Southwest Florida’s famed vacation spots — Naples, Captiva and Sanibel Islands, Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island Sound — have long been escapes from Florida’s more bustling east coast.
Those areas also bore the brunt of Hurricane Ian’s brutal wrath on Sept. 28, enduring winds up to 150 mph and storm surges, in some areas, up to 15 feet. Statewide, at least 148 people died from the storm, mostly in coastal areas.
The aftermath in Fort Myers Beach looked like a war zone, while other areas were more fortunate, and are well on their way to recovery, if not already open for business.
If you’re interested in supporting Southwest Florida’s economy post-Ian, here’s a look at the status of recovery, and your travel options in the coming months.
Some 30 miles south as the crow flies from Ian’s landfall in Cayo Costa, Naples was pummeled by up to 12 feet of surge, but has recovered relatively quickly.
“Everything’s looking almost back to normal,” said Collier County convention and visitors bureau executive director Paul Beirnes. “Golf courses are all up and running, ready for season,” he said, but noted that “there are probably some golfers that are happy that their arch nemesis tree is gone.”
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Beirnes acknowledges that the storm became more violent farther north, and those areas may not be as far along in terms of recovery. But in Collier County, he says 89% of the hotel rooms are open and operating, and that only two hotels are still in limbo.
One is the Ritz Carlton, Naples, about 10 miles north of downtown Naples. “They are right on the beach, and they took a significant hit,” Beirns said. “Word is they’re probably [opening in] spring or summer.” The other property currently closed is La Playa Beach & Golf Resort, a mile or so north of the Ritz Carlton, and also right on the beach. He said it’s set to open in about a week.
As for downtown Naples, “Everyone’s favorite restaurants are open,” he said.
Lee County, home to Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Captiva Islands, as well as Pine Island, Matlacha and Cayo Costa State Park, was the bullseye for Ian.
Beaches are not technically closed, but the Florida Department of Health in Lee County has issued a countywide precautionary swim advisory for all public beaches and swimming pools. The advisory urges the public to not enter the water due to the possible increase of waterborne illnesses.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands
Sanibel and Captiva Islands are currently closed to non-residents, but according to Sanibel officials, unrestricted access to Sanibel will begin on Jan. 2.
The causeway to Sanibel, which both islands rely on to get to and from the mainland, was washed out during the storm, and a temporary causeway allows residents, supplies and cleanup crews to enter and leave the islands.
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Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County visitor & convention bureau, said debris removal is crucial, and additional traffic might be a hindrance. She said Sanibel’s city manager predicted 80% debris removal by Dec. 23.
Despite the limited customer base, ‘Tween Waters Resort & Spa on Captiva will be open to all guests on Dec. 17, according to their website,
Fort Myers Beach
This barrier island was decimated by Ian, and is in recovery mode. There’s also a curfew for non-residents using the bridges on and off Estero Island, where Fort Myers Beach is located. The bridge at the north end, Matanzas Pass Bridge, has a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. The southern bridge over Big Carlos Pass has a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Despite the setback, there are a few spots beginning to open.
As for places to stay, Latitude 26 Waterfront Resort & Marina has three locations but the two on the waterfront are currently closed. Their inland location, 2 miles from the beach, at 17863 San Carlos Blvd., is open for business and has bike rentals and a heated pool and 26 rooms. The on-site marina is still under repair.
The Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina at the north end of Fort Myers Beach, one of the more famous resorts on the island, is a good example of the challenges faced by properties that are still standing.
In an email, resort spokesperson Katja Kunz said the resort is opening with 43 units on Dec. 19. The units will go to displaced residents, relief workers and construction workers. “We are not renting to resort guests as we do not have any amenities,” she wrote.
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“The resort just got all utilities back over the last couple of weeks, and we have one building that will be ready to house the above-mentioned guests. There is a real need for housing, and we are trying to be part of the solution.”
It will be a long road to full recovery. “We are hoping to have another 60 rooms available by the end of January,” wrote Kunz. “We are working diligently on getting at least one pool put back together but of course there is a material/part shortage. We are looking at a year or two to be a fully functional resort again.”
Sun Palace Vacations rents out investment homes on Fort Myers Beach. Prior to Ian, they had 130 properties, but lost 40% to the storm. They anticipate opening eight to 12 homes after Jan. 1.
Marketing director Valerie Moessner said the company is shifting their business model for the time being from weekly stays to extended stay for contractors, displaced homeowners or past guests who want to be there for a month or so.
As for things to do, Copacetic Sailing, a sailing charter company, reopened on Nov. 5 and is offering a variety of two- to eight-hour sails, including morning yoga sails, full-day outings and sunset sails.
A few dining establishments are open as well. Pink Shell is running a lunch buffet at $14.99.
Bayfront Bistro, at 4761 Estero Blvd., sits on the bay side of the island, has ample outdoor seating, and serves items such as tuna tostada (ahi tuna tossed in sweet garlic chili, wakame, sweet soy, wontons, wasabi and ginger), Bistro Loaded Fries (cheddar, chives, bacon, and pickled jalapeno, sour cream) and grilled cobia, blackened with chunky tropical pineapple salsa.
Wahoo Willies Tiki Bar & Grill, another eatery on the bay side of the island, is open and plating items such as blackened mahi bites, tripletail fish sandwiches and fried chicken sandwich with sriracha honey aioli. They’ve also got live music daily.
The Yucatan Beach Stand Bar & Grill, at 250 Old San Carlos Blvd., is operating a full bar, smoked wings and street tacos.
Mainland Fort Myers
On the mainland in Fort Myers, Pigott said it’s “almost back to normal” and predicts most shops and restaurants will be open by January.
There are some properties — mostly larger hotels — ready for guests, but the amenities won’t be the same.
The brand new Luminary, a Marriott Signature hotel in downtown Fort Myers, sits on the Caloosahatchee River, was unaffected by flood waters and has 243 rooms.
Other large mainland hotels that are open include the Sanibel Harbor Marriott, which sits at the base of the causeway leading to Sanibel Island, and the Westin Cape Coral, which sits on the waterfront at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River.
The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point, just south of Fort Myers Beach on the mainland, is an example of how properties are adapting. Their pool is operational, but their lazy river is closed for the time being.
Open attractions in Fort Myers include a slew of breweries: Downtown, Coastal Dayz has live music and 16 brews on tap, including Whitecap Winter Ale, made with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice. Millennial Brewing, also downtown, has 14 beers on tap, including a fruited sour called Kiwi Lemonade, and Spruce Bigelow, a pale lager.
A bit farther inland, Fort Myers Brewing Company is pouring dozens of beers, including Keg Nog Stout, and Apple Strudel Ale. And Point Ybel Brewing Company has a roster of 15 brews, including a 14% ABV barleywine brewed with local black mangrove honey and aged over 2 years in Irish whiskey barrels.
List Distillery is also open, but tours and tastings are by reservation only.
Pine Island and Matlacha
If a waterfront holiday is a must, consider something on Pine Island Sound, the large bay between the barrier islands and the mainland.
Pine Island is open to the public. At the northern tip of the island sits a smaller island, Bokeelia, where Beach House Lodge Bokeelia, a rustic wooden lodge with five suites and rooms holding up to 22 guests, sits right on Charlotte Harbor, and is taking reservations.
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A bit down the narrow sandy road sits the quaint Cap’n Con’s Fish House, offering a limited menu, including burgers, fried shrimp, and fish baskets and sandwiches.
The most popular item these days is the grouper basket, grilled or fried, and served with French fries and coleslaw. The Lazy Flamingo 3, a bar on a nearby marina, is also open.
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Back on Pine Island, the well-known Tarpon Lodge, which looks out onto Pine Island Sound, has some 20-odd rooms ready for season.
Another well-known Pine Island Sound property, which you can only reach by boat, Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant, is also open. Both properties have relationships with local inshore fishing guides who know the local ecosystem well.
In the middle of the island, barbeque joint Fine Swine is plating apps like flash-fried pork belly bites smothered in apple pie barbecue sauce, and entrees such as brisket and specials: 16-ounce rosemary crusted prime rib with roasted garlic mashed potatoes.
Down in Saint James City, and the southern end of Pine Island, there are some bars open: Froggy’s Bar & Grill and Low Key Tiki.
The quaint town of Matlacha was hard hit by Ian. Though the storm knocked out of the bridges, a temporary bridge is up and functioning, and a few spots are open. The Perfect Cup, a coffee shop with their own roaster, offers a full breakfast and lunch menu, and Italian restaurant Miceli’s, said they are offering most of their menu, but it changes daily based on supply.