sure to get seated before 8 – this spot closes shop early!
Gramma Dot's is known for their coconut shrimp and they're said to have the best key lime pie in the area (that's saying a lot since each and every restaurant around Fort Myers seems to pride themselves on their secret key lime pie recipes).
After dark, the Times Square of Fort Myers Beach is where it's at! This area gets a little crazy during spring break, but it has a ton of street performers and stores and family-friendly activities to keep children entertained as well. If you're down for a nightcap, head to Yucatan for a cold beer in a casual kid-friendly atmosphere with a sort of Tiki Room vibe.
Across the street, Shipwreck Treasures is the best little gift shop EVER. They have every sort of kitschy souvenir you could possibly want, along with some cool artsy finds and even some corner displays with locally-thrifted gems.
Get a good night's sleep, because you've got even more ground to cover in the morning! You're heading a whole different direction come sunrise, away from the islands to the downtown area. Sit down for a hearty meal at McGregor Cafe, the oldest existing restaurant in Fort Myers. They serve breakfast in a dog-friendly patio environment smack dab in the middle of a residential area. Our waitress regaled us with fun tales about the area and the old home that now serves as the restaurant's building.
Next up is a visit to nearby Edison & Ford Winter Estates. Here you'll walk on the very ground where Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone worked together to test over 17,000 plants for rubber content to solve a severe shortage during World War I. Over 1,000 different plants still exist in the gardens on the property today!
What I really loved about the estates – in addition to the open space where kids could burn off energy and the impressive display of Ford's vehicles – was the clear display doors that made it so children could see into the historical buildings without disturbing anything. We've dragged our children to a ton of museums, and it's usually a bit of a feat to get them to soak in the knowledge without touching everything (and in the toddler's case, without licking some stuff). This was definitely one of the more family-friendly educational spots I've seen. I'm told they also have a pretty epic seasonal light display during the holidays.
You'll have worked up an appetite by now, so it's time to head downtown where you'll continue the theme of the day at an eatery called Ford's Garage. This spot pays homage to its namesake as a 1920's-style prohibition bar where you can customize gourmet burgers to fit any appetite. This here is an open range bison burger with goat cheese, sweet red onion marmalade, grilled onions and white truffle bacon aioli on lettuce. With a side of sweet potato tots and caramel dipping sauce, of course!
There are a ton of cute shops to peruse in the downtown area while you're there. If you happen to be around on the third Friday of the month, downtown closes two major streets for Music Walk to showcase their up-and-coming local musicians. It's a BIG deal and a favorite pick for a few locals I asked.
What are your favorite sights in Fort Myers?