Southwest Florida: Top Attractions

Southwest Florida
Gator spotted  (PhotoDisc)

Naples, Fort Myers, Captiva, Sanibel, and Marco Island in southwest Florida lure families with beautiful beaches and a range of resorts. On these barrier islands you can also find the natural Florida of estuaries, salt marshes, mangrove swamps, and stretches of undeveloped sandy beaches.

Captiva and Sanibel Islands
Captiva and Sanibel islands bring the classic pastimes of beach strolling and shell collecting to new heights. Shells—conchs, clams scallops and scores of others—wash up on the shores of these barrier islands by the waveful because of the land formations' east-west orientation. You can keep anything that doesn't have a live critter inside.
Captiva and Sanibel Islands: 239.472.1080, www.sanibel-captiva.org

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (Naples)
A two-and-a-quarter-mile boardwalk cuts through towering bald cypress thickets at this 11,000-acre preserve. Ferns feather the ground, birds chirp, and the ponds bloom with water lettuce. On your walk, keep an eye out for the endangered North American woodstorks that nest here as well as alligators and deer. Bring insect repellant. Entry is $10 for adults, $4 for those six to 18, and free for under-six-year-old tots
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: 239348.9151, www.audubon.org/local/sanctuary/corkscrew/

Babcock Wilderness Adventures (Fort Myers)
As the swamp buggy—a truck with seats and shade—winds through flatlands, cypress swamp, and prairie, a naturalist guide tells you about the 90,000-acre Crescent B Ranch and the surrounding wildlife. You're likely to pass alligators, turtles, bison, and, of course, cattle. And at the end of the tour, the guide just might haul out a baby 'gator for you to touch. Arrive early to browse the snake exhibit.
Babcock Wilderness Adventures: 800.500.5583, www.babcockwilderness.com

J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge (Fort Myers)
The footpaths through this 5,220-acre wildlife refuge are bordered by salt myrtles, cabbage palms, seagrapes, and other native trees just 15 miles southwest of Fort Myers. There's also a four-mile scenic drive, but a guided kayak trip may be the most fun. Paddling through the mangroves along Commodore Creek, you see pelicans, osprey, and herons, and learn about the sea squirts, seahorses, barnacles, and oysters that live in the estuary.
J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge: 239.472.1100, dingdarling.fws.gov

Captiva Cruises (Captiva Island)
Get out on the water and feel the wind in your face. On the dolphin cruise, you'll likely see these playful critters jumping in the boat's wake as you sail through Pine Island Sound. You might even see manatees. The Cayo Costa Beach and Shelling cruise takes you to undeveloped park beaches for swimming and shell collecting. Other outings go to Cabbage Key, Useppa Island and Boca Grande.
Captiva Cruises: 239.472.5300, www.captivacruises.com

Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Recreation Area
This state recreation area is a family-friendly haven on a barrier island that sports over a mile of white-sand beach and wonderful ecological treasures. In summer, Loggerhead turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, and from June through October, rangers on Wednesday mornings lead walks to search for nests or hatchlings. Bring the family and fish in Wiggins Pass or have a picnic at their many facilities.
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Recreation Area: 941.597.6196, www.paradisecoast.com

Imaginarium
Allow the family to dare to dream at Imaginarium, a hands-on museum best for ages four to ten where kids act the part of a television weatherperson, watch a moray eel slither in an aquarium, feel the force of a hurricane, and see swans, alligators, snakes, and turtles up close. This is a museum agglomeration of all that is cool to your kids. And who knows, you might find yourself acting the part as well.
Imaginarium: 239.3373332, www.cityftmyers.com/attractions/imaginarium.htm

10,000 Islands
Situated along the northwestern edge of Everglades National Park, the 10,000 Islands, easily reached from Marco Island, provide glimpses into the abundant and diverse flora and fauna native to the region. Freshwater from the Everglades mixes with saltwater from the Gulf, creating the mangrove estuaries of these barrier islands. Tour the 10,000 Islands with Florida Saltwater Adventures, an outfitter who guarantees that on their Coastal Eco trip from April 15 to November 15 you'll see manatees and dolphins. The tour is a private charter for a maximum of six people.
Florida Saltwater Adventures: 239.595.7495, www.floridasaltwateradventures.com

Everglades National Park
A mere 23 miles from Marco Island is the Gulf Coast Visitor Center of Everglades National Park, a 1.5-million-acre subtropical wilderness of mangrove swamps and saw-grass prairies cut by watery channels. These rivers of grass harbor alligators, herons, pelicans, and the endangered American crocodile and manatee. The easiest way to get a feel for the region is to take a boat or tram tour (airboats are not permitted in the national park). Bring water, sun block, insect repellant, and a hat—but most importantly, bring your enthusiasm for the outdoors.
Everglades National Park: 305.242.7700, www.nps.gov/ever

Fort Myers Skatium
Save the Fort Myers Skatium for a rainy day or a beastly hot one (which you're sure to have on your trip to Southwest Florida). Beat the boredom and the crankies and cool off by gliding on the indoor ice skating rink, open to the public at select times Friday through Sunday. You can also channel the sibling rivalry into a family Lazer Runner Laser Tag Game. Sprint for cover behind walls and barricades in a 3,000-square-foot battle room as you zap your sibling rivals with a laser gun. Afterwards, go out for pizza.
Fort Myers Skatium: 239.461.3145, www.fmskatium.org

Published: 8 Apr 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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