Lee County Florida is a destination for flatwater paddlers. The county issues 3 separate maps of the Calusa Blueways Paddling Trails. They total 190 miles of marked kayak trails.
Of the entire Calusa Blueway, this is my favorite trip. The trip I take visitors on for the Florida experience.
I'm writing about it because it's off the marked trails. It's across Pine Island Sound, a body of shallow water protected by the barrier islands, Sanibel, Captiva and Cayo Costa. The destination is the beach on the Gulf of Mexico side of Cayo Costa. It's about 5 miles each way. It's across open water, so check the weather reports for a calm day.
I launch from Pineland on Pine Island. It's a tiny little beach just up the road from the Pineland Post Office. Parking is limited to about 6 vehicles. But the Pineland Marina will let you park for a small fee. Or the Nature Preserve across the road lets you park for a small donation. Or you can do like me and park in a wide spot beside the road back toward the Post Office.
Standing on the beach at Pineland looking west you can see on the horizon a group of fishing shacks on stilts out in the sound. Turn about 30 degrees toward the northwest and see roofs of buildings on an island. Just to the south of the roofs are a group of very tall long needle pine trees towering above the mangroves looking like green flames shooting toward the sky. That's your first destination. Their is an abandon house in those pines with a little beach where you can get out. Look back at your launch site. It's just to the south of the Pineland Marina right between two small fishing docks. Keep this view in mind when you're trying to locate where you parked your vehicle.
At the abandoned house is a boat dock. Paddle around the dock into the bay inside Part Island. Go left (south) to the end of the bay. Toward the right (west) find the channel thru the island. It's the "part" in Part Island. It goes clear thru to the other side of the island and is just deep and wide enough for kayaks.
When you emerge on the western side of the island you'll have a better view of the fishing shacks. Paddle out clear of the mangroves where you can see. To your right are the buildings you saw from Pine Island. It's Useppa Island. It's not your destination, but is very close to it. Paddle just to the south of the island, past the boat docks and beach, and when you round the point you can see Cabbage Key Restaurant/bar/marina. Vacationers ride the ferry there just to have a "Cheeseburger in Paradise". There's a nice little place to beach your kayak right in front and the staff don't care if you arrived in a yacht or a little plastic boat. There is a scenic hiking trail featuring steps up the old water tower for a spectacular view of the sound.
Leaving Cabbage Key, heading west again along the north side of the key you'll soon come to the western point of the key. This is where you keep your eyes peeled for a gold roof. It'll be due west on Cayo Costa Island. You'll only get one gimps of it because it'll soon be hidden by the mangroves. It marks the inlet into Cayo Costa. Find the inlet and paddle to the end along the northern shore. There you'll find another kayak passage further into the island. It leads to a bay with a beach at the far end. From that beach walk over the dune to the Gulf of Mexico.
About a mile north on the Gulf beach Is Cayo Costa State Park. Right at the edge of the park is some quicksand. I'm telling you this because all the warning signs face the park. Frankly there's not a lot going on at the park. Some primitive camping, some trails and more beach. The entrance to the park is on the eastern side of the island in Pelican Bay. Kayakers are welcome there too. I've packed my tent and spent the night there. Reservations are required.
Going back is pretty much the same route in reverse, OR if when you emerge from Cayo Costa, AND it's a particularly calm day, you can head directly for the fishing shacks. It's about a 3 mile stretch, and you might think it's pretty boring. Then you hear a whoosh behind you and find a dolphin has been watching you! By that time of day the sun is warm on my back, the water is calm and it feels good just to be able to paddle my kayak.
There's no land at the fishing shacks. But the water's only ankle deep. There are often live conch's there. And if you haven't brought a camera you'll be sorry. I think you might be trespassing a little if you sit on someone's dock. But I've never been chased away.
Looking due east from the fishing shacks you can see an opening between the mangroves. That's the route home. about two miles due east. You'll know you've made it when you see the big white buildings of the Pineland Marina.
Or if you've chosen to retrace your route back thru Part Island it'll be pretty familiar with one exception. When you leave Cabbage Key, and go around the tip of Useppa Island it's tempting to head straight for the tall pines you navigated with on your trip west. But they're on the other side of the island! Your passage back thru the island is further south. So head southeast instead of due east. Keep the island to your left and pass by all mangrove islands keeping them to your right. It's easy to find the inlet. About 2/3 of the way south on Part Island is a group of 3 little mangroves out in the water. Two are tiny, the other one larger. As soon as you pass these there is a false inlet into the island. The second inlet is the true inlet to the passage. Everything else is obvious.
It's kind of hard to distinguish true islands from the many groups of mangroves in the water. What I look for are trees. Especially pines are a giveaway that it's solid land. Mangroves can grow in the water. Trees can't.
This is my favorite trip, but not by a very wide margin. And it depends on the weather. But there are plenty of fine days thru the season for this kind of trip. And there must be a hundred excellent alternatives if the wind picks up
There is a restaurant/bar/marina on Cabbage Key. There's nothing else. Bring water, sunblock, hat & sunglasses. I pack a lunch and bring a beach towel for naps on the beach.
Verizon has cell phone coverage of the entire Pine Island sound. I have a waterproof phone. Visitors usually put theirs in a baggie or a dry bag.
You could possibly use a few bucks for parking at the marina. (I never have) The restaurant on Cabbage Key takes credit cards and they're kind of pricey. But not too bad for the experience.
From North Ft. Myers and Cape Coral take Pine Islaon Road west to the end. Turn right (north). Go a couple of miles to the big sign for Pineland & Pineland Marina. Turn left. Just past the very charming Pineland Post Office is the launch site. If you get to the marina you've gone too far.
Florida State Parks/ Cayo Costa State Park & Lover's Key State Park.
Lee County Florida prints three maps of the Calusa Blueway Paddling trails. For this trip you'll need the one for Matlacha-Pine Island. You can sometimes find them at kayak shops or the Chamber of Commerce, where you have to ask for them because they keep them in the back. (Same for bicycle maps) They're free.