A little Florida sunshine is a perfect way to recharge your internal batteries. One of our favorite spots continues to be Southwest Florida, home to the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel (www.fortmyers-sanibel.com).
Ever since we were exposed to this outdoor playground through the adventure antics of Dr. Marion Ford and the writings of Randy Wayne White, the area has always presented itself with a certain mystique. While there are plenty of the normal tourist-focused areas that seem to dominate with the snowbirds from January to April, the region never ceases to amaze us as we make that extra effort to see where the back roads will take us and what hidden treasures are available to be revealed for the first time.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is always at or near the top of our list, the largest mangrove wilderness in the country. The bird life that inhabits the sanctuary is simply amazing. This time around, it was the Reddish Egret that was in the spotlight, part of a new telemetry study to learn more about the habits of these rare birds. As luck would have it, one of the special winged wonders took up residence in front of a group of camera clickers, also allowing birders to check off another feathered friend from a bird bucket list of sorts. The Darling NWR is also part of a larger complex (also named after Darling) that encompasses the Caloosahatchee, Matlacha Pass, Pine Island, and Island Bay National Wildlife Refuges – a large complex of nearly 8,000 acres. The majority of the lands (and waters) in these refuges are nesting and roosting islands for the plethora of bird life that either migrate through or call this important habitat home. Check out http://www.fws.gov/refuge/JN_Ding_Darling/About_the_Complex.html.
Adventure – Fishing
One morning we meet with local charter captain Ryan Kane of Southern Instinct (www.southerninstinct.com; 239-896-2341. No one can appreciate what he does more than me as a fellow sportfishing promoter and ambassador of the area’s natural resources. Kane really gets it and he’ll do whatever it takes to make each and every outing a memorable experience.
As we met at the Port Sanibel Marina, the outlook wasn’t the best. Strong winds from the southwest from one direction; freshwater being funneled down the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee creating unsettled conditions near the mouth of the river, an estuary of sorts. This isn’t Kane’s first rodeo, though, he opted to stay in from the Gulf of Mexico waters because of the winds. Other local charters braved the winds to try and hit the Causeway Reef, an artificial structure that came from the old causeway that connected the mainland to Sanibel, before the winds peaked. It was holding some nice sheepshead in the four to five pound range – some excellent eaters for the frying pan. There was a question whether the tradeoff was worth it. While the captains might think so, the passengers might not. We went back to the basics and to Kane’s roots.
“This is Shell Creek where my grandfather took me and my brother to fish when we were little kids,” reflected Kane, who’s been guiding full time for six years now. This is his favorite sheepshead spot and he still fishes it regularly with customers when conditions limit the areas he can target. “It’s all about figuring out what people want and what would make the best experience overall. I specialize in families, especially families with children since I have three of my own. I’ll do just about anything to make each and every experience a memorable one.”
No sooner had we started fishing a cut when a large manatee floated alongside his 24-foot Pro-Line that he’s converted into a fishing machine. My wife Sandy was mesmerized and before it was all over she was petting the soft snout of the marine mammal that some people refer to as a sea cow. That was the experience that she will remember for the rest of her life … and will keep her coming back for more. It didn’t hurt that she also reeled in the biggest redfish for the day, allowing her to state: “I could get used to doing this.”
Ryan looked at me with a big smile. “I think that’s what every guy wants to hear from his wife!” After catching four or five species of fish, we headed out into San Carlos Bay where we found a shoreline island with mangroves and a weed bed. “This looks perfect for redfish – it has everything they would be looking for in this kind of a wind,” said Kane.
Tossing a red jig tipped with a shrimp for bait, he almost immediately hit a fish. However, it wasn’t a redfish. It turned out to be our biggest sheepshead for the day. The next 10 fish were redfish and we had a blast reeling in the magnificent fighters. We ended up with seven different species for the day including a pile of mangrove snappers, ladyfish, pufferfish, catfish and even a sting ray reeled in by the novice Sandy. All around us was incredible bird life and the picturesque scenery of places like Sanibel and Captiva islands. Life is good.
Kane is expanding his business to include a bigger 36 foot boat, a Contender that he will be able to use off-shore as well as inshore when the conditions allow for it. Families will be more comfortable and the added advantage of having a head on the boat will be worth its weight in gold.
In keeping with the dolphin theme of Florida (even if you are a Buffalo Bills fan), the Wicked Dolphin Rum Distillery in Cape Coral is a new attraction that is really picking up a head of steam (www.wickeddolphinrum.com) not just in Southwest Florida and around the state but around the country. Billed as Florida’s only true rum distillery made with all local products, this relatively new business that started up in 2012 from a Long Island family (yes, a New York connection) is already award-winning. We received a private tour from head distiller Dan Termini and he gave us the complete low-down on the sourcing of all the ingredients, the cooking process, the fermentation and the distillation that takes place. The end result is one great tasting product. At the top of the list for us was a Coconut Rum that’s become a local favorite. Don’t rule out the Florida Spiced Rum or the Rumshine. They make a total of 11 different products currently. They estimate that some 22,000 people will tour the facility in 2016. And it’s all natural.
Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, Fort Myers – If you’ve never been to a classy dinner theatre before (or even if you have), the Broadway Palm does it right night after night with top quality performances (we saw Show Boat), tasty buffet dinner and more. Check out www.broadwaypalm.com for a list of what’s coming up and what options are available should you be in the area. You won’t be disappointed.
Tip Top Isles Resort and Marina – This is a nice place we stumbled across with some assistance from the tourism office. Resident manager Mark Sturgeon was extremely accommodating and there were quite a few positives that jumped out at us. One was the fact that they offered pontoon boat rentals at a reasonable price. They had a fleet of seven when we were there. Room rates were also very reasonable considering it was peak tourist season. Sturgeon was really high on an off-season special that included a single room for three nights and two half-day boat rentals for two people for less than $300. Check out www.tiptopisles.com. It’s conveniently located to Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island, as well as many other local attractions.
Outrigger Motel – Located on Estero Blvd. on Fort Myers Beach, this accommodation has a little bit of everything. It’s also a great place to witness a sunset, Southwest Florida style! Sunsets are a tradition there, with the main gathering place at the Tiki Bar located just off the beach. If you like shells or shell collecting, this is a prime destination and we haven’t found any place better in the continental U.S. The shells at the Outrigger this year were the best we’ve ever seen there! And if there’s a critter inside the shell, you must toss it back! The rooms are spacious, comfortable and they even have a built-in kitchen if you want to cook up your catch after fishing. Check out www.outriggerfmb.com for all of the details and seasonal rates.