If you have only one day to explore all the wonders of the Sanibel Island area of Florida, is it even worth the effort? You bet. When I visited with my dad and stepmom, we had only one day to cover a lot of ground. Here are the best things to do in Sanibel Island, Fort Myers and Captiva Island Florida:
1. Tour the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers
2. Take a tram to see the birds at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island
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3. Look for dolphins on a cruise with a pit stop for dessert at The Bubble Room on Captiva Island.
Since we visited without kids, we easily could have spent much more time at any of these stops. Had we been visiting with kids, the few hours we had at each attraction likely would have seemed just about right. It’s always best to get in and out before kids get bored.
Fort Myers, Florida
Here’s a stunning fact: Thomas Edison, best known as the inventor of the light bulb, is the only American to have be awarded a new patent for 65 years in a row. That’s just one of the amazing things we learned during our far too short two-hour visit to his winter estate along the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers. Another stunner: One of Henry Ford’s first jobs was working as a mechanic at a company owned by Edison. Years later, Edison would become a mentor to the budding automaker and industrialist. Later, they would become neighbors along the river in Fort Myers.
While the Ford estate is recreated with period pieces, the Edison home looks as though he just left–and might return any moment. Everything from the china in the dining room to the test tubes in his lab remains.
I had hoped to join a guided tour—I always like to hear the stories told by guides and ask questions to elicit more information—but our limited time meant we had to settle for the self-guided tour. That is conducted by a recorded wand. Mine worked great and was really easy to use. My stepmom had more trouble with hers. My dad didn’t even bother with his, preferring to read the signs posted around the estate.
While there were some families with young kids visiting and listening to the recordings, I was glad not to be touring with kids in tow. There was too much to see, read and absorb. There were expansive lawns for kids to run on, but there was very little in the way of interactive features to keep them focused on the museum.
Time pressure meant we have to leave after two hours, but we did so reluctantly. We gave very short shrift to the museum and Edison’s lab, both of which deserved much more of our attention.
While the most popular attraction is the beach and its legendary shell collecting, we were headed to J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge for a tram tour. Luckily, we were visiting on a Sunday morning—a relatively slow time on the island because it’s the transition between visitors who headed home on Saturday and new arrivals who check in on Sunday.
That meant the drive in our Nissan Pathfinder from Fort Myers through the $6 toll and over the bridge to Sanibel took less time than we expected. So there was time for lunch.
We opted for a charming spot next door to Ding Darling: Doc Ford’s. I chose the spot because of its connection to a local writer, Randy Wayne White. Doc Ford is the name of the main character in his series of mystery novels. But the real reason to visit is the food. My fish sandwich was light and fluffy with just the right amount of spice to give it some heft. My dad’s burger was cooked to medium rare perfection—just the way he likes it—and my stepmom’s chicken sandwich was fresh and tasty. We ate on the patio—a rare treat for a Chicagoan in February. On the way out, I bought a copy of Sanibel Flats, White’s first novel starring Doc Ford.
Next, it was on to the tram tour of the wildlife refuge. The “tram” was an open-air bus with not terribly comfortable seats. (Please note: While it might be tempting to opt for the tram if you are traveling with mobility-impaired companions, the three steps up to the tram are steep and could be a challenge.)
Our guide, Barry, was an amiable and knowledgeable New Jersey transplant who “failed at retirement” after moving south to make his home on Sanibel. After a few years as a retiree/volunteer at the refuge, he took a job as a tram driver/naturalist. His knowledge of the refuge’s extensive bird population was impressive and his delivery engaging—the two prerequisites of a good tour guide.
While the refuge is all about birds, it was the facts about the mangrove trees we found most fascinating. The trees, which share one, massive root system, are the only plants that can live in salt water. There are three kinds of mangroves—black, red and white—each named for the color of the water after a rainfall. In addition, each kind has a different way of dealing with the salt water. The most interesting? The white mangrove tree, which excretes the salt through its leaves. I know. I tasted it.
After the tram tour, we headed back to the car for the drive to Captiva, where we were booked for the 4pm dolphin watching cruise aboard Captiva Cruise’s Lady Chadwick. At first, it looked like the 90-minute tour would be a bust. There wasn’t a dolphin in sight. Try as he might, the captain could not spot even one off of Captiva Island. But then, just as we were about to give up and head back to the dock, the dolphins arrived. A small family of them jumped and frolicked in the froth churned up by the boat’s propeller.
It doesn’t matter how many times I see these majestic creatures, they never fail to make me smile.