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A old fishing hut stands near a beach in the Fort Myers area.VISIT FLORIDA/The Globe and Mail

As my wife and I drove along the three-mile causeway between Fort Myers, Fla., and Sanibel Island, a flock of pelicans swooped over our car, then broke formation to dive for dinner – fish they had spotted from high above. The rippling, turquoise waters of San Carlos Bay shimmered in the mid-afternoon sun. Sanibel, with its canopy of tropical trees, lay straight ahead.

Sanibel has one main draw: seashells. The island juts into the Gulf of Mexico like a giant hook, catching millions of shells that are washed ashore by storms.

That day, we stopped at Lighthouse Beach, one of eight on Sanibel and adjoining Captiva Island, and my wife went to work collecting pink, coral and white shells. But half an hour later, the sky darkened and it started to rain. Knowing storms can be brutal here, we packed up the car and fled to our hotel on the mainland back in Fort Myers. (Hotels on Sanibel are for the high rollers who can afford the island's high rates; being mere mortals, we always book a room on the mainland.)

With more rain threatening, we decided to stay in Fort Myers for dinner.

Vacationers, such as us, often ignore the city, driving straight through town to Sanibel, which has more cachet. But Fort Myers has a busy downtown with newly restored 1940s buildings, independent shops, hip bars and good restaurants at lower prices than on the island. In addition, a smattering of beautiful old mansions in varying states of repair testifies to the city's genteel past. Two historic sites, the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, sit in a 21-acre botanical garden a couple of kilometres from downtown on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River. Sightseeing cruises that focus on the abundant wildlife found along the river leave from a marina a short walk down the street.

Our destination, the McGregor Café, was down stately McGregor Boulevard from the Edison and Ford houses. With an umbrella-covered patio draped in sparkling white lights and bordered by tropical foliage, and music by genial singer and guitarist Bill Metts, it proved an excellent choice. My pesto linguine with perfectly fired shrimp and Robin's penne pasta with roasted vegetables hit all the right spots. Our attentive server proudly told us that the restaurant is popular all year, not just when the multitudes of snowbirds arrive in the fall.

The next morning was dark and drizzly, so we decided to skip Sanibel again to explore the town of Fort Myers Beach on Estero Island, almost 25 km from the city of Fort Myers.

We arrived to find a place that couldn't have been more different from either Sanibel or Fort Myers. Unlike both, Fort Myers Beach had no tropical canopy. Instead, joyful murals of fruit and flowers adorned the walls of waterfront hotels and condos. Brightly painted cottages sat between many of the taller structures, and even the mailboxes came in vibrant colours. The area looked pristine but not pricey, seemingly catering to a working-class clientele. The beach was wide with sugary sand and few shells, but it was ideal for spreading a towel and sunbathing.

On our way downtown on what had become a sunny day, we came across a pedestrian plaza lined with restaurants and ending in a fishing pier. Across the way, a man sat at a card table beneath a palm tree painting small, decorative surfboards. I asked him what he liked most about the town. "I've never met a nasty person here," he told me, as a couple on Segways glided past. "And I've been here a long time."

I walked down the street leading away from the plaza and came across the bright purple, green and orange Yo!Taco shop. I asked Leanna Parks, a young woman who was dicing tomatoes while tending the cash register, what she liked about the town and how the shop had fared after Hurricane Irma. A northern transplant, she told me, "I love it here. It's the weather. It's the people." The storm, she said, had closed the shop for only two days. After a week on a generator, she said, business was booming again.

Before leaving, we drove over the causeway again, this time heading straight to Captiva Island, which was cleaved from Sanibel by a terrain-altering hurricane in 1926. At the Mucky Duck, a ramshackle pub and local institution right on the beach, we noshed on tasty sandwiches as good as the view of the Gulf of Mexico, a milky gray-green on an afternoon that had again become cloudy.

Despite the stormy weather, we'd had a perfect weekend, having discovered two Gulf Coast jewels – Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach. Now, we have even more reasons to like this part of Florida.

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