Two hours south of Tampa, you can visit the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, where instead of “Catch of the Week,” you can indulge in the “Catch of the Day!” 250 miles of coastline, 50 miles of beach, island hopping, and… mangos? Yes, there are mangos everywhere. Hear all about this place that’s “beautiful all the time,” from the area’s Communications Manager, Jackie Parker.
00:12 ANNA BELL: Hello and welcome to Main and Mulberry. I’m your host, Anna Bell, and I’m so excited to have with us today, Jackie Parker, the Communications Manager for the Lee County Convention and Visitors Bureau at the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel in Fort Myers, Florida. Jackie, thank you so much for making the time to be with us today.
00:33 JACKIE PARKER: Thank you, Anna. Just we’re excited. I’m excited to be here.
00:37 ANNA BELL: I’m excited too. I can’t wait to talk all about Fort Meyers and the Sanibel area, and you kind of give us a virtual tour guide, if you will, to explore the area, but for our listeners who have not yet had the opportunity to come and visit the area yet, maybe you can tell us where you are geographically located in the state of Florida.
00:59 JACKIE PARKER: Well we are located along the Gulf Coast, along the Gulf of Mexico, so we’re in a deep in South West Florida, and most people are familiar with Tampa, and we’re about two hours south of Tampa, and that’s a really easy way to explain where we are… Yeah.
01:14 ANNA BELL: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. A lot of people probably fly in and out, and that’s great to know about two hours south. Tell us a little about the beaches of Fort Meyers and the Sanibel area. You’re made up of several areas of interest, right? Maybe you can share those and maybe the uniqueness of those areas.
Jackie Parker: Yes. It’s just, it’s paradise. It is paradise. We are, we have Sanibel and Fort Meyers Beach. Two areas, they could… They’re so different from each other, but we have more than 50 miles of white sand coastline.
Anna Bell: Oh my goodness, you’re talking about paradise then for real. Oh. That’s the wonderful. 50 miles of… Now, do you have white sand beaches?
Jackie Parker: 50 miles, right of white sand beaches and about 250 miles of coastline, and that includes all of the islands that are… That are around here… It’s just… There are just beaches everywhere. You name it. Yeah, more kind of rocky coast on the inland beaches, and then on the coastal beaches, it’s just… It’s just a beautiful… All the time.
02:27 ANNA BELL: You can literally go island hopping, I guess, if you wanted to one weekend, right?
Jackie Parker: Yes, definitely that’s what… That’s what we promote. We’re all about the island hopping. We have a festival even named after… We can talk about that later.
Anna Bell: Oh, how fun. Oh, I love it, I love it. So maybe let’s kinda start with, you’re a well sought after destination Fort Meyers and the Sanibel area. The beaches, people really enjoy coming to visit you in Lee County. Can you kinda tell us maybe what some of those pre-pandemic numbers are like?
03:02 JACKIE PARKER: Well… Well, we’re very proud of them. And thank you for asking. We average about 5 million visitors a year, and they spend more than three billion dollars annually here. And tourism in Florida is the number one economic driver of the state, and here in Lee County, Florida, it definitely is an economic boost for our area. One in four jobs are attached to tourism, the hospitality industry, so it is a big deal here, and…
03:38 ANNA BELL: That’s so wonderful to hear. You know some areas have a really tough time when it comes to tourism dollars, but it sounds like you’re getting that support.
Jackie Parker: We are… And the residents who live here, they also get those benefits, and it’s fun to be… to do stay-cations where you live, especially here in Paradise, learned that myself. And it’s just a wonderful place. It’s so different from many parts of Florida. Here is where it’s all about nature and the beaches and the natural surroundings, and there’s plenty of room to kind of enjoy yourself on a beach and practice some social distancing. It’s just a perfect, perfect getaway.
Anna Bell: But it sounds like Ms. Jackie you’re telling me, leave the office at home, go step outside and really enjoy all that the nature has to offer it.
04:34 JACKIE PARKER: You can work anywhere. Bring your… we’ve got WiFi. [laughter]
04:41 ANNA BELL: I love it. So Jackie are you from the area? How long have you been around Florida?
04:45 JACKIE PARKER: Well, I have been here for three years, and I came here for the job. I was formerly in St. Louis. I was travel editor for a long time at St. Louis Post Dispatch, so former journalist, doing PR and it’s just been a great fit. I grew up in Paducah, Kentucky. Came to Memphis all the time, and that’s where my husband and I do get away from St. Louis, all the time. And we just love Memphis, so I’m so excited when you invited me to be on your podcast.
05:14 ANNA BELL: I’m so excited to be doing this with you too, and I’m excited to hear all about Florida, but we’re thankful you mentioned a Memphis ’cause we are… We’re right outside of Memphis, and it is a great area too… I’m willing to bet that a fair amount of the visitors that come and stay with you really enjoy fishing, and my mouth is honestly watering at the idea of enjoying some fresh catch.
05:40 JACKIE PARKER: Well it is something that we were very proud of. The pink shrimp is something that we’re known for. Pink shrimp. They call it, back in the day they called it the gold, pink gold, and there are still working shrimp boats that come out of Fort Meyers Beach, and there’s a tour that people can take with the Ostego Bay Foundation. And you get to go out on the dock and you learn all about the shrimping industry, and it’s a fun tour to take and it gives you… We talk farm-to-table, we’re talking Gulf to table here.
Anna Bell: Oh, oh, even better. That sounds so good. Some fresh catch. Yes.
Jackie Parker: Now, it’s stone crab season. And that runs through May. And the cool thing about stone crab, have you ever have had stone crab claw?
Anna Bell: No, I’ve never had one, but it’s on my bucket list.
Jackie Parker: They’re big, they’re big and they’re easy to eat, and the cool thing is, is the crab claw regenerates, so when they’re harvested, the stone crabbers pull off one… one claw, and then toss him back in.
Anna Bell: Wow, how unique is that?
06:50 JACKIE PARKER: Yeah, yeah, so it’s really cool. And it takes about a year for the claw to regenerate. So they just pull one off. And… And pop ’em back in.
06:58 ANNA BELL: And toss ’em back into the ocean. Oh, wow. That’s so unique. You don’t hear that all the time, you know, that’s really great. You can enjoy the fruits of your labor and let the little guy keep runnin’ huh?
07:09 JACKIE PARKER: It’s good with butter, so it’s really a neat way to experience it and let’s see… The Grouper, we’re known for our Grouper. Blackened, grilled, fried, you name it, and it’s just… There are places that under sandwich boards, it’ll say instead of catch of the day, it’s catch of the hour, catch of the moment.
07:31 ANNA BELL: That is so fun. Oh, that’s true. I mean, true, like you said, coast to… Did you say Coast to plate or Gulf to plate? ____ I’ve heard also that you have some really unique breweries, and even a trail maybe that our listeners and I can go on when we come to visit, is that right?
Jackie Parker: We do, we do. It’s the South West Florida Ale Trail, and here in Lee County, we’ve got about eleven breweries, and we have two distilleries and… Yeah, I won’t go down the whole Bourbon, Jack Daniels, all that stuff, but rum is thing here. Rum is the distilled spirit here, but the breweries, there’s a brewery trail, and when you’re visiting, when you’re traveling, you don’t always think of county lines, and so we partnered with the counties around us to create this brew trail, so you can go wherever and maybe tack on another night, a hotel night. You never know.
Anna Bell: Absolutely.
Jackie Parker: Visit these breweries and they use local ingredients and they’re all so very different, and some of them have food attached to them. Food trucks are really big in this area, and so that’s always… There’ll be a different food truck with the brewery, a lot of the breweries offer tours, and it is a family run, and they couldn’t be more different, and it is…
Anna Bell: So you’re not going to the same thing over and over again, you’re gonna see something unique with each one of these.
Jackie Parker: Here the fruit is mango, and so you’re going to get different takes on different kinds of mango beers, whether it’s a more of a Pilsner or more of an IPA. They’re really fun, and there’s a passport that you can get and get your passport stamps and you’ll be here long enough to get some value from that ale trail.
Anna Bell: How fun. You’re speaking my love language now. I really love mango, and while we’re talking about good food and drink, can you kinda tell us about Pine Island? I’ve been told that you can get some pretty incredible tropical and exotic fruit.
Jackie Parker: A couple of years ago, Martha Stewart Living did a big spread on the local produce and featured mangoes, and there are so many different varieties of mangoes. The longer I live here, the more I learned… Okay, I thought there were a dozen mangoes. No. There’s 25 or even more varieties of mangoes. There’s a season for them, and it’s funny because the trees kinda look like peach trees, they’re related, the leaves look like that. So when I first started seeing mango trees here, I was like, Well, they look like peaches… Well, that makes sense. They are closely related.
10:19 ANNA BELL: Related. Yeah. Exactly. Are a lot of those varieties grown near you?
10:23 JACKIE PARKER: Lots of varieties are grown near me and out on Pine Island, which if I’m not mistaken, is the largest island in the state of Florida, and you can get there by going through this funky, artsy town called Matlacha, and it is very colorful. It used to be a fishing village, and it still is a fishing village, but it’s a little more of an artist colony kind of place too, and you drive through there to get over to Pine Island, and Pine Island has an area called Tarpon Lodge or a restaurant and lodge called Tarpon Lodge, and they have amazing food there, and their sister business is Cabbage Key, which is an island out in the middle of Pine Island Sound. That’s one of my favorite places to stay. I love that Pine Island Sound.
11:08 ANNA BELL: That sounds like a good drink too. Somebody needs to come up with a little Pine Island Sound…
11:14 JACKIE PARKER: I like that. Now you’re talking. But yeah, Pine Island Sound… Sorry, I’m so excited. Pine Island is… a lot of people, locals live there. That is just a real, true old Florida. You can go to the north to this town called Bokeelia, and there’s boating there, and at Tarpon Lodge, there’s boating. There is Randell Research Center, if you’re into Calusa Indian history. That’s there too. And then to the south there’s St. James, and there’s a couple of funky biker bars there, and it’s just really…
Anna Bell: It’s really eclectic it sounds like. A fun place.
12:01 ANNA BELL: It really is, yeah.
Anna Bell: Okay, well, we were talking about mangoes, I have to ask about Mango Mania. I’ve heard about that event. Can you tell us a little about Mango Mania?
12:11 JACKIE PARKER: Yeah, yeah, and it’s a local festival, Mango Mania, and it is everything mango and there’s a mango queen who gets crowned.
Anna Bell: Oh, how fun. Look at that.
Jackie Parker: So yeah, and it’s a fun event and you get to sample mangoes and have mango, different kinds of smoothies, and you can see how mangoes can be prepared, entrees, and yeah…
Anna Bell: That’s gotta be on my list. I’ve got to come visit, especially around the time of Mango Mania.
12:47 JACKIE PARKER: Really, it’s fun. It’s a fun event and it brings people from far and wide, but… Yeah.
12:53 ANNA BELL: I’ve also heard that you’re a pet-friendly destination, Jackie, is that right?
12:58 JACKIE PARKER: We are, we are… We have several… lots of hotels that offer pet-friendly accommodations, a lot of restaurants, you eat outside here, there’s a lot of eating outside, and so you can bring your pet along and it’s really not a problem, and we have a dog beach that is dog friendly, and you can…
13:24 ANNA BELL: Fun. So no short of fun for our four-legged friends, right?
13:27 JACKIE PARKER: And there’s a place to shower. You can rinse them off and it’s really, it’s fun. And the water, and I’ve been to dog beach. I’ve taken my dog to dog beach, and it was quite the experience.
Anna Bell: Oh I bet.
Jackie Parker: She had to be one of the dogs that was on leash ’cause she just to…
Anna Bell: So exciting, so exciting.
Jackie Parker: Very mellow. And you’ll see people in boats, you’re sort of hanging out and they’ll just let their dogs off and swim, but it’s… When the tides out, it’s very shallow, and it’s really fun, it’s very fun, and just dogs of all sizes and temperaments. It’s a lot of fun.
14:06 ANNA BELL: Can you imagine anything more magical than a beach wedding? Do you have many couples wanting to come and to tie the knot at the beaches of Fort Meyers and Sanibel?
14:18 JACKIE PARKER: Let me tell you, it is a thing. There are places out on Sanibel, a lot of properties on Sanibel that have amazing destination beach weddings out there. It’s just beautiful. We have the sunset. Lovers’ Key. Down on Fort Myers Beach is a state park, and it was at one point a key, and it was a place… It got it’s name. That’s how it got it’s name. It was a place where lovers would paddle out to and spend some quality time out there, and now it really isn’t a key, it’s actually just part of the beach, and it’s a state park and it’s very popular, and they have a fun celebration on Valentine’s Day as you would expect.
15:01 ANNA BELL: Oh yeah, the Day of Love, right.
15:04 JACKIE PARKER: Exactly. And it is, and even on Fort Meyers Beach, but yeah, there’s lots of beach weddings, lots of beach weddings, and that’s a fun… And that’s a great way to gather all the generations of the family and to do a destination wedding upright, they know how to do them here. Really.
15:23 ANNA BELL: Yes, and experience something magical right? Like I say, a magical… beach wedding. That sounds awesome. One thing in particular, and this is kind of a two-part question, I guess, that I’ve been really anxious to ask about is you have what’s called sustainable farming and farm tours. I’d love to know a little bit about that, as well as kind of your aquaculture and all the fun, wonderful aqua things we can do when we come down to visit with you.
15:51 JACKIE PARKER: Yes, with the aquaculture, the Ostego Bay Foundation, which we were talking about earlier, just showing how important shrimping industry was back in the heyday of Fort Meyers Beach, and what it is now, and it’s still very important because there aren’t that many… I believe Florida and Texas, the Gulf Coast of Texas, are really the only places where shrimp, where it’s locally sourced and so you learn about that, and there is a place, more inland called Echo Global Farm. I was there yesterday, Echo Global Farm, and it is more of an inland, inland in Lee County, and it is a place where they teach people how to grow food, and it is a worldwide global organization, obviously, and it’s something that it’s not… Where they’re showing farmers how to grow and expand their farming, it’s what else they can grow besides what they know how to grow.
17:06 ANNA BELL: Standard things. Okay.
17:08 JACKIE PARKER: Work with you. They like to work with what people have at their disposal, and they have offices in Africa, in Thailand and in China, and it’s all over the world, really, and the research is being done right here in our area, and you can take tours and… They have a little sub-Saharan arid area, and then they have a tropical area, and you get to see all these little… All these little… And rainforest even, all these little areas and what can be grown there and what can be made with what people have.
17:49 ANNA BELL: Sounds like a really fun family experience to be able to go and see these different areas and what all can be grown… That sounds really cool.
Jackie Parker: It really is, and it’s just something that they have… The research that’s being done all the time and the partnerships that they’ve done with Doctors Without Borders and other universities across the country, a really… It’s a very powerful place, and just how they can send seeds to a farmer, and with those seeds, they can plant and then they will get more seeds and they will continue growing, and it’s something where they can learn how to… Grow something that they can sell and be more profitable and has more of a comfortable life for their families.
18:38 ANNA BELL: Life-changing, right? Life-changing. Oh wow. How neat. It sounds like you enjoyed your tour.
18:45 JACKIE PARKER: I did, I did. It was really something, and out on Pine Island, there are all sorts of, they’re different… There are, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a palm tree farms, but I guess you have to get them from somewhere. But there are palm tree farms and farmers markets everywhere, and you can see some of them are actually on farms, and the funny thing about farmers markets is when they’re closed up north, that’s when they kick in here, so they just started kicking in a couple of weeks ago, I’m here in October.
19:23 ANNA BELL: How fun. Oh, okay, so are they kind of similar to like they are here where you’ve got a bunch of local vendors and all kinds of different variety up there.
19:32 JACKIE PARKER: And more tropical, a little more tropical fruit.
Anna Bell: Oh yeah. I would be willing to bet. That’s awesome.
Jackie Parker: Dragon fruit and your star fruit, and mangoes, that were grown here, and… That’s the thing, it’s just like, Oh my gosh, this is amazing. And the farmers market on Sanibel is just a tradition, and it’s on Sunday mornings, and it’s just a fun… It’s such a fun thing to do because it is one of the things, one of the more local activities that people do, and it really is just great. And…
20:06 ANNA BELL: So before we head out, Sunday morning, we need to stop by the farmers market and pick up some really good fresh produce it sounds like.
Jackie Parker: Exactly. Pick up some fresh produce, pick up, some shrimp or some crab cakes and head to the beach. I’ve done it a million times.
Anna Bell: Oh, sounds like heaven, sounds like paradise. Jackie, talking about island hopping, I’ve heard there’s a really cool festival that is worth checking out, if we get to come down and see you… Is that right?
20:34 JACKIE PARKER: Yes, we have a 10-day festival in September is called The Island Hopper Songwriters Festival. And it is September 17th, through the 26th in 2021, and it’s 10 days. It starts out on Captiva Island, and the weekend, and then moves to downtown Fort Meyers, and then moves to Fort Myers Beach, and we bring in singer/song writers from Nashville, and they come and perform hour sets, you really do get to hop around from different locations and so much of it is within walking distance of. There would be five or six bars and restaurants on Captiva, and you can catch a set at the Muddy Duck at 7 o’clock and then walk down to Key Lime Bistro and see someone else perform.
21:26 ANNA BELL: How fun. That’s such a wonderful opportunity to be able to really sight see and listen to some good music, and I’m willing to bet some good food too.
21:34 JACKIE PARKER: Definitely, definitely, and it’s in the early evenings because we’re not… we’re not getting any younger. So yeah, that’s right. It is fun, and it’s just something that we’re really looking forward to bringing people back to experience.
21:50 ANNA BELL: So Jackie, as our personal tour guide, I have to ask, what is one of your favorite places to go and visit? Something that’s really fun to do, as well as one of your favorite places to eat, that just has to be on our list of things to do when we come to visit.
Jackie Parker: One of my favorite places to eat, actually, I’ve got a couple, Gypsy Fish down in Fort Myers Beach, and it looks like a fish staff and it’s open air, it’s right on the water, you’re looking out on the bay and you see pelicans and boats going back and forth and you’re just sort of right behind Fort Myers Beach and you’re on the bay, you’re not on the Gulf, but there’s plenty of activity and there’s so much to look at and you can tell, you can see tourists when they come in ’cause they’re just wide eyed, and they’re so happy to be there, and it is…
Anna Bell: Really experience it all, it sounds like, when you get to sit down and enjoy a good meal and see everything at the same time…
22:50 JACKIE PARKER: Yes, and they just have a triple tail right off the boat, and it’s great and with a nice craft beer from one of the local breweries that makes beer for them. Yeah, it’s just wonderful. And another place is in Fort Myers, so Fort Meyers and Fort Meyers Beach are two different places. So the beach is the beachy area, and then Fort Myers is more the town that everybody knows about.
23:18 JACKIE PARKER: On McGregor Boulevard, which is the street is a palm tree-lined street. It’s very iconic in this area, and there’s a restaurant called McGregor Cafe, and it’s also outside, and they have great breakfast, great lunches, and… They’re just open for breakfast and lunch. Their key lime pie is something to die for it…
23:38 ANNA BELL: Now you’re talking… That sounds so good.
23:41 JACKIE PARKER: Yeah, it’s great.
23:45 ANNA BELL: Oh, that’s awesome. Is there an activity or a fun thing that you really enjoy doing? You’re still relatively new to the area, you’re still getting to check out and try all the new things, but is there one thing in particular that you’ve really enjoyed going to see or going to do?
Jackie Parker: Anything that gets you out on the water. My husband and I love to get out on the water, I can get a, get a kayak, either a tandem or a one seater, and we each have our own little kayaks and go paddling. I remember distinctly coming back home, coming back from visiting my family up North in Kentucky, and we were here on December 3, and we went kayaking.
24:25 JACKIE PARKER: Wow, not too many people can say that now, Jackie. That’s fun.
Jackie Parker: And it was just really… It was just like, Wow, this is our new home. This is something special, to be able to do that. We were at Lovers’ Key and went out and just kayaked like five or seven miles, and it was just… It was beautiful. It was just beautiful. And sometimes you might get bumped by a manatee. We have manatee.
Anna Bell: Wow. Oh my goodness.
Jackie Parker: Dolphins and manatees. There is a school of dolphins in Pine Island Sound that lives there year-round because the water is so warm…
25:02 ANNA BELL: How magical. That sounds so awesome. So any given moment, you never know what you’re gonna see.
25:10 JACKIE PARKER: You never know. And with the manatees, their vegetarians and their harmless, they’re not gonna… We don’t approach… Not gonna, they’re too busy eating even whatever the greens in the water, but there’s a place out on Captiva, Jensen’s Twin Palms Marina. And sometimes you can walk out on their dock and you’ll see manatees right there, and I often… When I have people come in and visit I’ll say let’s pull in here and see what we can see. And more often than not, you’re gonna see a manatee.
25:49 ANNA BELL: How can that ever get old, Jackie? That can’t get old.
25:52 JACKIE PARKER: It really can’t. It’s pretty marvelous. It really is, and the manatees are just… They’re so special.
25:58 ANNA BELL: You’ve got me all fired up to book my trip. We’ve got to come down to Fort Myers and Sanibel, see the beaches and all the wonderful thing it has to offer, but Jackie, tell us, for our listeners who are really ready to prepare their trip, where is the best place that they can go to get all the information to map out their trip?
26:17 JACKIE PARKER: That would be our website fortmeyers-sanibel.com, that would be it, and I would recommend listening to our podcast, Shell Cast, that’s something that we just started a few months ago, and it is a good way to just enhance that website experience when you’re planning your trip and you’re looking everywhere… Well, download one of our podcasts, we’re on our website and also on Apple and Spotify, and wherever you download your podcast and it will give you an experience at Edison & Ford Winter Estates, the Burrow & Owl Festival over on Cape Coral and a beach walk out on Sanibel.
26:56 ANNA BELL: You can really deep dive into events and things that are going on, it sounds like… That’s awesome. That’s really wonderful. Jackie, thank you so much for your time and your insight today. We sincerely appreciate it, and we’re so excited to come and make my trip. The kids better get ready. We’re coming down to see you.
27:16 JACKIE PARKER: Do. Come on down. We’re happy to have you.
27:18 ANNA BELL: Thank you so much. Thank you guys. Alright, we hope you enjoyed this episode of Main and Mulberry. Until next time, I’m Anna Bell.