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Interested in planning a shelling vacation in Southwest Florida? Lucky for you, a reader recently reached out by email looking for my input on where she should go, what she should do, where she should eat, and where should she sleep. I’m sharing my response with you! I could probably write a book on planning a shelling vacation in Southwest Florida but I did my best to provide my best recommendations in an email.
Things to Know Before Planning a Shelling Vacation in Southwest Florida
When anyone asks for my advice on planning a Southwest Florida shelling vacation, I preface my response by saying I’m very familiar with Sarasota and Charlotte Counties. I used to work for the tourism offices and spent years in both destinations marketing and creating itineraries. This includes Venice (Sarasota County), Manasota Key and Englewood Beach (Charlotte and Sarasota Counties).
A shelling trip to Southwest Florida should include an introduction to Florida’s environment and the various ecosystems. Before heading to any of the beaches or aquatic activities, check the red tide status on the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission website. If you have respiratory issues, you’ll want to stay away from those areas with red tide. But, conditions literally change with the winds.
Other things to keep in mind when planning your trip:
- NEVER collect live seashells, this includes live sand dollars and sea urchins. If there’s a critter living inside a shell, gently put it down.
- If you’re into fresh seafood, stone crab season runs through May 15 and Everglades City is the Stone Crab Capital of the World!
- Hurricane season is June 1 – Nov. 30 and summer is the rainy season.
- June 21 is National Sea Shell Day
- August 30 is National Beach Day
- Key lime is the official state pie of Florida.
- Often on Sunday nights, most beaches have drum circles before sunset.
- During late spring, summer and fall, keep in mind, no-see ums may prevalent on the beaches. Avon’s Skin So Soft works great!
- If you’re visiting from outside of the Southeast, late spring, summer and fall are hot and humid in Southwest Florida, although Gulf breezes help a bit. Stay hydrated, wear sunscreen, wear sunglasses, and a hat. Pace yourself with outdoor activities.
If you begin your Southwest Florida shelling trip in Tampa, not that you’ll find lots of shelling, but it has a rich history and delicious culinary scene. Plus, you may find a better airfare into Tampa International Airport than some of the other Southwest Florida Cities. And, it’s only about an hour drive to the Sarasota area.
The historic Ybor City neighborhood is a must when visiting Tampa and if you’re up for it, step foot on Cuban soil without leaving the city! While there, taste the area by grabbing a Cuban sandwich at Gaspar’s Grotto or enjoy the 1905 salad at the Columbia Restaurant. Or, you may want to join one of the Tampa Bay Food Tours.
Visit the Florida Aquarium for a good place to build a foundation of Florida’s habitats. Not too far is the Clearwater Aquarium. Have you seen or heard of the movie A Dolphin’s Tale? It’s based on the real-life story of Winter the Dolphin and she lives here, not too far from Tampa.
Tampa doesn’t have beaches but the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area does. For a different experience, head to Caladesi Island State Park, only accessible by boat. In year’s past, it made Dr. Beach’s Top 10 Beaches in the U.S. list.
Nearby is Tarpon Springs , the Sponge Capital of the World. Visit the sponge docks and take a boat tour to learn about the area’s sponge history. While there, you’ll also experience the area’s Greek heritage.
Head south of Tampa to the Sarasota area. Not only is it home to Siesta Key, which has been named America’s top beach, it’s also an eclectic foodie and art town. There is so much to do in Sarasota but for those who appreciate art and beaches, some highlights are…
Ringling Museum – Circus magnate John Ringling made Sarasota his winter home with his wife Mable. The Ringling Brothers Circus wintered here and almost a century later, his legacy thrives throughout the area. He gifted his home and art collection to the state of Florida. Other museums on the Ringling grounds are the Ca’ d’Zan (the House of John where he and Mable lived) and the Circus Museum. Admission into the art museum is free on Mondays.
Sarasota Art Museum – Sarasota is known as Florida’s Cultural Coast and this modern art museum opened in Dec. 2019, complementing the Ringling Museum and other arts and culture organizations in the area. Admission into the museum is free the last Sunday of the month.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium – Keeping with the sea theme for shelling, visit the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium to learn more about the local aquatic habitats and sea life.
In Sarasota, if you’re seeking something casual, there’s any one of the Old Salty Dog restaurants and Owen’s Fish Camp. For a quirky experience there’s Bob’s Train restaurant. Bob used to work in the circus and these are old circus train cars. It’s a fascinating place and the food is delicious. Sarasota is also home to an Amish-Mennonite community so there are several Amish restaurants, like Yoder’s and Der Dutchman.
As for the beaches, Siesta Key Beach topped Dr. Beach’s top beach list and is gorgeous but not much shelling. Walking barefoot over the white quartz sand is something you must do. Nearby Lido Beach offers some shelling. To get to Lido Beach, you’ll drive through St. Armands Circle, a popular shopping and dining district.
The heart of Siesta Key’s village is cute with independently-owned boutiques and restaurants. Stay here and pedal a bicycle to get around. For dining, the Siesta Key Oyster Bar and Daiquiri Deck Siesta Key Village are fun favorites.
At the southern end of the key is Turtle Beach Resort & Inn. Next to them is Ophelia on the Bay restaurant which is outstanding. If you’re looking for one place to dine in Sarasota, this is it. If you’re lucky, you’ll grab a spot on the deck overlooking the Intracoastal waterway.
Travel south to Venice, the Shark Tooth Capital of the World. Before stopping in Venice, head to Casey Key and Nokomis Beach, Sarasota County’s oldest public beach. It has a great, Old Florida feel.
Next, head to Caspersen Beach to walk the beach and look for small, black shiny triangles – those are fossilized shark teeth! In downtown Venice, watch out for sharks! If you don’t watch your step, you may trip over one. Well, probably not, but keep an eye out for the Venice Shark Spotting public art display and spot all 10 bronze sharks.
Head further south to Manasota Key for more shark tooth collection along the beaches. There’s been a beach renourishment and shelling has been minimal at the beaches (Manasota Beach, Blind Pass Beach and Englewood Beach*), but that can change with the winds. Stump Pass Beach State Park is located at the southern end of Manasota Key. Parking is limited which limits visitation (there’s an entrance fee into the park). Next to the park is the WannaB Inn which is an old Florida type-resort and perfect place to base all or part of your Southwest Florida shelling vacation.
While visiting Manasota Key and Englewood Beach, take a kayaking trip to Don Pedro Island State Park with Hooked on SUP (the park is only accessible by boat and along the way you’ll examine sea life. Sometimes there’s good shelling at the park). Or, head over to Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island and take an eco-tour or rental in a clear-bottom kayaks with Glass Bottom Boat Rentals. Their sunset and evening trip is an outstanding and memorable experience! They also offer guided tours of Boca Grande via golf cart. (there’s a $6 toll to access Gasparilla Island.)
Hooked on SUP also offers trips elsewhere from Stump Pass Beach State Park. If you are lucky enough to stay on the beach, or if you’re cool with early wakeup calls, every morning at 8:30 a.m. is beach yoga on Englewood Beach with Loving Light Yoga.
Eateries with terrific beach vibes on Manasota Key are Lock ‘N Key Restaurant, SandBar Tiki & Grille, and The Waverly Restaurant & Bar. Other delicious, waterfront restaurants in Englewood are Beach Road Wine Bar & Bistro and Farlow’s on the Water. There’s also Mango Bistro on Dearborn Street, for a delicious lunch stop.
*Note about beaches in the Englewood Beach area: although parking at Manasota Beach and Blind Pass Beach are free, parking at Englewood Beach is 75 cents an hour. Download the ParkMobile app to pay.
If you can’t get to the beach, take a look at the Englewood Beach beach cam and dream about being there.
Detour: Shark Tooth Hunting in DeSoto County
If you’re into collecting fossilized shark teeth, you may want to venture into the Peace River. You can either do it alone or rent a canoe through Canoe Outpost in Arcadia or join a group. I’ve been with fossil hunter Mark Renz a couple of times and had a blast! I’ve also paddled with Canoe Outpost and although I haven’t blogged about it yet, I’ve already planned another trip. In addition to fossilized shark teeth, I found fossilized sand dollars! Keep in mind, Peace River water levels need to be low so summer is not an ideal time to fossil in the river because the rainy season causes levels to rise. If you won’t be joining a guide and fossiling on your own, you’ll need a Florida Fossil Permit from the University of Florida to collect vertebrate fossils. It’s $5 and takes about 2 weeks to receive.
Ft. Myers, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island
Traveling south toward the Ft. Myers & Sanibel, stop at the Shell Factory & Nature Park in North Fort Myers. This is the world’s largest shell factory and a place I remember visiting when I was a kid. Find row after row of seashells and sometimes on display are items made of seashells, like a suit. Or golf cart. Or who knows! It’s grown since I first visited in the 1970s and quite a place to visit, especially if you’re into seashells. As you head towards Sanibel, stop off at Matlacha and visit Leoma Lovegrove’s Gallery & Gardens. It’s a vibrant, colorful, and uplifting trip!
Continue on to Sanibel and Captiva Islands. (There’s a $6 toll.) Begin your your shell-tastic journey at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. To help you breakdown how and where to shell on Sanibel, check out these articles:
- The 7 Best Beaches for Shelling on Sanibel Island
- The Sanibel 6 Seashells
- What the Heck is Shelling
Once you hit the Sanibel beaches, I’m sure you’ll perfect the Sanibel Stoop quickly. This is the hunched over position people walk in when hunting for seashells.
Be sure to pick up the book 100 Things to do in Fort Myers & Sanibel Before You Die by Nancy Hamilton to find other gems.
Note: Parking fees apply
Further south is Marco Island and gateway to the Everglades. For a sensational shelling trip, join Treasure Seeker Shell Tours where you can apply all that you’ve learned on this journey and collect seashells galore!
Happy shelling! Following are a list of tourism offices which will offer more resources:
- Visit Tampa
- Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater
- Visit Sarasota
- Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach
- Beaches of Ft. Myers & Sanibel
- Naples, Marcos & Everglades
Check Airbnb Experiences to see if anyone is offering guided trips to search for fossilized shark teeth or shells.