Planning a Family Trip to Fort Myers and Sanibel Island
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As a gateway to some of Florida’s favorite beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, the riverfront city of Fort Myers lures family travelers with the promise of year-round sunshine, sand, shells and typically mild seas. As full-time residents, my family has learned, however, that Fort Myers, its islands and neighboring communities hold charms much deeper than the obvious. Here are our tips about getting the most out of your visit to the Fort Myers area:
How to Get There
Fort Myers is home to Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW), about a 45-minute drive southeast of downtown. Many major airlines service RSW, including Delta, American, United, Air Canada, WestJet and several low-cost carriers such as Frontier in winter season (remember to take advantage of its Kids Fly Free promo).
Public transportation, taxis and ride-sharing exist from the airport, but those intending to do any sightseeing beyond walking distance from their accommodations typically rent a vehicle. Avid cyclists could get by without a car, particularly those staying on Sanibel Island, where there is 20 miles of a shared-use path. Reach Sanibel Island via a toll ($6 for coming on island, free to leave) causeway; Captiva lies across a short bridge on Sanibel’s north end. Fort Myers Beach, south of the causeway to Sanibel, is most directly accessed by its own (free) high bridge.
Most families arriving to RSW head to Sanibel Island, Captiva Island or Fort Myers Beach. Sanibel is known worldwide for its seashells, thickly strewn across natural sand beaches lapped by safe waters. It also holds a number of nature attractions such as the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. The casual restaurant scene and a bounty of condo resorts make families feel welcome. Captiva tends to be higher-end and quieter, but boasts a couple of well regarded family destination resorts like South Seas Island Resort and ‘Tween Waters. Fort Myers Beach on Estero Island, the most affordable of the three, gets a little wild around spring break, but otherwise caters specifically to families who love playing in and around the water.
In Fort Myers, the downtown River District is the hub of activity for historic attractions, theater and art, casual restaurants and year-round street festivals such as the monthly ArtWalk and MusicWalk. Hotels are currently sparse, but more are coming. Across the river, Cape Coral has a sprawling suburban feel with one large marina destination resort, the region’s only public water park, a river-beach park and nature and recreational attractions.
Bonita Springs and Naples
Visitors to the towns of Bonita Springs and Naples, both south of Fort Myers, also fly into RSW. Their upscale resorts, lovely beaches, superlative shopping and art, and relative proximity to the Florida Everglades also make them nice choices for vacationing families who want to go a little further down the coast.
Best Points Hotels in Fort Myers Area for Families
Our favorite local accommodations in the Fort Myers area are the island beachfront resorts, where sand and sea stretch right outside the door. Others on the mainland offer convenience to metropolitan amenities and attractions. Points hotels are easier to find on the mainland, especially IHG and Marriott properties, which are among the best hotel chains for families.
One of the island properties that has awards available to hold the whole family is the Wyndham Garden, with a beachfront so sandy and soft that it hosts the annual American Sandsculpting Championship every November. The rooms offer family conveniences such as free Wi-Fi, a mini refrigerator and a microwave. There are pools and a restaurant on site, plus the Wyndham is close to other family-friendly restaurants. Rates start at 15k points per night or $111 per night plus 3k points.
Located not on the island but on the mainland side of the causeway, this full-service resort regularly wins kudos for its family-friendliness. Earn Marriott points while enjoying its full complement of restaurants, including a dining yacht, water sports, pools, trails and a small beach. Rates start at $234 or 35k Marriott points per night. It could be a good place to use the up to 35k free-night certificate you get on the card anniversary of the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.
Only a 15-minute drive to Sanibel and a five-minute drive to Bunche Beach on the mainland, the Residence Inn’s two-queen (plus sofa bed), one-bedroom suites offer the convenience of a full kitchen, and there’s a grocery store within walking distance. Complimentary Wi-Fi and hot breakfast figure into rates starting at $126 or 25k Marriott points per night.
The resort doesn’t have a beach, but does provide a shuttle to Fort Myers Beach, as well as watersports rentals and excursions on the Caloosahatchee River. Restaurants and pools complete the family amenities. It’s within walking distance to the Rotary Park Environmental Center with its butterfly house, playground and burrowing owl population. We appreciate its wide accommodations inventory, which ranges from traditional guest rooms to three-bedroom units. Only the double guest rooms usually allow use of Marriott points, starting at 35k points or $136 per night. If you need more Marriott points, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to your Marriott account on a 1:1 basis.
Convenient to the airport, this hotel lives in a shopping-entertainment complex where families can walk to stores, restaurants and movie theaters. It offers shuttle service to the airport and around the area, plus has a pool, restaurant and free Wi-Fi. Rates start at $98 per night, IHG Rewards Club points redemption starts at 35K per night. Remember that if you have the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, your fourth award night is free.
South of Fort Myers, families can find one of the region’s most lauded family resorts, complete with its own waterpark and semiprivate island beach. Its sprawling campus includes golf courses, a climbing wall, extensive water sports and diverse dining options. A family of four can choose from two queen beds or a king bed with sleeper sofa. Balconies and mini refrigerators are standard equipment. Use your Hyatt points to pay starting at 20k per night or to upgrade to club level. Here’s why getting the World of Hyatt Credit Card makes total sense before your next family vacation.
Best Hotels on Sanibel-Captiva for Families
If your family is intent upon an island vacation, points aside, Sanibel and Captiva offer a good variety of destination resorts with full-service amenities, plus a number of beach cottage properties we love for their sand-between-the-toes casual feel.
Sanibel’s strong eco-mindedness and strict density and building codes mean you will pay more for accommodations, groceries and gifts, but keep in mind you can save on eating out at the many self-catering resorts, and resort parking is almost always free.
Sundial suits families with a room inventory that ranges from studio to three-bedroom units, all with stocked kitchens and spacious floor plans. Perfect Sanibel Island days start at the beach and beachfront family pool, with its slide and tiki bar and grill. The resort’s kids program concentrates on the environment, with an on-site nature center with touch tank. Water sports and bicycle rentals, tennis and pickleball courts on-property and golf privileges nearby keep the family active and engaged. Rates start around $150 per night for a family of four.
The Gulf Breeze is one of my all-time favorite spots on the islands. I love its off-the-flipflop-path location on Sanibel Island, its slightly funky Florida vibe and the barefoot, easy island feel. Charming cottages, efficiencies and duplexes are fully equipped and the use of beach toys and a seashell-cleaning table are complimentary. Rates start around $240 per night for four people.
Captiva Island’s oldest property, ‘Tween Waters has evolved since the early 1900s from cottage accommodations to include standard-issue hotel rooms and suites. As its name suggests, it’s caught between beach-side and bay-side, where it maintains a full marina. Watch for birds and manatees hanging around the docks. Two pools, tennis courts and a selection of restaurants complete its family-friendly amenities. Rates start at $166 per night for families; check the website or subscribe to its e-newsletter for free night and other promotions year-round.
This sprawling, gated complex is the region’s ultimate destination resort, with accommodations from hotel rooms to beach homes. The 330-acre spread at the north end of Captiva satisfies every vacation whim with a 2.5-mile beach, fishing pier, marina, nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, restaurants and bars, kids programs and shopping. Family-sized villas start at $319 per night. To get included breakfast and a property credit, consider booking via the Luxury Hotel and Resort Collection open to Chase cardholders.
Christmas through Easter is high season in Southwest Florida, when rates and traffic peak. Add the heightened density from the region’s temporary “snowbird” population and getting around, especially on the islands, can become challenging. Avoid rush hours in the morning and afternoon, when traffic can come to a standstill on the islands. Get to the beaches early to ensure a parking spot, or use alternative transportation, such as bicycles on Sanibel and beach trolleys on Fort Myers Beach.
The highest of high season kicks in Presidents Day weekend, when the area’s biggest festival, the Edison Festival of Light, takes place. Spring break brings another influx starting in March.
The second weekend in March, the Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Festival is another biggie for families and seafood-lovers. Sanibel celebrates its reputation for beachcombing with the annual Shell Festival early in the month. Spring training season for the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins also brings a swell of visitors in late February through March.
Summer ushers in another busy season. High temps and humidity pull rates and crowds down somewhat, and the threat of hurricanes has to be watched. But for families who love being in and around the water, the lower rates make it worth the summer swelter, and hurricanes usually come with ample advance warning.
Once school starts up again, fall becomes ideal for families with preschool children. October translates into pleasant climes and the lowest rates of the year in many cases. Mid-October, “Ding” Darling Day on Sanibel Island includes free daylong nature activities for families, and November’s American Sandsculpting Championship on Fort Myers Beach redefines “playing in the sand.”
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Florida’s Gulf Coast — especially in the Ft. Myers region — is a great bet for families that are tired of the theme parks in Central Florida or the sometimes swanky beach resorts of South Florida. Here you’ll find family-friendly lodging and plenty of natural wonders to explore. To keep within your budget, consider spreading your stay in the region around to take advantage of points and discounts at chains on the mainland, or plan your stay for lower traffic times.
Featured image by author.
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