Discover the cultural heritage of Fort Myers & Sanibel
Beachcomb where seashells shaped history
It’s no secret that The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is among the best in the world for shell collecting. What isn’t as well known among visitors is the integral role that shells played in the lives and culture of the Calusa, the Native American people who first inhabited the Southwest Florida coast. Widely called the “Shell Indians,” the Calusa recognized that shells were a sturdy and sustainable resource for building tools and weapons, crafting jewelry, and even engineering landscapes. To survive sea-level rises and other threats, the Calusa lived atop tall “shell mounds” shaped from piles of shells, bones and other discarded objects.
On Estero Island, learn about complex Calusa society and explore a 2,000-year-old shell mound on a guided Mound House tour. On Pine Island, discover the various ways the Calusa used scavenged seashells by walking the self-guided Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center. To take part in the ancient shell collecting tradition, visit Sanibel Island beachcombing spots like Blind Pass, Bowman’s Beach, and Lighthouse Beach Park an hour before or after low tide to see what treasures have rolled up on shore. Download the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum app to identify your shell keepsakes.
Paddle waterways of the ancient past
Retrace routes followed by Southwest Florida’s original fishermen, the indigenous Calusa, by kayaking, paddleboarding, or boating along the Great Calusa Blueway. Sometimes referred to as the “water people,” the Calusa used dugout canoes to travel water trails along coastal and inland waters hundreds of years before the first Spanish explorers ‘discovered’ the Gulf of Mexico coast. The Blueway named in the Calusa’s honor flows 190 miles through three distinct regions: Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound and Matlacha Pass, and the Caloosahatchee River and its tributaries.
Exploring any section of the Blueway offers a glimpse into the ancient world of the Calusa, access to secluded natural areas, and abundant wildlife viewing opportunities. Take a closer look at Calusa life and a sampling of Blueway wildlife—such as manatees, dolphins, and birds—on a guided boat tour of Estero Bay. Hosted by Mound House on Fort Myers Beach, the trip stops at two Calusa sites: Mound House and remote Mound Key Archaeological State Park, capital of the Calusa. At the park, hike to the top of two steep shell mounds, living remnants of Southwest Florida’s ancient civilization.
Find inspiration on an island of art
Tiny Matlacha (pronounced mat-la-SHAY) blends the laid-back, neighborhood look and feel of Old Florida with the creative flair of a thriving arts community. The manmade island was created in the 1920s with fill dirt from the dredging of Matlacha Pass. Squatters displaced by the Great Depression were the first settlers, followed by commercial fishermen who built Matlacha’s reputation as a fishing village. Following the 1992 banning of gillnets, which can entangle sea turtles and a wide variety of marine mammals, Matlacha reinvented itself as a renowned arts hub.
The island’s three-block-long main thoroughfare, SW Pine Island Road, is a riot of color with pastel-painted wooden shacks, Old Florida bungalows, and eye-popping wall murals lining both sides of the streets. Most of the decades-old structures house quirky-cool galleries, studios, shops, and restaurants. Don't miss the pink-roofed Lovegrove Gallery and Gardens—the international headquarters of the artist credited with creating Matlacha’s bright, bold signature look and fanciful vibe.
Feast on the daily fresh catch
Southwest Florida chefs serve up a bounty of straight-from-the-docks seafood dishes. Whether at a laid-back fish shack or waterfront restaurant, most local menus feature wild-caught, sustainable options like grouper, mahi-mahi, snapper, and the sweetest, local seafood staple—pink shrimp. Nicknamed “pink gold” by the fishermen who first harvested the indigenous crustacean in the 1950s, pink shrimp helped launch the thriving Fort Myers commercial fishing industry.
San Carlos Island, which sits between the mainland and Fort Myers Beach, is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in the Gulf. Learn about the San Carlos shrimping heritage on a three-hour, Working Waterfront Tour hosted by the Ostego Bay Foundation’s Marine Science Center and led by a local historian and Florida Master Naturalist. To soak in the sights, sounds, and aromas of the commercial shrimping industry on your own, walk along the waterfront and watch the fishermen unload their cargo. Next, head to the nearest fish house to try some “pink gold” steamed in the shell or lightly, battered and fried.
Reel in a big one in a fisherman’s paradise
A true fish tale established The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel as a sport fishing destination in the late 1800s. The monster catch credited with luring the first waves of anglers to Southwest Florida was a 93-pound Atlantic tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) landed by William Halsey Wood at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River in 1885. Tarpon, commonly called silver kings due to their flashy silver scales, are the heavyweight fighters of the underwater world. The biggest weigh nearly 300 pounds and catching and releasing one is an adrenaline-pumping test of strength, endurance, and skill. Wood’s 1885 catch was particularly impressive since it is considered the first-ever large tarpon caught on rod and reel in Sanibel Island’s aptly named Tarpon Bay.
The same temperate waters and nutrient-rich mangrove ecosystems that sustain giant tarpon teem with a dazzling array of fish. Go with an expert guide or charter boat captain to find the day’s best inshore, offshore, or freshwater fishing holes. Depending on the tides, moon phases, and location, you could reel in sought-after fish like grouper, mackerel, redfish, snook, spotted sea trout, mangrove snapper, and shark. To try your luck any time of day, cast a line off Matlacha’s “fishingest bridge in the U.S.,” so named for the abundance of fish in the tidal waters below.
Experience the vintage charms of Old Florida
Travel back to the elegance and tranquility of the early 1900s in places where Old Florida architecture and traditions are cherished and preserved. The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is home to some of Florida’s earliest remaining resort hotels. Built to accommodate prominent winter guests and wealthy anglers from points north, these historic hotels, lodges, and landmarks embody the best of Old Florida.
Get a glimpse into the area’s past at The Gasparilla Inn & Club, founded in 1911 on Gasparilla Island. With its period cottages and main inn, manicured croquet lawn, and dress code, the resort evokes the refined style of an earlier era. At the more rustic Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island, stay in the original main house, built in 1926, to experience the laid-back charms of a waterfront, fishing resort. Although Useppa, a private island club built in the 1920s as an exclusive sport fishing getaway, isn’t open to the public, you can visit on a lunch cruise with Captiva Cruises. In addition to purchasing lunch at Useppa’s historic Collier Inn, cruise passengers can tour the Barbara Sumwalt History Museum, where exhibits illustrate the island’s history from the present day back more than 10,000 years.
Celebrate 75 years of a world-class wildlife refuge
Pioneer conservationist and political cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling helped lead the effort to create the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. Renamed the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge in his honor in 1967, the 6,400-acre refuge is a birding hotspot, providing habitat to over 245 bird species. Late October to April is the best time to see the “Ding” Darling big five: American white pelican, mangrove cuckoo, reddish egret, roseate spoonbill, and yellow-crowned night-heron. In addition to birds, the refuge is home to wild populations of iconic Florida animals, such as American alligators, manatees, and gopher tortoises, the state’s only native tortoise.
While its wealth of wild things is impressive, what makes “Ding” Darling particularly appealing are the myriad ways visitors can engage with nature. Wildlife sightings are guaranteed along the aptly named Wildlife Drive (closed Fridays), a four-mile loop you can travel by car, bike, guided tram tour, or on foot. To explore even more of the refuge—part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States—walk one of the three trails accessible from the drive or take a naturalist-guided stand-up paddleboard tour through Tarpon Bay.
Taste local foods rooted in farm and ranch traditions
Ranching and agricultural roots run deep in Southwest Florida. For much of the 19th century, Punta Rassa, the gateway to Sanibel Island, served as a major port for shipping cattle to the Florida Keys, Cuba, and the West Indies. Cattle trails throughout Florida led to the port, bringing cowmen and their herds from across the state to Fort Myers. In addition to cattle, the area was home to inland pineapple plantations and, in the late 1800s, homesteaders on Sanibel and Captiva lived off the land. The islands’ farm families grew vegetables—including eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and watermelon—to eat and to ship north to market.
Savor the fruits of the area’s agricultural heritage at the growing number of sustainable farms and farm-to-table restaurants. At 100-acre Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm in North Fort Myers, reservations are required to indulge in a bountiful lunch primarily prepared with farm-raised or homegrown ingredients like grass-fed beef, organic eggs, heirloom tomatoes, and Thai ginger. Although Rosy Tomorrows is temporarily closed due the Covid-19 pandemic, each week they are offering a takeaway grocery box of fresh produce from their farm and a selection from local artisans and farmers. Buckingham Farms, an 80-acre ranch and hydroponic farm in Fort Myers, combines down-home charm and homegrown food. Tuesdays to Saturdays, sit on the covered porch or at a picnic table for a no-frills, farm-fresh breakfast or lunch.
Follow in the footsteps of legendary figures
Fort Myers’ namesake fort was built in 1850 during the Seminole Indian Wars. Yet, the name most closely associated with Fort Myers’ evolution from a sleepy fishing town to world-class vacation destination is Tootie McGregor. A wealthy, civic-minded maverick, McGregor helped lay the foundation in the early 1900s for the city’s future expansion and economic growth. Her innumerable civic contributions include donating the land for the Fort Myers Country Club, buying and building hotels, and funding multiple infrastructure projects. The greatest of these (which, she didn’t live to see completed) was construction of the city’s first hard-surface road—grand and palm-lined McGregor Boulevard.
The boulevard’s granite, palm tree monument to McGregor, located in front of the Country Club, makes an apt starting point for learning about the people who shaped Fort Myers. Tour the meticulously restored Edison and Ford Winter Estates to discover the city’s connection to visionaries Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. For an in-depth look at the historic downtown, take the 90-minute True Tours River District History Tour (due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the tours are currently suspended, but plan to reopen in October 2020).
Honor African-American culture and history
Housed in first government-funded school for African-American students in Fort Myers, the Williams Academy Black History Museum honors the resilience and cultural contributions of the city’s African-American community. Museum exhibits tell the story of Fort Myers’ oldest predominantly black churches—all more than a century old—and of historic black-owned buildings and prominent African-American figures. Among the notables are the Union soldiers of the 2nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry who fought in the Civil War Battle of Fort Myers, the only Union fort in peninsular Florida.
Tour the museum to see historic photographs and artifacts and learn about the past and present African-American experience in Fort Myers. One of the most compelling exhibits is a replica 1940s classroom where you can learn about racial disparities in educational opportunities in the segregated South. The museum is located in Fort Myers’ historic Dunbar community, however, it is currently closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For a firsthand look at 10 significant black history sites showcased in the museum, download the free Florida Stories app and follow the narrated Fort Myers Dunbar Cultural Landmarks Tour route.