Fort Myers Beach: the Biggest Little Town on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Fort Myers Beach is the ultimate family destination. Located on Estero Island, seven miles of soft white sandy beaches share the calming warm waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Combined with a gentle breeze, the result is a relaxing international destination offering sunny days ending with gorgeous sunsets mirrored in those tranquil waves.

World champion professionals grace the beaches during the American Sand Sculpting Championship Festival held each November.

Add family-friendly resorts, quaint cottages, Old Florida charm, fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and the annual Shrimp Festival, and it’s a beach vacation paradise. Explore truly wild surroundings at Lovers Key State Park with a refreshing bike ride or a hike flanked by broadleaf forest. Try fishing in quiet waterways or kayaking alongside gentle manatees. Go for a parasail, rent jet skis for a dolphin tour, charter a boat for a day of fishing or for a ride out to a deserted beach for a yoga class. The possibilities are endless.

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A short 20-minute drive from the heart of Fort Myers takes you to the island paradise of Fort Myers Beach. Situated off the Southwest coast of Florida, Fort Myers Beach is a small town with a big-time island vibe. The miles of sandy coastline, caressed by the endless waves rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico, plays host to tens-of-thousands of visitors every year. All of them coming to this little island to get a taste of paradise.

Early History

Fort Myers Beach is located on Estero Island. At just over six miles long it’s one of the smaller of Florida’s barrier islands. While the town of Fort Myers Beach is relatively young, having only been formally incorporated in 1995, its history stretches back hundreds of years.

The island was originally home to the Native American Calusa, one of the largest and most influential tribes in Florida. The Calusa inhabited Estero Island, and indeed much of the Southern half of the state, for hundreds of years. But the arrival of European explorers would bring significant changes to the region.

The Fountain of Youth

Ponce de Leon is considered to be the first European to make landfall on the Florida peninsula. He and his band of Conquistadors arrived dreaming of finding wealth and the legendary Fountain of Youth. But those dreams were not to come true. The Conquistadors were met with harsh resistance from the Calusa tribe, and the Spanish were ultimately driven from the land.

Although the Calusa were successful in resisting the Spanish invaders their time was running out. Over the next 150 years the tribe would succumb to local hostilities, disease and economic disruption. By the late 17th century the Calusa had all but disappeared from the area and European powers would begin to battle for control of the region.

With both the British and the Spanish Crowns laying claim to the peninsula, control of the South of Florida continued to shift between the powers with no satisfactory conclusion in sight. It was against this backdrop of political turmoil that Estero Island (then called Crescent Island) welcomed its first non-native residents.

Ranchos and Pirates on Fort Myers Beach

While the British and Spanish fought for control of South Florida Cuban fishermen began to move into the coastal regions of the state. They built small fishing villages, called Ranchos, along the Gulf Coast and established a thriving community on Crescent Island. These fishing villages would help to establish an important trade route between the Ranchos, Cuba and the Creek Indians. When Florida became the 27th state of the Union in 1845 the descendants of these Cuban fishermen remained in the area, becoming part of the new American population.

With statehood secured migration into the Sunshine state began in fits and starts. It would take some time for settlers to discover Estero Island, but when they did the area’s natural beauty and waterfront charms would seize their imaginations and the seeds of Fort Myers Beach would be planted.

American Settlers and Fort Myers Beach

The Homestead Act of 1862 brought the first American settlements to what would become Fort Myers Beach. In 1895 Robert Gilbert began to settle the area after receiving a sizable land grant. The grant included the Calusa Shell Mound at what is now Connecticut Street. Mound House on Estero Bay, one of the island’s longest standing historic buildings, marks the spot of Gilbert’s earliest attempts to settle the island.

In 1911 William Case assumed Gilbert’s grant and began to develop the island in earnest. He built the island’s first subdivision and founded its first cottage rental company. By the 1920s word of the island’s tropical charms had begun to spread to the North, and Estero Island was quickly becoming a popular vacation site for the elite and well-to-do. The opening of a toll bridge connecting the island with the mainland launched an intense wave of development, and the next few years would see the construction of casinos, hotels, and the island’s first man-made canals.

The great depression forced a lull in development on the island, as it did across much of the entire state of Florida. But even during these lean years small businesses and restaurants continued to come to the island, and new subdivisions and a local school were established. Modern day Estero Island was slowly beginning to take shape, and Fort Myers Beach was eagerly waiting in the wings for the next big boom.

The Booming 1950s

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Estero Island remained relatively quiet, with development slowing down to a virtual crawl. But with the arrival of the 1950s, and post-war prosperity, Fort Myers Beach began to attract national attention. Tourists flocked to the island, lured by the promise of sunshine, gulf coast breezes, and the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

A flurry of new hotels and holiday resorts were built including the famous Rancho del Mar, home of the first swimming pool on the island. The swing bridge connecting the island with the mainland was modernized, allowing for an easier flow of traffic to and from the beach. Restaurants and retail shops began to open along the main street to cater to the influx of visitors to the island.

Tourists weren’t the only people to flock to Fort Myers Beach during the 50s and 60s. The new tourist economy made for a boost in employment opportunities, and that naturally led to a rise in the island’s permanent population. The 1950s saw the population of Estero Island increase by 50%, and with those new residents came churches, newspapers, schools and the Beach Library (the first free public library in Lee County).

Present Day Fort Myers Beach

Fort Myers Beach is a bustling town that continues to attract visitors from around the state and across the country. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in ambition and attitude, and its status as one of Southwest Florida’s premier tourist destinations is well deserved.

The Fort Myers Beach trolley service shuttles visitors and locals around the island’s downtown district, taking in the busy shops, restaurants and tiki bars. Historic island hot spots like the Pink Shell Resort (built in the 1950s) and the Matanzas Inn provide a taste of the island’s past, while resorts like the new Margaritaville (scheduled to open in 2023) point to the prosperous future of Fort Myers Beach.

Warm Weather and Pillowy Soft Beaches

Of course the main reasons everyone flocks to Fort Myers Beach is its fabulous weather and world class beaches. Summer on the island often finds local thermometers rising into the 90s, but breezes coming off the gulf help to cool things down quite a bit. During the winter months, when the island sees the majority of its out-of-state visitors, the weather is generally mild with temperatures rarely dipping below the mid-50s in the evening and edging into the 70s by day.

When it comes to surf and sand Fort Myers Beach has plenty of options for intrepid beachcombers. 6 ½ miles of soft white-sand beaches provide plenty of opportunities for swimming, sunbathing, shelling or just walking along the coastline. The most popular local beaches include Lynn Hall Beach Park, Lovers Key, and Bowditch Point. For a change of pace a short island hop makes for a pleasant day-trip to neighboring Sanibel or Captiva.

Living on Fort Myers Beach

Fort Myers Beach is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southwest Florida, but it is also home to almost 7000 permanent residents. When you explore beyond the booming downtown and beach resorts you’ll find a wide range of local communities. Exclusive waterfront homes and condos provide secure and secluded residences for retirees and young professionals in search of a beachfront lifestyle. More moderately priced single-family homes and multi-family houses offer working families and singles a taste of island life at an affordable price.

To get a better idea of how Fort Myers Beach stacks up as a relocation destination when compared with some of its neighbors we need to take a moment and drill down into some important statistics:

  • Fort Myers Beach has a population of 6,989 permanent residents.
  • The median income for residents of Fort Myers Beach is $62,689.
  • The median home value is $431,499.
  • The unemployment rate is 2.30% (well below state and national averages).
  • The median age of Fort Myers Beach’s permanent residents is 67.4 years.
  • The cost of living in Fort Myers Beach is slightly higher than state and local averages.
  • Fort Myers Beach residents pay no state income taxes.

Gulf Coast Living Awaits on Fort Myers Beach

Fort Myers Beach lies at the heart of one of Southwest Florida’s most beautiful and enticing barrier islands. It has long been one of the Gulf Coast’s most popular tourist destinations and continues to welcome visitors and new residents every year.

Whether you’re looking to escape the harsh Northern winters or simply relish the idea of living on an island paradise Fort Myers Beach has a lot to offer. A bustling downtown with its spirited nightlife, miles of white-sand beaches, and a cluster of quiet outlying island communities combine to deliver a taste of Gulf Coast living at its finest.