Insider Tips to Navigating Southwest Florida's Beaches
What you need to know about sunsets, finding turtles, savoring serenity and other special pleasures.
Barefoot Beach Preserve
Naples Drone Solutions
I f distance were no object and time could be tamed—say, a click of the heels and you’re suddenly elsewhere—a day on the beaches of Southwest Florida would prove that paradise has many dimensions. Here, some local beach experts, both official and unofficial, offer a few secrets for a day most enchanting.
Sanibel Island's scenic lighthouse
Start at Lighthouse Beach at the south end of Sanibel Island to watch the day begin. The sun rises over Fort Myers Beach on the near horizon. And nothing says “a day at the sea” better than a lighthouse.
First lit in August of 1884, the 98-foot Sanibel Lighthouse was automated in 1946, and until then, the keeper climbed 127 steps to light it. The beach around this landmark contains a finer grain of sand that’s harder-packed, in geological terms a “low-energy beach,” says Kristie Anders, education coordinator for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. So should you want to hit the sand running on your beach day—say, in homage to the energetic lighthouse keepers of Sanibel’s past—you’d be in an ideal spot.
If it’s a cold morning, you’d also be in the right place, says Anders. During a cool front, Lighthouse Beach “is in the lee, protected from the (northwest) wind.”
But we’re conjuring a warm and perfect day for your Southwest Florida beach tour.
Post-jog, you may be feeling reflective, even serene.
Now and Zen
So then, zip 12 miles across Sanibel and 5 miles through mansion-studded Captiva Island. At the end of San-Cap Road is the northernmost public beach on the island.
Alison Hagerup Beach Park is just past the spacious, multi-use development of South Seas Plantation. Named for a woman who served many years as an officer in the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association and other local environmental groups, this beach often is cited as the most peaceful and least crowded of any in the area.
And although it’s Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau Communications Manager Francesca Donlan’s job to love every area beach, she claims this remote spot as her favorite.
“This beach reminds me of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her 1955 book Gift from the Sea, which I love. It’s all about reflection and taking a breath in your crazy, busy life. And when you get there it’s so beautiful and generally quiet. I think I can hear myself think there,” Donlan says.
Lindbergh did indeed write the book on Captiva Island. Donlan believes she wrote it right there on that beach, and while we couldn’t find evidence yay or nay, we’re not about to throw a wet towel on anybody’s dreams.
For her own measure of serenity, Kelly Hettenbaugh would then head southeast to Barefoot Beach Preserve.
As a newcomer to Naples about 10 years ago, Hettenbaugh was seeking some emotional balance after a loss in her family. She found the grounding she needed at this Collier County park.
“Back then few people knew about it. It was secluded and less crowded, and it became my getaway,” says Hettenbaugh, a local physical therapy assistant and a senior editor for the website Got Country. “It was my place to go, to think or not think.” In fact, it still is: She recharges there about once a month.
Admittedly, the line of cars on Barefoot Beach Road to get through the residential Barefoot Beach community to the 342 acres of natural land beyond can be daunting. But visitors are rewarded beyond measure when they reach one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on the southwest coast.
It’s home to the gopher tortoise, a protected species whose burrows provide emergency shelter for all kinds of wildlife. You’ll also find here plenty of sabal palm, sea grape and gumbo-limbo trees.
Barefoot Beach Preserve offers 342 acres of natural land—and the protected gopher tortise.
More important, its 8,200 feet of beach and sand dunes support the growth of sea oats, providing nesting sites for sea turtles during the summer. Rangers there hand out free recreation guides and take visitors to see the nesting habitat of the loggerhead turtle.
If you’re allergic to human guides but your ears perk up at the mention of turtles, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Turtle Technician Jack Brzoza will indulge your curiosity on a few conditions. You must avoid “uneducated behavior,” in his words.
“We don’t necessarily advise that people go out on the beach actively in search of turtles,” Brzoza says. They are federally protected, which means it is illegal to “harass” nesting sea turtles and hatchlings. Of course, you wouldn’t send them mean emails or yell at them; in the case of the sea turtle, “harassment” can mean getting too close to them or even taking photographs.
Sanibel and Captiva have plenty of explorable public beaches where you could encounter a turtle.
But where? “Generally, the western end of the islands see an overall higher density of nesting,” Brzoza says.
“Nesting season generally runs May through August. Sea turtles come ashore to nest at night. They can nest anytime from sundown to just before daybreak. Hatchlings also tend to emerge and make their way to the ocean at night,” Brzoza says.
Moonlight helps the baby turtles find the ocean. Artificial lights on cars or houses can cause them to make a fatal mistake, heading away from the water rather than near. But they do not perceive red light. So if you must, use a red light or a red filter. Don’t make sudden movements or get too close to the turtles.
Last season, there were 554 nests on Sanibel and 168 on Captiva. All but three were loggerhead, Brzoza says.
At midday, gather some provisions and corral a picnic table in the shade or in a covered gazebo.
You’ll find both at Lovers Key State Park in Estero.
Park at Lot No. 2, where you’ll find the Black Island trailhead. Walk about 30 feet down the trail and see what’s fluttering. The coral bean, beautyberry, sensitive plant and blue porterweed are the ground cover for a wild and unruly butterfly garden. There’s a picnic table in the shade nearby, from which you can watch the sulphur butterflies, the Gulf fritillaries; perhaps a zebra longwing, even a giant swallowtail.
For years, the garden has been tended by a volunteer named Yuki, says coordinator Robert Hughes. She’s semi-retired from that position but still brings out and rehomes pupae in their cocoons a few times a week.
Rich Donnelly has been president of the Friends of Lovers Key—the folks who call themselves the FOLKs—for a decade. It’s certainly his favorite beach.
About 10 years ago, he noticed a picture in the newspaper of the tram that takes visitors from the parking lots to the beach. “I thought, I’m semi-retired, and that looks like a fun thing to do,” he says. Since then, he’s driven that tram and graduated to weightier tasks, like using his architect background to help lobby and raise money for a visitors’ center. With $4 million from the state legislature and about a third of the additional $1.5 million needed a year into a capital campaign, he’ll be as proud as anybody when ground is broken Dec. 6 on a 4,000-square-foot building to house exhibits, classroom, restroom, deck and kitchen.
Until then, shade-seekers at Lovers Key can take a break from the 2½ miles of beach in the spacious beachfront gazebo, site of many weddings and an annual vow renewal celebration for Valentine’s Day.
Watching all the birds go by
If butterflies are nice but birds are better, local ornithologist Jerome Jackson suggests Tigertail Beach on Marco Island as your next destination. Since we’ve established your command over time on this day, the 42 miles between Lovers Key and Tigertail won’t be an issue.
This Collier County park includes a tidal lagoon with calm, shallow water that attracts a lot of wading birds, particularly in winter, Jackson says.
“Just beyond the tidal lagoon are low dunes and a sand beach that one gets to either by walking east to the swimming area, then back west along the shore; or wading across the tidal lagoon, which is shallow (less than 18 inches, usually). Least terns and black skimmers nest there—far from the swimming area—and lots of other sea birds can be seen from the beach, including pelicans, sandpipers, frigate birds, gulls and terns. In the vegetation along the lagoon, one can often find boat-tailed grackles, other blackbirds, and sometimes passing swallows and a few ducks.”
But say you’ve got the family in tow. It’s getting late in the day, you’re hearing a chorus of “birds are boring,” the offspring are throwing handfuls of Cheetos at each other and threatening mutiny.
Nervous Nellie's—an example of the colorful bustle on Fort Myers Beach
Hightail it to any number of family-friendly restaurants on Fort Myers Beach, outfit the progeny in souvenir T-shirts, grab some sand toys, and plant that family on a patch of public sand among the merchandise and motels of this stretch of Estero Island.
Or, head back to Sanibel and Bowman’s Beach, where the lack of Panama Jack and friends might better suit your family style.
This beach on the east end of the island is a great choice for families, says Anders of the SCCF. With restrooms, showers, playgrounds and a hiking trail, it’s got the kids—and you—covered.
Anders’ colleague Jenny Evans, native landscapes and garden center manager, is partial to this beach because, being three or four times deeper than nearly all others in the area, it has room for an amazing diversity of plant life.
“Here, you’ll see some of the hardwood hammock lands that you’d only see up on a ridge somewhere else,” Evans says. “Plus prickly pear and joewood, which is city of Sanibel’s official plant.
“The other thing that’s unique about Bowman’s: There’s a path that parallels the beach for a mile or maybe longer, so you get a different perspective than if you were out just walking along the water.”
Next, celebrate Southwest Florida’s powers of rejuvenation at the inimitable Naples Pier.
The iconic Naples Pier
At the west end of 12th Avenue South, the pier and surrounding beach features a concession stand, restrooms, showers and more.
The pier was built in 1888 and has undergone five reconstructions (thanks mostly to hurricanes). The most recent was in 2015 and cost $2.7 million. And then along came Hurricane Irma, which toyed with the structure and caused the city to close the pier and repair it again.
But it’s open, and thanks to a longtime Naples philanthropist Lavern Gaynor and her Naples Backyard History program, you can preview the area before you visit by going to naplespanorama.org.
Then it’s back to Captiva for sunset, where nature’s nightly show approaches sacramental status. And often inspires applause.
On the beach behind the outdoor bar at The Mucky Duck restaurant, join a tribe of sunset seekers any night of the week while cotton-candy colors combine to signal day’s end. Watch for the “green flash” of light as the sun slips below the horizon, an intriguing phenomenon some claim to see.
Or perhaps it’s a myth. Either way, you’ll end the day believing wholeheartedly in the magic of the Gulfshore.