gulfcoast1.jpgThe barrier islands off of Fort Myers are far from Florida’s popular, high-profile attractions. Here you’ll find a calmer, more natural part of the Sunshine State. Boats are the ride of choice and wildlife and history are the “theme parks.”

My 14-year-old daughter and I, who visited as guests of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, are on the Lady Chadwick excursion boat looking for dolphins. Long after other passengers stop clapping and whistling to attract attention, I lean over the railing and quietly call to the marine creatures below, “Here baby, c’mon baby.”

Even as my teenage daughter rolls her eyes in embarrassment, first one dolphin – then a second and third – rise gracefully from the navy blue waters of southwest Florida’s Pine Island Sound. Leaping in the waves, our escorts on this Gulf coast outing repeat the scene each time I call out to them. We joke that I could start a career as a “dolphin whisperer” – and even the 14-year-old grudgingly has to laugh.

The Barrier Islands
gulfcoast2.jpgOn Sanibel, Captiva and other barrier islands off Fort Myers, thrills come in the form of a perfect shell, playful pods of dolphins or the rhythmic swish of kayak paddles along the mangrove-lined Great Calusa Blueway, a paddling trail with numbered markers and downloadable maps with GPS coordinates.

It’s the kind of place where a beady-eyed egret named Floyd watches over patio tables at the funky restaurant on tiny Cabbage Key. And where a souvenir T-shirt advises: “You have the right to remain silent and Chill Out.”

No problem! Relaxation comes easy on this 100-acre spit of land accessible only by boat. Built in the 1920s, the Cabbage Key Inn’s rustic “cracker” cottages and laidback eatery draw visitors by the boatload. They come to sample burgers, grouper sandwich and Key lime pie and to ogle, photograph – and add their share to – the “wallpaper”: an estimated $70,000 worth of signed one-dollar bills, plastered on the rafters, walls and beams. The tradition reportedly started in 1941 when a fisherman signed and taped his last dollar to the wall so he could return to drink another day.

Useppa Island

You’ll find fewer people – and equally intriguing legends – on neighboring Useppa Island, an ultra-upscale resort hideaway for croquet-playing, low-profile millionaires. Historically, it served as a refuge for Indians, pirates, soldiers and even CIA spies during the run-up to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

pollack.jpgLocated about 15 minutes beyond North Captiva Island, it can be reached, like Cabbage Key, only by boat or small plane. The storied, 100-acre private resort is car-free and so exclusive that non-members of the Useppa Island Club are limited to one overnight visit per year; day-trippers who arrive by excursion boat are welcome for sightseeing or lunch at the elegant Collier Inn.

Founded nearly a century ago as a sport-fishing retreat for advertising magnate Barron Collier, the historic hotel welcomed a who’s who of movie stars, presidents and high-rollers such as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Rothschilds. Many came to match wits with high-jumping tarpon in nearby Boca Grande Pass.

Visitors today duck into the island’s museum to see forensic restorations of the ancient “Useppa Man” and “Useppa Woman” and get an inside look at one of America’s proverbial skeletons in the closet, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.

Cayo Costa
About 15 minutes away, Cayo Costa is another barrier island – one of Florida’s largest uninhabited ones – accessible only by boat or ferry. Preserved as a state park, its miles of unspoiled beaches, acres of pine forests and mangrove swamps are a mecca for birders and shell-seekers. 

For nature-lovers, a popular stop on Sanibel Island is the 6,400-acre national wildlife refuge named for editorial cartoonist and environmentalist J.N. “Ding” Darling. www.dingdarling.fws.gov Visitors touring by car, tram or kayak may catch glimpses of more than 300 species of birds, fish, reptiles and other wildlife amid the sea-grass beds, marsh and mangrove forest.

Fort Myers
Back on the mainland, the Edison-Ford Winter Estates in downtown Fort Myers offers a fascinating look at two of the nation’s top inventor-entrepreneurs, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Guided tours of their adjoining homes on the Caloosahatchee River showcase lush gardens, a museum and the laboratory where Thomas Edison’s wide-ranging experiments included making natural rubber from goldenrod.

Kids can turn on actual lights designed by the famous inventor. And everyone stares, impressed, at the cot where Edison is said to have hatched an idea for a new invention nearly every time he awakened from a nap.

Where to Stay

If you want a convenient base from which to explore the area, try the Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa, which offers luxurious hotel or condo lodging, gorgeous pool facilities and Charley’s Cabana Bar, a lofty spot from which to sip cold drinks while watching the sun dip into the western sky. Room rates with water view start at $159 per night; ask about special packages. The spa, an oasis of pampering, features a smorgasbord of marine-related treatments and therapies.

Susan R. Pollack is a freelance travel writer in suburban Detroit.