Changes in Latitude: Chasing Sunsets in Fort Myers

Minnesotans flock to Fort Myers for sunshine, white sand, and a little taste of home away from home

Minnesotans love Fort Myers. This, I was vaguely aware of before stepping on a plane from Minneapolis to southwest Florida in late February. I primed myself for my trip with some quick research, which revealed no less. According to the Lee County Tourist Development Council’s 2023 report to the industry, the county’s highest percentage of visitors that year (just over 6%) came from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. This certainly appeared to hold true when we arrived. Although, from our little corner of the newly opened Margaritaville resort on Fort Myers Beach, the count felt much higher than 6%. Finding a Minnesotan in Fort Myers is like finding a tiki bar off the shores of Fort Myers Beach—you won’t make it very far without encountering one or the other.

The colorful exterior of Margaritaville resort at Fort Myers Beach
The colorful exterior of Margaritaville resort at Fort Myers Beach

Photo by Emma Enebak

On the first night of our trip, I encountered both. During a quick happy hour at the Lighthouse Island Resort’s Tiki Bar & Grill, I struck up a conversation with a woman wearing a Twins T-shirt—a Minnesotan named Pam Johnson. Johnson and her family come to Fort Myers every year. For them, it feels like a little slice of home, “minus the shoveling.”

“This side of the Gulf Coast is total Midwest,” Johnson told me. “See all these TVs?” she gestured to the flat screens situated above the tiki bar, one of which was blaring the Minnesota Wild game. I was inclined to believe her when she added, with a glimmer in her eye, “you’ve gotta come during football season.”

As it turns out, Fort Myers loves Minnesotans right back. In fact, the Margaritaville resort where I stayed, a project which one local credits with having “saved the island,” was the work of Torgerson Properties Inc., a Minnesota-based hospitality company.

“We love our Minnesotans over here,” a local jet ski guide shared with me. “They’re a big part of the reason we’re still here. We’re grateful they decided to come down and give Fort Myers Beach a chance.”

Of course, this hopeful sentiment can only be understood in the context of a less-than-hopeful event. Hurricane Ian, a deadly Category 4 hurricane, made landfall in southwest Florida in September 2022. The storm had devastating effects on Fort Myers Beach and its neighboring islands, which were hit by a storm surge as high as 15 feet.

Evidence of the storm will be hard for visitors to miss across the steadily recovering island. But the community’s resilience is just as evident. Many business owners have resourcefully adapted, moving their shops aboard wheels as they find the means to rebuild storefronts. Tourism carries on as entrepreneurs find unique ways to engage visitors with the beauty of the island, from dolphin tours to tiki boat cruises to pirate ship adventures. And, of course, Margaritaville’s opening in late 2023 served as a new beacon of hope, with its 254 guest rooms, six restaurants, and 365,000-gallon outdoor pool.

Five o'Clock Somewhere Bar at Margaritaville Resort
Five o’Clock Somewhere Bar at Margaritaville Resort

Photo by Emma Enebak

One tiki cruise captain, a Minnesota transplant no less, couldn’t help but express his admiration. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a local or a snowbird,” he said. “Everyone has a really strong sense of community here.”

Checking into Margaritaville the night we arrived, I could tell how meaningful the project was for the Fort Myers community, intended by Torgerson Properties to be an oasis not just for out-of-town visitors but for all of Lee County. Every minute detail, from the dolphin-tail faucet knobs in the suite bathrooms to the slideshows featuring snaps from the late Jimmy Buffett’s Instagram page, seemed intentionally designed to lift the island’s spirits.

After dropping our bags in our room, we promptly stopped at the 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar & Grill, a flamingo-pink painted hut at the base of the outdoor pool. I began a silent count of how many Jimmy Buffett lyrics I could spot within that bar alone, my favorite of which was a subtle sign above the liquor wall that said nothing more than “lost shaker of salt.”

When the sun began to sink over the Gulf of Mexico, I was startled by the trumpeting of conch shell horns, which signaled that Margaritaville’s nightly sunset celebration was about to begin. I would later find that celebrating the sunset is not just a ritual at Margaritaville but all over Fort Myers, usually accompanied by conch shell horns or cow bells, cheering, dancing, and, of course, another margarita.

As a journalist, I was about to begin three days of planned excursions across Fort Myers, hosted by the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. Together, my plus-one and I would traverse the many contrasts of Lee County, from the 7 miles of white sand across Fort Myers Beach to the upscale drinkeries and fresh seafood restaurants that populate downtown. Across just three sun-soaked February days, the hottest of which climbed up to 80 degrees, I eventually lost count of how many fellow Minnesotans I encountered on the way.

Day 1: Dolphins, Gators, and Tiki Cruises

Thankfully, I didn’t need to go far to find a quality cold brew my first morning at Margaritaville. The resort’s second floor harbors the Coconut Telegraph cafe, which serves local favorite Chocolattés Coffee, a family-owned and -operated coffee shop that has served Fort Myers since 2004. Margaritaville has made it a priority to source locally, something that, in the context of Hurricane Ian, feels even more meaningful.

Once I got my vanilla cold brew with a splash of oat milk, we strolled leisurely along the beach until we reached our first activity of the day, a two-hour guided jet ski dolphin tour with All Island Watersports. Aboard a double jet ski, we followed our knowledgeable guide from Fort Myers Beach all the way down to Little Hickory Island in Bonita Springs. Dolphins populate these waters all year round and are certainly not shy. We hadn’t even left the beach when we spotted our first one, which was floating lazily in the shallow waters near shore. Later, as we cut through Big Carlos Pass, we got lucky enough to spot a pod of eight more. We waded nearby and watched as they leapt and nosedived in the clear waters of the inlet.

Aboard our guided Jet Ski Dolphin Tour with All Island Watersports
Aboard our guided Jet Ski Dolphin Tour with All Island Watersports

Photo by Emma Enebak

Just as magical as our dolphin sightings was the chance to explore the string of neighboring islands trailing down from Fort Myers Beach. As we cut into New Pass between Black Island and Big Hickory Island, I took in the relaxing scenes of island life on either side of me: fishermen casting off white sandy shores, a yellow parasail floating in the sky, and dogs running across a small, tucked-away beach. Noticing my admiration, our guide alerted us that this was called Dog Beach, the only beach in the county where dogs can roam freely without leashes.

Many of the wide inlets we passed through had been narrow channels before the devastation of Hurricane Ian. It became clear how the islands had been forced to adapt around harshly redrawn shorelines. As we weaved between islands, our guide helped us picture the actual geographical lines that existed before the storm and get a sense for how far these waterfront communities had come in such a short time.

After our tour, we returned to Bonita Springs—this time by rental car—to have lunch at Coconut Jack’s Waterfront Grille. Famous for fresh, locally caught seafood, Coconut Jack’s is a perfect slice of southwest Florida, with a sun-drenched patio extending to Back Bay near Bonita Beach. We started with an appetizer of coconut shrimp, served with raspberry Melba and mango Coulis. Considered a specialty of the area, shrimp is a great source of pride in Lee County. Often referred to as “pink gold,” the gulf shrimp caught by the area’s shrimping fleet is considered among the freshest and tastiest in the world. And it did not disappoint—especially with the tropical twist offered by the coconut, mango, and raspberry.

The Chili Lime Redfish Po' Boy at Coconut Jack's Cafe
The Chili Lime Redfish Po’ Boy at Coconut Jack’s Waterfront Grille

Photo by Emma Enebak

My two lunch companions enjoyed the mahi tacos, which were dressed up with a pineapple cilantro salsa and key lime aioli, while I ventured to try the special of the day, a chili lime redfish po’ boy. Redfish, which I had not tried, is another local specialty, only found in specific areas of the Atlantic Ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico. The freshness was unmistakable, and the tropical Floridian flair given to both dishes set Coconut Jack’s apart as a true local gem. Apparently, others agree, as it was recently voted the best waterfront restaurant in Bonita Springs.

Full from our lunch and nursing fresh sunburns, we hopped in our rental car and drove 5 miles to our next attraction, the Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. The animal sanctuary is home to over 300 rescued, rehabilitated, and non-releasable birds and reptiles, as well as a lush botanical garden. While now registered as a nonprofit pledged to wildlife conservation, the Wonder Gardens has a long history as a dazzling roadside attraction of southwest Florida, established in 1936 and sitting alongside the newly built Tamiami trail, which used to be the main route between Tampa and Miami. Visitors would stop along their journey to witness the history and wonder of Old Florida, featuring the mesmerizing flora and fauna of the Everglades. Today, the site is revered not just for its charitable work but as a historical icon and one of the last standing relics of Old Florida.

After absorbing this history, we strolled through the serene gardens to see for ourselves. We were quickly enchanted by the vibrant orchid garden, which showcased species from as far as tropical Asia, including the moth orchid and the nun’s head orchid. We soon arrived at the foreboding “alligator bridge,” which extended over a swamp of Florida alligators bathing in the sun. A sign at the bridge informs visitors of the Wonder Gardens’ diligent care of these reptiles, declaring “gone are the days of the overcrowded ’gator pit where alligators often harm each other in dirty water. We have happy ’gators.”

The flamingo exhibit at the Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs
The flamingo exhibit at the Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs

photo by Emma Enebak

In my favorite exhibit, bright pink flamingos waded steadily through shallow waters at the base of a cascading waterfall, nothing separating us from them but a low hanging rope. Per the Wonder Gardens’ educational sign, the two flamingos before us had hatched on-site in the 1960s and were now considered geriatric. It was a testament to how well the sanctuary looks after its animals, having now seen these flamingos through an entire lifespan, even as the Wonder Gardens itself went through significant structural changes.

By the time we made it back to Margaritaville, it was time to prepare for our sunset cruise, which was a six-minute walk from the resort. Docked in Matanzas Pass, we were welcomed
aboard Nautical Tiki Cruises by Captain Kip, a fellow Minnesotan who recently made the full-time move to Fort Myers as a yacht broker. While we were scheduled for a private ride, Captain Kip had invited two friends aboard to keep us company—uncoincidentally, two more Minnesotans. That made five total, floating aboard a Tiki bar in the Gulf of Mexico—as the forecast back home predicted snow.

Captain Kip is an experienced, U.S. coastguard-certified captain, who, ironically enough, first got his sea legs on the less rocky waters of Lake Minnetonka. He shared memories of “captaining” his dad’s 44-foot boat to Lord Fletcher’s when he was just 8 years old, a childhood that well primed him for his newfound captaincy on the Gulf of Mexico.

Captain Kip leads us on a sunset tour aboard Nautical Tiki Cruises
Captain Kip leads us on a sunset tour aboard Nautical Tiki Cruises

Photo by Emma Enebak

We cruised down through Matanzas Pass, passing by Fort Myers’ famous shrimping fleet as well as the Key West Express, a high-speed catamaran that takes passengers from Fort Myers Beach down to Key West in less than three hours. When we cruised by a lovely modern house with a backyard pool, Captain Kip shared the tale of its owner, Monica Lynn, whom locals refer to as “the dolphin lady.” Over the past seven years, Lynn has managed to befriend the dolphins that play in the waters in front of her home, and can be seen on her kayak every day capturing photos of them, which she shares to her Facebook page, “Fairy Podmother.” We later ran into this famous dolphin lady, who was passing us aboard her kayak just before sunset. She stopped for a moment to share he

We encountered Lee County's famous "dolphin lady" along her nightly kayak ride
We encountered Lee County’s famous “dolphin lady” along her nightly kayak ride

Photo by Emma Enebak

r new initiative with us, an organization called Pod Protectors that aims to educate boaters on proper behavior around dolphins. “We are so blessed to have them,” she shared of the waters’ flourishing dolphin population.

 

When the sun finally started dipping below the horizon, we stopped to watch its descent as a few dolphins splashed on the horizon. Folks on a nearby tiki boat initiated the celebration, ringing cowbells, cheering, and dancing aboard their spinning ship after the orange sun had fully disappeared.

Day 2: Baseball, Citrus, and Skylines

Our second morning was spent enjoying the paradisical amenities at Margaritaville, which included a dip in the heated pool and a snack at the beachside Lah De Dah Beach Bar & Grill. After relishing yet another basket of coconut shrimp, it was time to don our Twins gear for our big event of the day—the Minnesota Twins training game at the Lee Health Sports Complex.

Along our 30-minute drive inland toward the stadium, we stopped for something sweet at Sun Harvest Citrus, a massive citrus market with farm-fresh treats. We browsed the colorful rows of fresh-squeezed juices, canned salsas, fresh-cut fruit, and homemade marmalades before zeroing in on the soft-serve ice cream, opting for the orange vanilla twist. As we were checking out, one of the workers commented on my friend’s Twins T-shirt, which was a relic of their 1987 World Series win.

“I bet you weren’t even alive for that,” she laughed. We weren’t. But this woman was—a fellow Minnesotan who was lucky enough to be at the game in person. She regaled us with the tale and wished us safe flights home. (She was a transplant and, thus, staying behind in the sunshine state.)

When we arrived at the stadium, a giant banner made one thing clear from the get-go: “Lee County is Twins territory.” And it certainly was (although we tied the Philadelphia Phillies 3-3), with diehard fans packing the stadium, many of whom had made the trip from Minnesota solely to support their home team. At one point, two young brothers from Minnesota were projected onto the jumbotron to engage in a hula-hooping contest.

“It’s negative-2 degrees where these two are from right now, so they’re very happy to be here with us,” the announcer said.

In line for the Twins training game at Lee Health Sports Complex
In line for the Twins training game at the Lee Health Sports Complex

photo by Emma Enebak

Among the stadium food, which included classic ballpark favorites like hot dogs, pizza, and Philly cheesesteaks, I quickly spotted a Minnesota name—Bomba Grill, which serves walking tacos, a Midwest favorite. The ballpark later announced a chance for lucky attendees to score discounts at yet another Minnesota favorite, Rooster’s Barn & Grill, which now has a location in Fort Myers. We had attended the Twins’ fourth game out of their 18 on the Grapefruit League schedule, which would wrap up on March 26. Though it ended in a rather anti-climactic tie, the game had a special energy to it, vibrating with preseason excitement as loyal fans got a sneak peek at what’s to come in 2024.

Leaving the ballpark, we geared up for an evening in downtown Fort Myers, situated along the Caloosahatchee River, about a 40-minute drive northeast from Fort Myers Beach. A maze of brick-lined streets flanked by palm trees, downtown offered us an urban escape
from beach life, with its charming boutiques, upscale drinkeries, and inviting cafes. Our first stop was the Luminary Hotel, where we rode up to the 12th story to sip drinks at its
rooftop bar, Beacon Social Drinkery. I enjoyed an impeccably shaken lychee martini from the drinkery’s Asian-themed menu as I admired the sweeping views of Fort Myers’ downtown. The Caloosahatchee River glistened below us, a tidal river of salt water
that runs 67 miles before emptying into San Carlos Bay near Fort Myers Beach. As the sun began to set over the view, I prepared myself for my third sunset celebration of the trip, a ritual I silently decided to uphold even after leaving southwest Florida behind.

Our view from Beacon Street Social in downtown Fort Myers
Our view from Beacon Street Social in downtown Fort Myers

photo by Emma Enebak

On our way to dinner, we took in more of downtown, passing ice cream shops, a secondhand boutique, and, of course, the World Famous Cigar Bar, a staple of Lee County. We soon arrived at Izzy’s Fish & Oyster, a streetside gem that serves fresh local seafood inspired by classic New England fare. A couple back at the Luminary shared with us that it was some of the “best seafood they’ve ever had.” We began scouring the menu, hoping to prove them right. In the end, we both landed on the butterfish piccata, which featured fresh-caught butterfish on a bed of risotto, accompanied by asparagus and a lemon caper sauce. I never thought seafood could truly melt in your mouth until I tasted this dish. It was delicate, buttery, and intensely flavorful, the piccata a perfect accompaniment to the rich, full-bodied butterfish. Only after did I discover that U.S. wild-caught butterfish (also known as black cod) is actually a sustainable seafood choice, as the species is among those sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.

Day 3: Benedicts and Bird-Watching

Our final day in the sunshine state was short-lived, with a flight home set to take off around 3:30, but we managed to squeeze in a delicious brunch and some outdoor exploration. Checking out of Margaritaville at 9 a.m., we made our way inland along the Caloosahatchee River, passing through the palm tree-lined communities of McGregor and Whiskey Creek on our way to the historic McGregor Cafe.

Originally known as the Bilmart Restaurant, the charming, quaint cafe first opened in the early ’50s and has run continuously as a restaurant ever since, becoming Betty’s, Market Cafe, and, eventually, McGregor Cafe. The white cottage-style building is dressed with red shuttered windows accompanied by red-, green-, and blue-striped awnings, which evoke a colonial, Old Florida feel. On its spacious patio, we lounged in the sun and enjoyed “The Benny,” McGregor Cafe’s take on the classic eggs Benedict, with a choice of smoked salmon or lobster cakes. For my final day seaside, I chose to indulge in the lobster-cake variation, which was every bit as good as it sounds.

The eggs Benedict at McGregor's cafe
The eggs Benedict at McGregor’s cafe

photo by Emma Enebak

After finishing off the last of my coffee, we hopped in the car and drove 20 minutes east toward the Six Mile Cypress Slough, a 3,500-acre nature preserve that is free and open to the public.

The slough is one of Lee County’s earliest protected conservation areas, purchased in 1976 after county voters approved the land’s status as a preserve and wildlife habitat, an initiative led by a group of Lee County high school students. For those unfamiliar (as I was upon arrival), a slough is a type of wetland composed of slow-moving freshwater. The water from Six Mile Cypress Slough eventually flows all the way into Estero Bay and then the Gulf of Mexico.

The preserve is home to abundant southern Florida wildlife, including river otters, alligators, brown pelicans, and white ibis, plus enchanting plant life. As we strolled along the 1.2-mile boardwalk trail, we paused to appreciate a forest of bald cypress trees rising up through the shallow wetlands of the slough. These trees cycle through seasonal transformations, their green needles turning an orange-brown color in the fall and then shedding completely in the winter. As we approached Gator Lake, we ran into a volunteer named Carol Bumbaca, who was an expert on the preserve. For Bumbaca, the slough is a tranquil space to connect with nature. “Volunteering has been a really great experience because I get to help the public learn more about this amazing park,” she said.

Exploring the Six Mile Cypress Slough
Exploring the Six Mile Cypress Slough

photo by Emma Enebak

As we made our way back to the Southwest Florida International Airport, we stopped behind a Nissan bearing quite possibly my favorite variation of the Florida license plate: a sunset-tinted horizon featuring the stark silhouette of a surfer, accompanied by the tagline “endless summer.” Our brief stint of endless summer may have been coming to an end, but images of sailboats, vibrant sunsets, and pastel-painted houses still danced in my memory.
I also felt, underscoring this dreamy imagery, a deep sense of appreciation for the community of Lee County, which I had come to see as a tight-knit group of people committed to protecting and restoring the place they call home. Whether it be Fairy Podmother watching over the dolphins who populate her bay or Bumbaca volunteering to educate the public, this mentality extends outward to visitors, offering a warm and welcoming embrace. It’s no wonder Minnesotans feel so drawn here. I can think of few places that reflect this sense of belonging as well as Minnesota itself.

As Minnesota Monthly's Style Editor, Emma keeps a close pulse on all things retail, style, and fashion in the Twin Cities and beyond. Since graduating from Miami university in 2022 with degrees in English-Literature and Media and Culture, Emma has accumulated a wealth of experience in both the editorial and fashion industries, including producing a sold-out runway show for Fashion Week Minnesota. She harnesses this experience, as well as her passion for storytelling, to communicate the diverse perspectives of individuals who have helped shape the Minnesota fashion scene and its one-of-a-kind events, brands, and businesses. When she is not writing, you might find Emma at a yoga class, thrifting, walking her Bernese Mountain Dog, traveling, or drinking overpriced coffee. You will never see her in the same outfit twice.