How can a last-minute beach vacation during the summer peak be a great deal, and great fun?
If you are willing to think outside the mid-Atlantic seaboard (you know – the Delaware Beaches, Ocean City, Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks, and farther down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina), you should consider the Gulf Coast of Florida. We took a spur of the moment family vacation to the area after rediscovering an Our Kids review about Fort Myers Florida. Although Ft. Myers sounds like a lot of fun, we found a great deal and opted to travel about 15 minutes west and stay on Sanibel Island, a twenty-five mile long barrier island connected to Fort Myers by a causeway.
Secret #1: A trip to Florida’s South Gulf Coast beaches, which include Fort Myers and Sanibel as well as Bonita Springs, Naples, and Marco Island to the south, are an easy 2-hour flight from DC to RSW (Southwest Florida International Airport). All told, even with a drive to the airport and check-in, your total travel time is likely to beat a trip to the Outer Banks at this time of year. Just sayin’ it is something to consider.
Secret #2: Most people think, why go to Florida when it’s already so hot in DC during the summer. We’re here to say that temperatures aren’t any hotter in Florida than in DC plus you’re generally afforded the luxury of cooler gulf breezes. OK, is can get outright tropical when there is no breeze, but the water feels awesome, and the sky is beautiful. August (as well as July, September and October) is the off-season in Southern Florida.
Florida’s beach towns are the busiest from January through April, when northerners fleeing winter weather fly south by the tens of thousands. Schools in much of the South are already back in session. (A notable exception is Virginia, home of the “King’s Dominion Law” that mandates the school year start after Labor Day). On the other hand, we encountered several families from Europe who were spending what might be the last of their Euros on their traditional August holiday.
Secret #3. Right size your beach place! If you are looking for a place for a big family reunion or neighborhood friends, then price of plane tickets makes the Florida alternative omnicompetent with a big house you could get here. On the other hand, if you can fit your group into a smaller place, the numbers might work. We rented a two bedroom condominium, which was perfect for our family of four. It had a complete, well-stocked kitchen, washer/dryer, two bathrooms, living and dining room plus the room we spent most of our time in – a beautiful screened in lanai.
The condo faced the gulf of Mexico and is was lovely to hear the gentle ocean waves. The complex also had a pool, which was well-maintained and heated just right. We rented the condo directly from the owner (#227 at Sand Pointe), but you can also rent many other properties on the island through one of the local rental agencies. Most condo complexes we looked at offer pools, which are a nice stop on the way back from the beach. Our kids insisted on a game of monkey in the middle each time we came back from the beach.
The one thing that we as first-timers did have to adjust to was not being able to bring a bunch of food (spices especially) in the back of the van, as we would on a beach trip from the DC area. Next time we’ll check with TSA to see which spices are approved for air travel.
Beaches and Bikes
Sanibel Island bills itself as the sea shell capital of the world, and based on what we found, we’d have to agree. Temperatures were in the upper 80’s pretty much every day and the water temperature was in the high seventies. I am typically always cold when I get into water, but didn’t hesitate getting into the ocean or pool here. Temperatures were just right. Fun fact: more than two thirds of Sanibel Island is wildlife refuge, conservation area, or otherwise protected land. At the center of it all is the 7500 acre “Ding Darling” National Wildlife Refuge, home to an amazing assortment of birds, fish, and reptiles.
Typically we would spend a few hours at the beach, head back into they do for a break and lunch and the head back out to the pool for some more fun. We literally spent a week walking along the beach for hours looking at wildlife. We saw loads of birds, seashells, dune grasses, various types of palm trees and other ocean creatures. We came across a bed of sand dollars, got to see a 9-legged starfish as well as learn lots of names of shells.
To break things up a bit we rented bikes from Billy’s Bikes and Rental, opting for a three day rental period (you can rent by the hour, day, week, etc.). One day we biked to dinner, the next we went on an 11-mile trek to the National Wildlife Refuge and on the third day we biked to the south point of the island to the lighthouse, celebrating with some scoops at Pinocchio’s ice cream.
Biking was so “doable” for families because of the island’s extensive network of trails, nearly all along side the principal two lane roads. Drivers on Sanibel are attentive to (and seem forgiving of) the younger bikers weaving around on the trails, and wait patiently for families to cross the road to continue on the trails. The trails are so convenient that we even mused that taking a cab to the island, then renting bikes for the week and avoiding a car altogether, was within the realm of the possible.
Other than beach-combing, relaxing and riding bikes, we also went out to dinner. Our top pick is The Island Cow and would definitely recommend a stop by for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We also took a short drive to Captiva Island where we dined at The Mucky Duck.
The food was average, but the view is killer! Go early and then hang around for sunset like we did, you won’t be disappointed.
There are also several cute shops throughout the area worth checking out and would make for a perfect visit on a rainy day. Note: we stayed for a week and it rained once at night. However, some folks we chatted with who come every year say typically Sanibel gets an afternoon storm each day and then the sun comes out to play again.
What to Bring
- Sunscreen and water are a must. The sun is stronger here and you won’t realize it if there is a nice breeze.
- Bags or other containers to bring home some shells. We reused some containers that we had (yogurt containers primarily) and improvised.
- Bathing suits! Definitely recommend that you bring more than one since you’ll spend so much time in the water.
- Our condo rental came with linens so we had plenty of towels to use at the beach, check into what your accommodations offer so you don’t have to bring towels from home.
- Bug spray: apparently no-see-ums are rampant here. We were blessed in that for most of our stay there was enough of a breeze, it kept those little buggers away. However on the last day there was no breeze and I was the lucky recipient of some annoying bites.
Sanibel Island is the perfect, low-key spot for a family vacation. We already plan on heading back in the coming years.