Island Tales
Lover's Key State Recreational Area ©
- Libby Boren McMillan

Just a short distance from Sanibel Island lays one of the most beautiful beaches in southwest Florida. It's part of a fantastic state park, which provides opportunities for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, shelling, swimming and more. Welcome to Lovers Key State Recreation Area.

Located just across Big Carlos Pass from the south end of Ft. Myers Beach, this fantastic park is made up of four islands: Lovers Key, Inner Key, Long Key and Black Island. The original Lovers Key State Recreation Area was acquired in 1983; in 1996, Carl E. Johnson Park, an adjacent Lee County park, was leased to the state of Florida. The two areas were officially combined in 1998 to create the present Lovers Key State Recreation Area.

712 beautiful acres, including 2.5 miles of beautiful white sand beaches, are yours to enjoy. The road to Bonita Beach actually divides the park. Southbound drivers will see Long Key off to their left. Views from this low slung island to the estuarine waters of Estero Bay are stunning. Low tide provides ample opportunities for close encounters with wading birds.

Paddling is also great from Long Key; visitors will find a Concession building called the Kayak Shack, run by Sanibel resident Chip Hoffman, who manages the popular Tarpon Bay concession. The Kayak Shack rents canoes, sea kayaks and fishing rods; it also sells snacks, cold drinks and gifts. Friendly employees will tell you about the Estero Explorer, "a 40 foot pontoon boat designed for adventure." Choose to go on either a fishing trip or educational cruise - both are extremely affordable.

Of special interest is the naturalist-led backbay paddle, during which participants learn about the fascinating ecosystem of Estero Bay. Remembering that Estero Bay was home to the most significant shell mound of the Calusa Indian tribe puts an historic twist on an already fascinating twist.

The eastern, Long Key side of the park also has a boat ramp for fishermen and pleasure boaters alike. There are ample picnic tables as well - arrive early on holiday weekends to stake your claim.

To the right of the main road lies the bulk of the park - serpentine Black Island, Inner Key and the largest of the three, Lovers Key. A park ranger gladly gives visitors a map of the park and collects a small entrance fee. He points out the parking area ahead.

From the parking area, a free tram service continually takes visitors out across the islands (and back again). While the route is walkable, lugging any amount of beach gear this far would not be easy. The ride itself is beautiful; the tram traverses a bridge spanning Inner Key and the waters between it, Black Island and Lovers Key. The farther you get from the parking lot, the more you realize just what a special environment you've chosen to visit.

A variety of wading birds make these waters home. Mullet are jumping as osprey soar overhead. The tram passes canals, tidal lagoons and mangrove habitat. Just as you arrive at Lovers Key, you spy a terrific fishing pier off to the left.

The tram drops off its lucky guests just steps from the beach, yet everything necessary for comfort is close at hand: picnic tables, bicycle racks, a sparkling new beach pavilion, outdoor showers, public phones and environmentally friendly restrooms.

The hardest choice you face at this point is whether to opt for beach or a backbay paddle. Another concession building, this one called The Love Shack, rents a variety of one- and two-seat kayaks with which to explore the three islands.

Flock of Roseate Spoonbills

My friends and I opted for a paddle before we got lazy. Checking the current, we paddled off upstream in order to drift back. Once we passed the fishing pier, we were in another world, a peaceful, watery sanctuary. The very first birds we saw were a flock of bright pink roseate spoonbills. When they eventually went aloft, we compared notes and discovered it was the first time any of us had seen this magnificent bird in flight, even with 50+ years of combined 'island life' among the three of us.

The mullet were jumping so high they were even with our heads. This was healthy water, full of life. Our boats slid past night herons, egrets and a cornucopia of birds, the darker ones camouflaged by the mangroves they call home.

According to the brochure we were given at the entrance, Lovers Key State Recreation Area is home to hawks, owls, warblers, reddish egrets, shore and wading birds, marsh rabbits, raccoons and grey squirrels. Dolphins and West Indian Manatee also inhabit the near-shore waters. A remnant maritime hammock on Black Island hosts several species of woodpeckers.

We paddled on toward New Pass and got a surprise, one, which was hinted at by the only other boat in the water.

"There's rapids ahead!" the paddlers yelled, laughing as they passed us.

We wondered what they could possibly mean in calm, flat waters like these. Moments later, we saw the chop. Of course, we weren't looking at rapids, but the water from New Pass was rushing sidelong into our waters, creating a fair amount of agitation. We paddled onward. By the time we turned around, near the New Pass Bridge, we discovered the joke. We were paddling upstream . . . again.

We laughed, and struggled against a pretty strong current to get back to our calmer waters. I particularly appreciated the easier waters (once I finally got back to them), as I was solo. We eventually passed the fishing pier again, headed under the tramway bridge and made our way over to the beach, where we slid ashore amidst an astonishing number of live, miniature shells.

The beach at Lovers Key is inspiring. It looks a lot like North Captiva's beach, with beautiful driftwood and pure white sand. Seashells were in evidence and while we shelled, we spied an immature ray feeding in the clear, shallow water. Sanibel was visible ahead, the lighthouse jutting above San Carlos Bay; Ft. Myers Beach was off to the right, but it seemed a million miles away. To our left we saw the high rises of Bonita Beach and Naples in the distance, with a deeply hued thunderstorm beginning to build behind them.

Turning in our boats, we grabbed a quick bite at the Love Shack Grill, from a menu of hot dogs, egg rolls and burritos. We had music to eat by on the day we visited - a church from Immokalee had rented the pavilion that afternoon, and excellent Latin music drifted our way, as little girls in fancy church dresses danced and played nearby.

The beach beckoned, and we enjoyed a nice long walk, pushing our luck, weather-wise, but not caring; this beach was spectacular. We blissfully procrastinated, in fact, until the Last Tram of the Day. Nature timed its thunderstorm to begin just as our ride left the Love Shack. We all got quite wet on our little journey back to the parking lot, but everyone was laughing. Our perfectly fun day at Lovers Key had a perfectly funny ending. Somehow it seemed appropriate.
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IF YOU GO:
8700 Estero Boulevard, Ft. Myers Beach, FL 33931
(239) 463-4588
Open 8 am until Sundown 365 days a year
No lifeguards on duty.
Pets not allowed on beaches, but are okay in certain areas if on a 6-foot leash.

Pavilion overlooks the Gulf and is available for rental.
Fee is $175 plus tax.
Call (239)463-4588 for more information.

Kayak Shack
8 am - 5 pm Daily
Boat and Bike Rentals; Cruises and Tours
(239)765-1880

Love Shack Grill
9 am - 5 pm Daily


* Originally published in Times of the Islands - 9/00
© Libby Boren McMillan - Legal Rights Apply

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