TV presenter and biologist Patrick Aryee is a self-confessed thrill seeker. Wanderlust send him on assignment to Fort Myers in Florida to seek out the best outdoor adventures. Here's what he found...
Fort Myers is not only surrounded by water, it’s inexplicably linked to it. This collection of beaches and islands on Florida's southwestern coast is criss-crossed with so many waterways that it feels almost purpose-built for adventure.
Being out on the water is a part of everyday life in Fort Myers, with many locals actually sailing to work each day. Add to that a vast variety of recreational water sports, such as kayaking in mangrove forests and jet-skiing across the sea, and the adventurer inside you will be scrambling to get out exploring.
Fort Myers is famous for its vast expanse of mangroves, making it an ideal location for kayaking. In fact, easily accessible J.N.Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is rated one of the top places in the country to paddle. Head to Tarpon Bay Explorers for a kayak trail tour. You can rent a two-person kayak for two hours for around $20 per person and explore alone, or pay an extra $15 each for a guided nature tour led by a Tarpon Bay Explorer expert naturalist.
When I kayaked in Fort Myers, our guide, Wendy Schnapp, began by escorting us north through the channels across Tarpon Bay, then west through an opening at Shallow Cutoff. A short paddle eventually brought us to the beginning of the Commodore Creek Trail. This was a perfect introduction to the coastal environment, giving me a deeper appreciation of this special part of the state. Usually, the shallow, crystal-clear waters make manatee- and dolphin-spotting easy from the boat, but heavy rains before our visit made the water more turbid than usual. We did still see many wading egrets and juvenile pelicans trying to catch fish, as well as a man paddleboarding with a dog.
I let out a shocked laugh, manouvering my kayak closer to Morty the dog. His owner Brent, who was doing all the hard work, is an IT Developer who’d made his way from Atlanta with his family for their holiday. I asked him what brought him to Fort Myers. 'The sun and the fun', he smiled.
With more than 100 islands to explore, chartering a boat for the day to hop from island to island is the best way to see as many of the lesser known outcrops as possible. We spent time with New Eco Wave Charters, who took us out for the entire day. Half day charters and sunset cruises are also available.
Some of the now uninhabited islands curiously appear to be made entirely out of shells, piled some 20-feet high. These 'shell middens' are steeped in a rich history, and are in fact remnants of the Calusa. This Native American tribe lived on the shell middens until the late 1700s. Often referred to as the Shell Indians, they relied on fishing for food – highlighting the importance of Fort Myers' biodiversity.
Making our way back in the late afternoon light, we were greeted by a sight we’d all been waiting for. An entire pod of around ten bottlenosed dolphins suddenly came into sight. I don’t know what it is about dolphins that captures our imagination. Maybe it's their extroverted personalties, playfulness, their curiosity in us, or a combination of all three. Whatever it is,the jumping, flipping and squeaking dolphins made for a pefect and memorising end to the day.
A great place to refuel is the Cabbage Key Inn & Restaurant, where you can moor up for some well-earned relief from the midday heat. Whatever you choose from the varied menu, add a half-pound of Cold Gulf Shrimp, which makes a tasty and refreshing side. Make sure you also spend time investigating the little sandbars in search of smaller marine life, like gaudy nauticas, lightning whelks, sea conches and even the occasional little shark that swims into the shallows.
If you enjoy getting out on the water why not try your hand at learning how to sail? The Offshore Sailing School operates out of multiple locations in Lee County, including South Seas in Captiva; handy if you’re staying at the resort as we were. Opt for either a two-day or five-day course to go through basic sailing skills onboard one of their Colgate 26 training sailboats.
If you’re still finding your sea-legs and want something easier, choose the two-hour sailing lesson instead. It’s a great way to get familiar with the sport first before committing to more time than you can initially manage.
A minimum of two people is needed to open a boat, with a maximum of five participants accompanied by an instructor.
The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel are a perfect location to go shelling. This was the most relaxing activity I did, and even if you don't think its your thing, you shouldn't knock it until you've tried it. Give it a go and, like me, you'll soon find yourself performing the 'Sanibel Stoop' and the 'Captiva Crawl' - comical nicknames for the hunched posture people adopt when collecting shells.
As these names suggest, the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva Island have some of the best locations for shelling, although you can do this on any of Fort Myers' beaches. Just remember to put the shells back on the sand when you've finished inspecting them.
Combine shelling with a visit to Lovers Key State Park. On your leisurely stroll along the beach, you'll come across the ‘shell tree’. You’ll know when you’ve found it as piles of glistening shells adorn the base and branches of the fallen tree. Be sure to leave your chosen contribution here. After, walk down to the water’s edge, let the waves lap at your toes, breathe, and enjoy the sunset.
As much as I enjoyed the more serene activities Fort Myers has to offer, there’s no denying that deep down, I am an adrenaline junky. As soon as I saw the jet-skis parked outside the apartment blocks of our hotel, I knew I had to make time for an action-packed afternoon.
Jet-skiing, along with parasailing, are popular water-sports amongst tourists and you should definitely try at least one. Sunny Island Adventures on Captiva offer both options. Parasailing will get you high up into the air where you can enjoy breathtaking views. Jet-skiing, on the other hand, will give you the rare chance to set your inner speed demon free.
The Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is just nine-miles away from downtown Fort Myers and offers visitors what I like to think of as a little taste of the Everglades. The Slough (pronounced “sloo”), is a natural drainage system that collects runoff water from the surrounding drainage basin to create over 3,400 acres of wetland. In the wet season (June to October), the water rises up to three feet, transforming the landscape into a wide, gently flowing river.
The elevated boardwalks wind their way along the slough, meaning you can combine a trek with willife spotting. Keep your eyes peeled for white-tailed deer, river otters, owls, bobcat and young alligators; walk slowly and quietly to give yourself the best chance of spotting the wildlife here.
If like me, you’re a water baby, then this next one is for you. Just beyond the white-sandy beaches, hidden beneath the waves, lie a network of artificial reefs which provide the perfect opportunity to go scuba-diving. With 20-reef locations to explore, from Fort Myers Beach, north to Charlotte Harbour Preserve there’s plenty to see, including the 165-foot World War II combat ship called the USS Mohawk. This memorial reef 30-miles out in the Gulf of Mexico is the first of its kind to be dedicated to veterans.
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