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Florida beyond the Big Fluffy Mouse
By Nadia Hind

Tell people that you are off to Florida for a couple of weeks and immediately they think Orlando, Tampa, St. Petersburg or Clearwater. Well, guess what? They’re not always right.

This was the part I was looking forward to most since our arrival. Yes, we’d done the parks of Orlando again and now were having a well-deserved rest for a few days. We’d chosen to come to Fort Myers Beach, Southwest Florida as Other Half had introduced me to this wonderful island a few years ago and this time we’d decided to try it out on the kids.

After our drive and arrival the night before, we opted to just explore the sugar sand beach on our doorstep the following day. When I say ‘explore’ it was more like Other Half doing his beached whale impression, while 17-year Old, 12-Year Old, 7-Year Old and myself braved the blazing 35 degree May heat for half an hour but soon opted for the cooler option of the shaded pool area of our holiday apartment for most of the afternoon. Other Half came back after an hour to show off his sunburn and soon upped the SPF15 he was applying to 35.

Situated off the I-75 approximately 13 miles South of Fort Myers city, 28 miles North of Naples and 12 miles East of Sanibel Island, Fort Myers Beach was once known as San Carlos and Estero Islands. Once part of the mainland, erosion and storms found it necessary to build a bridge to provide access from Bonita Beach and today is primarily connected to the mainland in the south by Hurricane Pass Bridge and in the north by San Carlos Boulevard.

The island is alive with and is very proud of its history and heritage and has gained a reputation as the World's Safest Beach because of its shallow, warm water and no undertow. You can walk the entire 7-mile length of the island along its sandy shores.

You get out of Fort Myers Beach what you want from it. For relaxation lazing around the pool or on the beach and dolphin watching is all you will need. We stayed on the north part of the island near Bowditch Point Regional Park. The sunsets here were nothing short of spectacular and, in true American style; you could almost hear the music playing as the sun painted the sky as it dropped into the sea with pelicans in silhouette on the water adding to the romantic scene. Waking up to the view of a white beach attached to clear azure waters with its resident dolphins playing while you are having breakfast is something you hope the locals never take for granted.

For something a little more active, a choice of several parks like the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, which has a history all of its own, will guarantee the sighting of an alligator or three. There are plenty of nearby state parks to explore, too and for around $5 per car, the whole family can enjoy a scenic drive spotting alligators, herons, egrets, etc. Just remember to take your insect repellent – you will need it. Other Half looked like he had a leading part in ‘Revenge of the Killer Mosquito’

Fort Myers Beach is perfectly located for hopping in the car at the beginning of the day before the sun gets too hot and heading off to discover this part of Florida that has so much to offer. Everglades National Park is less than and hour and a half away and you can pick up an airboat ride along the way if it’s more alligators you want. Naples offers a little more sophistication (and a bigger price tag!). 7-year old, who has already decided that she will be the next Kylie Minogue, has seen the house she is going to live in.

In the evening the area around Times Square is always active. In the heart of Times Square, our favourite haunt became the Beach Pierside Grill, which was only a 10-minute walk along the beachfront from our apartment. As well as fabulous fresh seafood specialities as well as it’s delicious homemade key lime pie, it also has live entertainment on its beachside patio. The pier alongside the restaurant provides perfect people-watching opportunities. Ask any local and each will gladly tell you their favourite spot for food and watching the sunset and every one will be different. My advice, find you own favourite!

And the kids’ verdict? Well with no fighting for a spot on the beach to build the ultimate sandcastle, a swimming pool to escape to, regular dolphin-spotting, shelling and other interests close-by, they were unanimous – When can we come back again?

And the adults’ verdict? A safe, quiet, family-friendly beach, amazing scenery, a stroll along the beach to the nearest restaurant for sumptuous fresh seafood, doing as much or as little as we wanted without feeling like we had missed out? - When can we come back again?

If you want to get away from the more ‘touristy’ parts, try Fort Myers Beach and discover the other Florida.

When to visit:

We visited the Island mid-May 2004, at the beginning of the low season and soon found out why it was the low season. It was HOT! If you don’t cover up, you will get burnt. We’ve also been here during high season. It’s busier, but not overcrowded and you can still guarantee your place on the beach.

Low Season is Mid April to Mid November – Average High Temperature is 32 Celsius
High Season is Mid November to Mid April – Average High Temperature is 25 Celsius

Where to stay:

We stayed at the Estero Island Beach Villas; holiday condominiums part of the Pink Shell Beach Resort next door. We booked through Dennis at http://www.myfriendsvacationrentals.com/ . Rates are from just $123 plus tax per night for a 2-bedroom 2-bathroom beachfront self-catering apartment sleeping up to 6 people. Each apartment has its own private screened balcony with spectacular views over the Gulf of Mexico. Dennis’s rates are a third of the Pink Shell’s and you can’t go wrong. Check-in day is flexible, unlike most condo resorts in the area that insist on a Saturday check-in with a minimum stay.

There are an abundance of vacation property, hotel and camping websites available to find your perfect accommodation at either the North or quieter South side of the island. Shop around before making any decisions. Prices are very competitive and

Most properties are located along Estero Boulevard (Highway 41), which runs North/South along the island. Leave your car and take the convenient trolley bus which has frequent stops and for just 25 cents, let’s you explore the island without having to think about who’s driving.

Where to eat:

The Beach Pierside Grill, Times Square – Great food & music ‘til late.

The Fishmonger Restaurant, 19030 San Carlos Boulevard – Fresh seafood straight off the boat! Try the stuffed giant shrimp – amazing!

The Lighthouse, Sanibel Harbour Marina on Summerlin (Highway 869) – More great food. Sit outside and see if you can spot a manatee.

Things to see and do:

The beach at Fort Myers Beach provides uncrowded, unspoilt, clean facilities. Loungers, umbrellas and wave runners are available for hire all along the beach.

J.N ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island – Do not miss this for your chance to see alligators and birds in their natural habitat. There is a free information centre with a few exhibits. There is a five-mile shell road that winds through the mangrove islands. You may drive your car or ride a bike. The cost is $5 and even if you need to leave the park, your entrance ticket is valid all day for your return later if you wish. There is also a 2 mile walk – do this only if it not too hot otherwise you will suffer as there is not much shade along the way.

Sanibel Island and Captiva Islands are well worth a visit for the day. Hire a bike and see how far you get.

Drive along US41 towards Bonita Beach, Naples, Marco Island, Everglade National Park. There are many sights to stop and see along the way. Do as little or as much as you want.

How to get there:

We flew with Virgin Atlantic direct from Manchester International to Orlando International. Return economy flights vary from £450 to around £700 per adult depending on availability.

Take the I-75 towards Naples, Fort Myers Beach is about 15 miles from the interstate Exit 21 (Daniels Parkway) west on Summerlin Road. Then follow Summerlin Road to San Carlos Boulevard, turn left and cross the bridge onto Estero Island.

We hired a car through http://www.yescarhire.com/, which we have found to be the best value for money for all-inclusive prices. They tend to be around £150 cheaper than most other online car rental sites and they use companies like Alamo & Dollar who have convenient on-site airport pick up services.