Riding the Islands: Bicycles Offer an Appealing Alternative to Sitting in Traffic
The coast of Southwest Florida draws thousands to the sun and sand each season. Of course, that also means crowded roads, but there’s more than one way to wheel around paradise. Two-wheeled beach cruisers today can be spotted in dedicated road lanes, paved or natural trails and in select spots on the beach itself.
At Fun Rentals on Fort Myers Beach, Charles Wood beams as he points cyclists toward the shoreline. “We’re the only beach in Southwest Florida where you ride on the beach,” he stresses. “Sanibel and Naples Beach don’t allow it.” Neither does Captiva, where bikes are a favored form of transportation on island roads. So, at peak times of the year, Wood may rent out as many as 120 beach cruisers, mostly Sun Boardwalk bikes, and send riders to pedal as close to the tide as they desire. Tire tracks form ephemeral patterns in the sand as tourists pedal their way down the beach.
Of course, just because you can’t ride into the waves everywhere doesn’t mean other places on the Southwest Florida coast don’t have plenty to offer the two-wheeler enthusiast. On Sanibel Island, bikers can travel 24 miles of paved shared-use paths, which they share with pedestrians. During spring break, Billy’s Bike Shop has trouble keeping enough vehicles in stock to rent to island visitors. Manager Preston Schuetz recommends coming early in the morning to rent a cruiser.
A popular biking destination on Sanibel is Wildlife Drive, a four-mile length of paved road through the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. There is a $1 admission fee per bicycle. Riders can also try the Bailey Tract off Tarpon Bay Road or the Shipley Trail at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Center’s Bailey Homestead Preserve, two scenic nature trails that don’t charge a fee. None of the terrain on relatively flat Sanibel should prove overly challenging to the recreational cyclist. “These are not mountain trails by any means,” says Schuetz. Similarly, Captiva accommodates cyclists and pedestrians who want to pedal around the island.
For those willing to put in the miles, a bike provides a way to travel the entire run of the barrier islands without having to get behind the wheel of a car and brave the thick traffic or pass through the toll booths. Wood and Schuetz agree the biggest reason to choose a bicycle when visiting the islands is avoiding stop-and-go traffic. Southwest Florida’s quaint islands don’t have the road capacity to handle the demand during season. Their two-lane roads may add to the island charm but can turn a midday drive into anything but a vacation. “I can literally walk faster than people drive,” Schuetz says. Plus, even on the beaches that don’t allow cycling, there are bike racks in the parking lots that people can use for free.
Above all, bicycles are popular here because the weather of Southwest Florida accommodates cyclists year-round. Riders may find themselves working up a sweat and grasping for a water bottle, but even at the hottest time of the year they can still be carried to the next stop by the rush of a nice sea breeze.
Written by Jacob Ogles, a freelance journalist based in Southwest Florida and a frequent contributor.