SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
Have your kids ever found a whole, live seashell? You know, the kind with little critters still living inside? If not, they're in for a real treat on Florida's Gulf Coast.
No more buckets of broken shards. No more imagining what a full scallop shell really looks like. On Sanibel, they can actually find and hold perfect conches, starfish, and sea urchins -- of the quality you'd see in a picture book.
More than 200 varieties of shells wash up on these shores each day. There's so much to see above and below the water, visitors must complain of sore backs from hunching over as they search for hidden treasures.
Between winter baseball, wildlife, and Thomas Edison's legacy, there are enough activities on Sanibel and at nearby Fort Myers Beach to keep everyone happy for at least a week.
This world-class shelling destination is easy to get to -- Sanibel Island's connected to Fort Myers by a three-mile causeway, which itself is worth the trip. Your biggest decision will be picking a place to let your little scavengers loose.
Locals say the best beach for shelling is Blind Pass, located between Sanibel and Captiva Islands (on the Captiva side it's known as Turner Beach). But watch the undertow when swimming there. Gulfside Park, with its boardwalk and shade trees, is another favorite. Both beaches have public parking and bathrooms. Go during high and low tide, especially after a winter storm. But remember: It's against the law to collect live shells, and that includes sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins. Make sure the little critter inside is gone (or at least dead) before plopping it onto your pile.
Not sure exactly what you've found on the beach? Bring your collection to The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the only shell museum in the United States, with huge displays and experts on hand to identify your pickings. If you're visiting in March, check out the Sanibel Shell Fair, where you'll see live shells with creatures still squirming inside, and shell crafts on display.
For a change of pace, take the family to J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which occupies more than half the island. There's a lot of local wildlife here. You may even spot an alligator! Inhabitants include 50 types of reptiles, 291 species of birds, and more than 32 different kinds of mammals. Explore by car, bike, or foot (maps are distributed at the visitor center). Or take a narrated tram, canoe, or kayak tour.
If you plan to stay on Sanibel overnight, be forewarned: Beautiful places don't come without a price; room rates can be expensive during high season.
On a budget? Head to Fort Myers Beach (13 miles south of Fort Myers on Estero Island). Teens will like the lively scene (a welcome change from Sanibel's upscale setting) including T-shirt shops, inexpensive restaurants, and water sports (including para-sailing and Waverunners). Hotel rooms are generally more affordable than on Sanibel. And wide, gradually sloping beaches and gentle tides are ideal for tots.
Fort Myers is also bustling with family-friendly attractions:
Before leaving town, check out The Shell Factory. Okay, we're talking very touristy. But this shop-museum-attraction less than 15 minutes away in North Fort Myers is an institution in these parts. There's a huge collection of shells, two aquarium tanks filled with fish, an alligator cove, and at night, dancing-light fountains. You can pluck your own pearls from Japanese oysters, ride the bumper boats, or hit the video arcade. And of course, there's plenty of stuff to buy.
At Manatee Park, you can see endangered West Indian manatees, or "sea cows," in their natural habitat from viewing platforms. The creatures move upriver in warmer months, so catch them from November to March. The park also has a butterfly garden and picnic areas, as well as kayak rentals in season.
Type of travel: Nature, outdoor, educational, sports
Best ages: 3 and up
Distances (to Fort Myers): Miami (148 miles); Orlando (167 miles); Tampa (134 miles)
Ideal trip length: Weekend to one week.
Best time to go: Winter. May to January is best time for affordable hotel rates.
Weather: 70/50 degrees in winter; 90/70 degrees in summer
Lodging: If you're looking for a last-minute bargain, click on the Hot Deals section at the Lee Island Coast Visitor & Convention Bureau's Web site.
Squirm factor: Some
Blind Pass/Turner Beach Off Sanibel-Captiva Rd.; Gulfside Park, off Casa Ybel Rd. Phone: Sanibel Recreation Department, 941-472-6477 Parking at both
Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Rd. Phone: 941-395-2233
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge Sanibel-Captiva Rd. (Mile Marker 2) Phone: 941-472-1100 (park), 941-472-8900 (canoe and kayak tours)
Red Sox City of Palms Park, 2201 Edison Ave. Phone: 941-334-4700
Minnesota Twins Lee County Sports Complex, Six Mile Cypress Rd. (between Daniels Pkwy and US 41) Phone: 800-33-TWINS
Edison Winter Estate 2350 McGregor Blvd. Phone: 888-377-9475
Imaginarium Hands-On Museum & Aquarium 2000 Cranford Ave. Phone: 941-337-3332
Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium 3450 Ortiz Blvd. Phone: 941-275-3435Outside Town:
The Shell Factory 2787 N. Tamiami Tr., North Fort Myers Phone: 239-995-2141
Manatee Park State Road 80, 1.5 miles east of I-75 at exit 25 Phone: 941-432-2004 Note: Optimum viewing is November to March.More Information:
Lee Island Coast Visitor & Convention Bureau Phone: 888-231-6933
Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce
Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce
Sanibel & Captiva Chamber of Commerce Phone: 941-472-1080
Favorite local spot: The Hungry Heron, 2330 Palm Ridge Rd., Sanibel, 239-395-2300. This local eatery broadcasts the Disney Channel on monitors throughout the restaurant and has a full kids' menu.
Annual events: Festival of Light The highlight of this celebration honoring Thomas Edison is a nighttime parade with floats decked out in Edison's most famous invention -- the lightbulb.
Sanibel Shell Fair Sanibel Community Center, Periwinkle Way.
Best souvenirs: Shells and shell items (like jewelry), oranges and grapefruits, locally-made Tervis tumblers (insulated cups for hot or cold drinks).
Look at those teeth! Your kids will squeal with delight when alligators open wide during a 90-minute swamp buggy tour of Babcock Wildlife Adventures. Panthers, bison, and a variety of birds also put on a show during this jaunt through the woods and waters of Telegraph Cypress Swamp, narrated by a trained naturalist. Also available: Off-road bike tours. Babcock Wildlife Adventures 8000 State Rd. 31, Punta Gorda, about 20-30 minutes east of downtown Fort Meyers Phone: 800-500-5583 Note: Reservations required
Reviewed April 2004.