Forget Disneyland: with diverse wildlife, mangrove forests, great kayaking and even 'goat yoga', there's much more to Florida than you think, as TV presenter Patrick Aryee recently found out...
Florida is synonymous with Disney World, family fun and arguably the nightlife capital of the world, Miami. But there is much more to this state than first meets the eye. Nestled on the shores of Florida’s western coast, hugging the crystal-clear waters of the Mexican Gulf, is a tranquil beach town filled with wildlife. As someone who’s travelled to countless locations in search of illusive animals, I was surprised when Wanderlust sent me off to the little-known region of Fort Myers. My mission? To discover the wild side of life in Florida.
Having visited the Sunshine State twice before, I have to admit that I was sceptical about the amount of natural beauty I would see. Other than the Everglades, I'd never really thought of Florida as a wildlife hotspot.
A quick search online ahead of my arrival, however, soon revealed I was in for a treat. The region known as The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel is renowned for its sugary sand beaches and the countless shells that wash up on its shoreline. But it turns out that these natural beauties are just the tip of the iceberg...
Fort Myers and its surrounding barrier islands have been described as something of a Mecca for bird watchers and photographers. Even out of season during the summer months we saw a whole host of birdlife without even trying: Pelicans, Osprey, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Royal Terns, to name just a few.
You can see much of the birdlife all year round, but the best time of year to visit the feathered friends of Fort Myers is between February and May. This is when you’re most likely to see larger flocks of birds in full breeding plumage, with plenty of interaction, and – if you’re really lucky – young fledgling chicks.
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is an absolute must – just make sure you check the charts and go out at low tide for a chance to see birds wading in the shallows. If you’re a photographer, needless to say golden hour is the best hour: shooting early in morning or (if you prefer a lie-in) late in the afternoon, will give you the best results – plus it saves you from getting cooked by the midday sun.
Due to its world-class saltwater fishing status, you'll see no end of people in Fort Myers dutifully donning their rods and fishing nets, eagerly awaiting their lines to reveal a prized snook or sea trout.
Popular fishing spots include the Sanibel Island Pier at Lighthouse Beach, as well as the Sanibel Causeway. The latter is better known for its watersports, but dozens of anglers line the path of the crossing, which incidentally connects Sanibel to the island of Captiva.
If you really want a taste of island life, then head to Matlacha Bridge. Dubbed the 'fishing-est bridge in the US', it tends to attract those of a more eccentric disposition.
Naturally though, the best fishing experience is always going to be on the water. My advice: charter a boat to Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, aka ‘the tarpon fishing capital of the world’. March through June, anglers the world over make their way to Fort Myers, for what is considered one of the great game fishes: tarpon. Weighing in at up to a staggering 160kg and growing up to 2.5m, with the ability to leap spectacularly into the air, they make for an exceptional challenge when it comes to the sport of catch and release fishing.
The palms trees lining McGregor Boulevard welcome you to the site of the historic homes of two American icons – world-famous inventor, Thomas Edison, and the automobile industrialist, Henry Ford. As pioneers in their own right, I was genuinely surprised to learn that Ford and Edison were in fact very close friends. After first meeting in Fort Myers back in 1914, it wasn’t but two years that Ford decided to buy the neighbouring property, known as The Mangoes, just a short stroll away from Edison’s Seminole Lodge.
Today the properties, collectively known as the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, also include grounds full of flowering plants, as well as one of the largest Banyan trees in the world. Resembling something of an intimate botanical gardens that opens up to the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, it’s the perfect location to while away your time.
Pay close attention and you might even catch a glimpse of a hummingbird moving from flower to flower in search of nectar. With everything still in-tact, from Ford replica cars to the vials left over in Edison’s laboratory, it feels like they’ve just popped out to the shops and will be back at any moment – it’s a wonderful step back in time.
Get into the thick of it and book yourself onto mangrove kayak tour with the Tarpon Bay Explorers. Our guide, Wendy Schnapp, was very knowledgeable and expertly guided us through the network of waterways whilst uncovering facts about the wild inhabitants and the importance of these unassuming trees.
The red, white and black mangroves of J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge act not only as a source of energy and nutrition to lower members of the food web, they also provide shelter for countless birds, insects and aquamarine species.
At the end of the tour, there’s an opportunity to explore the mangroves by yourself. Numbered sign posts make it easy to get back to the shoreside lodge, but be careful not to wait too long – once the tide starts to rise, paddling requires that little extra bit of elbow grease.
Lovers Key State Park is made up of four barrier islands: Black Island, Inner Island, Long Key and Lover's Key. The latter takes its name from its remote and secluded nature, which prior to the access road being built in 1965, was only accessible by boat.
Romantic lovers were said to be the only ones dedicated enough to make the effort to visit. Make this your mid-late afternoon stop off: you won’t regret it. The beaches here are generally quieter and the water has an almost glassy sheen that starts to glow as the sun slowly sets out over the Gulf.
Late storm clouds refract the sunlight into pink and purple coloured pastel hues, making for spectacular views and even better pictures. Keep walking north along the beach and you’ll be greeted by eerie monoliths. Dead trees struck by lightning appear like giants in the sand, each one adorned with shells that visitors have used to decorate them, from tiny clams to giant mussels twice the size of your hands.
Yes, you read that correctly: goat yoga. The origins of goat yoga don’t seem to be entirely clear: some say it originated in Northern India, the birthplace of yoga, others say it gained popularity on a small farm in Oregon around 2016. What I do know is that one way or another, it made its way to the south to Florida.
Head over to Barnyard Yoga to find out more about their story and why visitors are so enticed by the combination yoga and frolicking farm yard animals.The perfect dose of fun and relaxation: a great way to let loose whilst perfecting your downward dog …or is it upward goat?
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