Beaches / Funky / Southwest Florida

Fort Myers Beach: Old school beach town, on the cusp of change

Things to do on Fort Myers Beach, laid-back, long-time favorite

The beach at Fort Myers Beach is wide, flat and concrete hard, you can ride a bike on it (in the morning, before it gets crowded.) (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Things to do on Fort Myers Beach: It all starts with the beach, which is wide, flat with sand packed so hard you can ride a bike on it. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Fort Myers Beach is a throwback to an era of unpretentious beach towns with funky bars, a commercial center with T-shirt shops and ice cream parlors, and an evening scene with live music and street performers.

The beach at Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The beach at Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There is nothing sophisticated about Fort Myers Beach.

It has been updated and enhanced with lighting, landscaping and paving stone sidewalks, and the atmosphere is wholesome and lively. But there are still plenty of beat-up wooden buildings painted neon pastel colors. (I thought the ethos was captured in the T-shirt shop whose main sign was “Henna Tattoos Live Turtles.” )

Spotted at low tide along the sandy shallows of Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Spotted at low tide along the sandy shallows of Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

But one reason Fort Myers Beach hasn’t changed much lately is because it has been on hold. In recent years, it has been poised for a big downtown redevelopment project.

While a previous proposal didn’t win favor, the proposal under consideration now involves six acres from the base of the Matanzas Bridge to the beach, where TPI Hospitality wants to build a 292-room resort hotel, water park, restaurants, stores and more.

This development, located in the downtown Times Square area around the pier, could remake Fort Myers Beach forever.

For now, though, Fort Myers Beach seems like old school Old Florida.

You reach Fort Myers Beach, a city located on the barrier island of Estero,  either taking the Matanzas Pass Bridge west from Fort Myers or, from the south, via Bonita Springs and the Bonita Beach Causeway.

The appeal of Fort Myers Beach starts, of course, with the fabulous beach.  Wide, flat and concrete hard, you can ride a bike on it (in the morning, before it gets crowded.) It’s a shallow beach great for children and swimming.

My favorite thing was walking at low tide and finding so much sea life – sand dollars, a sea star, lots of live shells.

The other key asset of Fort Myers Beach are numerous restaurants and bars built right along the beach. We loved having dinner outdoors, with our feet in the sand, hearing the sound of the surf. (And we had good seafood, too, at the Salty Crab Bar & Grill, 1154 Estero Blvd.)

Downtown Fort Myers Beach is compact and walkable, and it is an entertaining stroll in the evenings. Sunset attracts crowds around the free pier. Nearby, the Time Square area is busy with street performers, music and strolling families. On a weeknight in April there were at least a half dozen live performers at various open-air bars, each with a good crowd of fans.

Fort Myers Beach and its popular fishing pier. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Fort Myers Beach and its popular fishing pier. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Things to do around Fort Myers Beach

The view at Bowditch Point Park in Fort Myers Beach: That's a shrimp boat heading out into the Gulf. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The view at Bowditch Point Park in Fort Myers Beach: That’s a shrimp boat heading out into the Gulf. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Bowditch Point Park

At the northern tip of the barrier island, there’s a great little county park, Bowditch Point. The point overlooks a wide body of water, across from which you see the causeway and Sanibel Island.

It's easy to spot gopher tortoises at Bowditch Point Park in Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

It’s easy to spot gopher tortoises at Bowditch Point Park in Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

It’s a beautiful one-mile walk along the beach from the Fort Myers Beach pier area to Bowditch Point. At the park, you’ll find picnic tables and benches, where we watched pleasure boats and shrimp boats coming and going from the harbor.

There’s a lot of nature to observe. We watched osprey catch fish and magnificent frigate birds soar overhead. Lots of shorebirds rushed around the beach. This park also has a large population of gopher tortoises, who are easy to spot.

The Mound House in Fort Myers Beach is not only its oldest home but is also the site of major shell mound built by the Calusa indians. A first-class museum has opened here. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Mound House in Fort Myers Beach is not only its oldest home but is also the site of major shell mound built by the Calusa indians. A first-class museum opened here in 2015. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Mound House

The oldest house in Fort Myers Beach, with portions built in 1906, is now a museum, but it’s more than your typical “pioneer house.”

Mound House is built on a mound of shells, bones and pottery shards left by the Calusa Indians, and I think it’s the best place in Florida to learn about these indigenous people who thrived on the Gulf Coast’s bounty.

At the Mound House in Fort Myers Beach, a Calusa shell mound is exposed and lights mark layers archaeologists have identified. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

At the Mound House in Fort Myers Beach, a Calusa shell mound is exposed and lights mark layers archaeologists have identified. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Located overlooking Estero Bay in a residential neighborhood, the Mound House is operated by the town of Fort Myers Beach. Even if you don’t buy a ticket to tour the facility, you can walk the grounds, enjoy the boardwalk over the bay, fish, picnic and admire the view.

The fireplace in the Mound House at Fort Myers Beach was carefully restored to match the way it appeared in an old family photo. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The fireplace in the Mound House at Fort Myers Beach was carefully restored to match the way it appeared in an old family photo. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Admission to the museum is $10 for adults and guided tours (given several times a day in season) are an additional $5. (We took the guided tour and recommend it for those interested in learning about the Calusa and the area’s history.)

The most special aspect of the Mound House is your ability to actually go inside the shell midden. Here you see the various layers of shells left over the years and the archaeologists’ work is explained with a well-made video. Access inside the shell mound is the result of an earlier swimming pool built there.

The museum tells the history of the early residents of Fort Myers Beach and has several exhibits about the life and culture of the Calusa Indians, who disappeared through disease and dispersal after the Spanish landed in the 1500s.

The Mound House is a new attraction in Fort Myers Beach; it was renovated and opened to the public in 2015.

It also offers boat tours to Mound Key, kayak tours of Estero Bay and full moon tours.

The Mound House, is at 451 Connecticut St, Fort Myers Beach. Admission $10.

Lovers Key State Park

Just 15 minutes south of downtown and connected by trolley, this state park is a must for nature lovers. Lovers Key State Park is comprised of four islands and makes a great destination for any season.

Lovers Key State Park, Fort Myers Beach

Near the north end of the beach at Lovers Key State Park, Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

In summer, people will love its fabulous 2.5 mile long pristine beach with powdery white sand and a natural shoreline. At the north and south end there are bleached out tree trunks that add drama to the scene and delight photographers.

In winter, many will still swim, but others will enjoy just walking the beach and collecting seashells or kayaking the waterways, where manatees are often seen.

There are also hiking trails, bike and kayak rentals, a café for lunch and more.

Lovers Key is also the place to launch a kayak to visit Mound Key Archaeological State Park, the center of the Calusa civilization. We love the kayak trip to Mound Key, which we describe here.

Florida Rambler guide to Lovers Key State Park.

Matanzas Pass Preserve

If you’ve gotten enough sun and want a shadier place for a walk, this free park offers a glimpse of what this area look like before development.  Trails totaling 1.25 miles extend to the bay through hardwood forest and mangrove swamp. Free. 199 Bay Rd, Fort Myers Beach. 239-229-1610.

Camping and lodging

Mom-and-pop motels are popular in Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Mom-and-pop motels are popular in Fort Myers Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

My colleague Bob Rountree has visited Fort Myers Beach many times and writes here about finding campsites and accommodations in Fort Myers Beach. He recommends shopping for mom-and-pop motels and suggests several campgrounds.

More things to do near Fort Myers Beach area:

 

 

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