I'd been to Florida before on a family holiday to Disney World when my children were little, so I was excited to be returning; this time for a totally different type of getaway!
From the whirlwind adrenaline-high of the theme parks to the laid-back natural beauty of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, the two are like chalk and cheese. Although I'll always cherish my memories of Orlando, I left a little piece of my heart among the shells of Florida's south west coast. It was love at first sight, from the moment we arrived at the barrier island of Sanibel Island I knew I'd found my happy place. As we drove from the airport, my first glimpse of the Gulf of Mexico, the unspoilt white-sand beaches and uncluttered blue-sky horizons immediately started to work their magic.
We'd left London on a grey day in May and arrived to be greeted by brilliant sunshine and a warm welcome at the island's Sundial Beach Resort & Spa, the first stop on our two-centre stay. Perfect for couples looking to chill out and enjoy some post-wedding R&R, there's something for everyone here. The light and airy suites, are spacious and well-equipped complete with their own kitchen, living area, garden or waterfront views. Perfect for newlyweds, you can dine in and enjoy some alone time or venture out and you won't have far to go to enjoy great food. The resort boasts a variety of eateries offering a range of culinary delights, from award-winning sushi to delicious local seafood at the waterfront Sea Breeze Café. And if you just want to lounge by the pool, cocktail in hand, poolside snacks and drinks are available too. For active types, there's everything from paddle boarding to beach volley ball, as well as a fitness room and a relaxing spa if you fancy a bit of pampering. I enjoyed a rejuvenating massage that left me feeling totally chilled and revived. There's plenty for the little ones to do too if you're planning a family-moon.
The beach and warm inviting Gulf waters are never more than a stone's throw away. I fell for the simple pleasures, like taking a dip in the warm sea, collecting shells and enjoying the natural beauty of the place. Famous for its shelling, the shoreline is strewn with a carpet of wonderful finds. Beware though, it can be highly addictive! I could have spent all day wandering up and down the water's edge, head down (known locally as the Sanibel stoop) hunting for ocean treasures. For newlyweds, an evening stroll along the beach to take in the heart-melting sunsets is a romantic toes-in-the-sand experience that's hard to beat; a must for the honeymoon album.
Feeling thoroughly relaxed and carefree after just two days, it was time to leave for the second leg of our trip to neighbouring Captiva. This tropical island gem has a character and charm all of its own, a little piece of heaven, it's like stepping into a film set. We stayed at the Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound. Surrounded by 13 picturesque acres, what was once a collection of fishing cottages is now a holiday hotspot, great for honeymooners, with accommodation to suit a range of budgets and an extensive stretch of sugary white sand, renowned as one of America's most romantic beaches. It's not often I'm tempted to get up at 6am when I'm away but the sound of the ocean beckoned and seeing the sun rise over the water is not to be missed. Followed by a hearty breakfast at historic landmark The Old Captiva House, it's the perfect start to the day. The restaurant has been re-invented and re-designed with a fresh, chic style and a mouth-watering menu to match. Fast becoming a go-to destination for breakfast and dinner, I tucked into a stack of delicious pancakes before heading out to explore the island. Although it's hard to tear yourself away from the beautiful beaches, there's plenty more to discover to get a real feel of Captiva's quirky charm and character. Here the living is easy, you can set your own pace, soak up the sun, swim, sightsee, or simply be!
We ate at so many amazing places and enjoyed everything from pizza at Capones in Fort Meyers (www.caponescoalfiredpizza.com); breakfast at The Island Cow in Sanibel (www.sanibelislandcow.com), a fun and funky eaterie with the best homemade muffins; to fine-dining at the Mad Hatter Restaurant (www.madhatterrestaurant.com), a romantic destination where you can kick off your shoes before dinner and join other sky-gazers on the sand to watch the sun go down. If you think that's hard to beat for starters, the food and atmosphere of this former beach bungalow won't disappoint. It's renowned as one of the top-notch culinary destinations in the area.
No trip would be complete without a stop off at Pinchers (www.pinchersusa.com) for a no-frills, authentic taste of Southwest Florida. The business runs on a simple ethos – local fishermen, fishing local waters for a local restaurant. Unsurprisingly, crab features large on the menu, so be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.
Psst... for a Florida-favourite, check out the Key lime pie at the eponymous Key Lime Bistro (www.keylimebistrocaptiva.com) in the middle of historic Captiva Island Inn Village. A great place to eat, drink and just hang out, listening to live music on the patio.
Enjoy a pinch-me island experience with Captiva Cruises (www.captivacruises.com). We took a trip to the southern end of Cayo Costa island, a remote part accessible only by boat and with no amenities, just miles of shell-strewn sand, blue sea and wildlife. You can take a picnic and find your own secluded spot, do some snorkelling, or bird spotting. Teeming with wildlife, while we were waiting at the marina to board our vessel I watched the manatees grazing in the shallows and as the boat made its way across the water, dolphins were swimming alongside.
Fly to Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers from the UK via Philadelphia, Newark, Charlotte, Atlanta, and other main hubs. Prices start from £490pp www.americanairlines.co.uk; www.virginatlantic.com; www.delta.com
Sundial Beach Resort & Spa
Prices start from £187 per room per night (inc. taxes and fees) www.sundialresort.com
Tween Waters Inn Island Resort
Prices start from £185 for a beach-view room per night (inc. taxes and fees) www.tween-waters.com