RV Road Trip: Florida’s Southern Gulf Coast

Nature, Culture, and Dining in the Sunshine State

Image Caption: Image: Courtesy of Getty Images

My back aches as I stand up after a long day of “The Sanibel Stoop,” what locals call the bent-over posture of people looking for shells. As I look down the long, white beach, I see other beachcombers, young and old, searching for intriguing shells.

Sanibel Island is known as the number one shelling location in the US, but Sanibel is not the only place to look for shells on the Gulf Coast of Florida. From Sarasota south to Naples there are multitudes of beautiful beaches with excellent shell-collecting opportunities.

Shelling is just one of the available activities on the southern Gulf Coast of Florida.  Museums, fine dining, water sports, or just relaxing on the beach all beckon to travelers.

10 Beach Camping Hotspots

The western part of Florida lies on the Gulf of Mexico, where waters are warmer and calmer than on the Atlantic side. In many places the water is shallow, allowing beachgoers a chance to walk out into the gulf. Beaches are often less crowded than their eastern counterparts allowing more space to relax. The vibe here is laid-back and casual.

Barrier islands line the Gulf Coast providing miles of wonderful habitat for migrating birds and avid birdwatchers. Inland, parks, and preserves provide sanctuaries for friendly manatees and not-so-friendly alligators. A wide variety of boat tours give visitors a chance to view these animals from a safe distance while allowing for plenty of photo opportunities.

Nature isn’t the only star attraction in the region. The Sarasota area is known as the Cultural Coast due to the abundance of art galleries and museums as well as music and theatre venues. The Ringling is one of the most popular destinations in the area and has a combination of art, history, and architecture to explore. Sarasota also hosts yearly art, film, and music festivals.

The Gulf Coast is an adventure lover’s paradise. Jet skiing to tour islands or taking a spin on an airboat will get the heart racing. Kayaking through mangroves is another popular activity. Experience something different such as an epic swamp buggy tour or parasailing. Whatever the mode of transport, there are many ways to experience Florida’s unique natural wonders.

It is a good idea to allow plenty of time when visiting the Gulf Coast. Several days are needed to be able to sample the treasures this region has to offer. RVers will want to visit again and again. I look forward to future visits to the southern Gulf Coast of Florida, but next time I will schedule a massage after shell collecting!

Weekend Warriors

Must-Do

Myakka Tower

Image: Courtesy of Myakka River State Park

Myakka River State Park is one of the largest state parks in Florida and covers more than 37,000 acres. Activities at the park include bird-watching, boating, fishing, hiking, and biking. Also available are flat-bottom-boat tours as well as a 25-foot-high canopy walkway.

Off the Beaten Path

Everglades Adventures

Image: Courtesy of Everglades Adventures

Get the adrenaline pumping on an airboat ride in Everglades National Park. Tours with Everglades Adventure start at Fort Myers Beach and consist of the van ride to and from the Everglades, airboat ride, swamp buggy excursion, and alligator show.  Brave guests can even hold a baby alligator for a great photo op!

On the Menu

Dolce Italia

Image: Courtesy of Dolce Italia

Stay Here

Enjoy a romantic evening of authentic Italian cuisine at Dolce Italia in Sarasota. The quaint restaurant has a variety of entrées and features an old-country wine cellar. Guest-favorite scrumptious desserts are the Cioccolate Vesuvio (hot lava cake) and Gelato Nutella. Yum!

San Carlos RV Resort & Marina

Image: Courtesy of San Carlos RV Resort & Marina

Almost all of San Carlos RV Resort & Marina’s campsites are directly on Hurricane Bay. Guests can fish and boat from their backyard. The park is a short walk or trolly ride to restaurants, shopping, and Fort Myers Beach. The resort’s entertainment options consist of water aerobics in the heated pool as well as music and craft shows.

Family RVers

Must-Do

Florida Adventures and Rentals

Image: Courtesy of Florida Adventures and Rentals

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota has a huge shark habitat, manatees, sea turtles, and a Marine Mammal Rehabilitation Center where you can see some of the animals being nursed back to health. Try one of the “Choose your adventure” programs and go behind the scenes with a biologist doing morning rounds in preparation for the day.

Off the Beaten Path

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

Image: Courtesy of Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

Shelling is a popular activity at many Gulf Coast beaches, so Florida Adventures and Rentals offers the chance to collect shells on a deserted island away from the crowds. Try the three-hour Eco Tour and see the famous Cape Romano Dome House, Ten Thousand Island Refuge, and maybe spot dolphins or manatees along the way.

On the Menu

Bubble Room

Image: Courtesy of Bubble Room

The Bubble Room on Captiva Island offers more than dinner.  Eating there is an experience. Every inch of the bright, neon restaurant is filled with Christmas decorations, toys, and photos of movie stars. Fun menu items include Pastablanca, Charlie Chaplin Chops, and Marilyn Mignon. Save room for dessert! Servers stop by tables at the end of the meal with a huge tray of tempting cakes and pies.

Stay Here

Palmetto Ridge Campground at Myakka River State Park has well-maintained, shaded campsites. Featured amenities are electric, water, sewer, and access to showers and laundry.

Full-Time RVers

Must-Do

Paradise Parasail

Image: Courtesy of Getty Images

It would be easy to spend an entire day exploring The Ringling, the estate of John and Mable Ringling of circus fame. Explore the Museum of Art, Circus Museum, Ca’ d’Zan mansion, and Bayfront Gardens. The circus museum features a 44,000-piece model, Ringling’s private rail car, glittering costumes, and more.

Off the Beaten Path

The Ringling

Image: Courtesy of The Ringling

Time to check parasailing off the bucket list on a breathtaking adventure with Paradise Parasail in Fort Myers. Ride tandem with a friend and the flight is twice the distance. Request a dip and feel yourself lowered until your toes hit the water. Enjoy a seagull’s eye view and maybe spot a dolphin from the air.

On the Menu

The Island Cow

Image: Courtesy of The Island Cow

Sit back and enjoy breakfast, lunch, or dinner at The Island Cow on Sanibel Island. Featuring live music on weekends, fun outdoor games, and an extensive menu, The Island Cow is a delicious stop. Furry family members are welcome when dining outside and enjoying the colorful decor.

Stay Here

Hawaiian Isles RV Resort is a short kayak ride to Tampa Bay. The large resort has almost 1,000 sites and offers plenty to entertain with an Olympic-sized heated pool, pickleball and shuffleboard courts, horseshoes, and a lovely nature trail. Hawaiian Isles is a Good Sam Park.

Retired RVers

Must-Do

Tarpon Bay Explorers

Image: Courtesy of Tarpon Bay Explorers

Thomas Edison sought a respite from harsh northern winters, so he visited the then small town of Fort Myers. Enamored with the area, he purchased land and created his estate, Seminole Lodge. Years later, Edison’s friend Henry Ford purchased the property next door. Visit the Edison and Ford Winter Estates and tour their beautiful retreats as well as Edison’s Botanical Research Laboratory.

Off the Beaten Path

Edison's Seminole Lodge

Image: Courtesy of Edison’s Seminole Lodge

Let Tarpon Bay Explorers do the driving at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The cruise or tram tours offer excellent wildlife viewing at one of the best birding locations in the US. Or up the adventure and go for a kayak tour through a mangrove forest.

On the Menu

The Cave Bistro & Wine Bar

Image: Courtesy of The Cave Bistro & Wine Bar

Step into The Cave Bistro & Wine Bar in Naples and feel transported into a European wine cave. The Cave offers a carefully curated wine list and food options designed to delight the eyes and stimulate the taste buds.

Stay Here

Upriver RV Resort

Image: Courtesy of Upriver RV Resort

Upriver RV Resort in Fort Myers is a Good Sam Park with two swimming pools, bocce ball, pool tables, pickleball, shuffleboard, an exercise room, food trucks, and live bands. The resort has canal sites where guests can dock their boats as well as many supersized sites for large rigs and trailers.

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