A Guide to Vacationing in Florida's Sanibel Island
From dining to day trips, here's what to know about visiting Sanibel Island.
Located about 25 miles south of Fort Myers, Florida's family-friendly Sanibel Island—along with its little sister, Captiva Island—draws vacationers looking for beautiful beaches and opportunities to explore the area's rich ecosystem.
What to Do
The island's sandy beaches are the main attraction for most—and not just due to the long stretches of sand or crashing surf. Bowman's Beach is Sanibel's most popular one, but it still feels secluded, with a beautiful coastline that also entices wind surfers and sailors. It's an excellent spot for shell collectors too, who come from all over to pick up conches and cockles.
A bit more off the beaten path is Blind Pass Beach, located between Sanibel and Captiva. The currents bring in a ton of shells, but they're too strong for swimming. Seashell-hunting pros shouldn't miss the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which contains some of the largest shells ever found, and amateurs can head to this quirky museum to figure out exactly what kind of shells they picked up, too.
If it's possible to break away from the beach (or shell hunt), Sanibel's natural surroundings are full of potential adventures—but the 5,200-acre J.N. ("Ding") Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a must. It was founded by an editorial cartoonist from Iowa, and now hundreds of animals live in this area, including crocodiles, endangered giant manatees, and plenty of bird life.
Heading out on one of its serene, mangrove-lined kayaking trails is a peaceful way to pass an afternoon, but for those who are tight on time or traveling with small children, it's also possible to drive through four miles of the refuge, as well as hike and bike it. Back at its Visitors Center, an outdoor GPS treasure hunt is fun for kids and educates them about local wildlife. Another outdoors destination is the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile-long canoe and kayak trail that offers waterways for beginners and advanced paddlers.
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Back on land, the Botanical Gardens at Sanibel Moorings Resort, with hundreds of varieties of native and non-native plants, aren't exactly your typical gardens. As the story goes, a gardener charged with the upkeep of the six-acre gardens decided—quite on his own—to bring in some rare plants. Successive gardeners added to his collection, each with their own specialty, and in 2009, it was designated an official botanic garden. Tours for the public are available most of the year.
Where to Stay
Casa Ybel, which bills itself as Sanibel's first resort, is a great option for families who want to stay on the beach: The suites in this 114-condo, beachfront Hilton property all have kitchens, so it's easy to cook in. But it doesn't look like the stark stucco condos lining so much of Florida's beachfront: The property, dating back to the 1880s, has manicured lawns, Adirondack chairs, and palm trees. There's also plenty to occupy little ones, with a pool, playground, and kids club just for them—perfect for when parents take advantage of the property's in-suite spa treatments.
Couples seeking a more romantic hotel should look to the Island Inn, which offers beachfront rooms or cottages along 550 feet of coastline. There are also bicycle, kayak, and paddleboard rentals, lawn games and sports and, of course, shell-cleaning stations. The hotel's restaurant kitchen will also prep and cook guests' catches.
Where to Eat and Drink
Seafood is the order of the day on Sanibel, and there are more than a few ways to get a fish fix. The Island Cow is a cheap, kid-friendly spot with a raw bar, and Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille is a Caribbean haunt for sports-lovers. For a meal that's a bit more swanky, Il Cielo serves up American food that's been carefully sourced on its white tablecloths: think fresh-caught local fish, free-range chicken, and organic, local vegetables (it also has an excellent happy hour). A little out of the main area is The Sandbar, a refreshingly modern seafood spot that also offers excellent steaks and cocktails.
One perennial island spot for grub, Lazy Flamingo, is also BYOF (Bring Your Own Fish): Guests can pass their freshly-caught fish to the kitchen cooks, who will work their magic and pass the catch back fried, blackened, or grilled—and with a side of fries—for less than $10.
Southwest Florida International Airport is the easiest bet for flying in: Located in Fort Myers, it's just 20 miles away from Sanibel Island via Interstate 75. Those flying into Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando airports just need to head west on 1-75; from Tampa International Airport, Sanibel is south on 1-75.
Just two main roads—both of which run parallel to each other—make getting around the island fairly easy. Gulf Drive follows the coast, while Periwinkle Way goes east until it hits the island's lighthouse and beach, and west through where most shopping and dining destinations are located. Biking paths also abound across the island.
Sanibel-Captiva Road (that's "San-Cap" in local speak) is the main route for adventures further afield: It goes right past most of Sanibel's natural attractions and links Sanibel with its tiny counterpart, Captiva Island.
Captiva Island, though diminutive at just four miles long and half a mile wide, surprisingly has a lot to offer vacationers—and it's just 20 minutes from the heart of Sanibel. Get there, of course, via San-Cap. Spend the day on the island's beach, grab some coconut cake from the rainbow-painted Bubble Room, then stay for a sunset catamaran cruise. The island also offers plenty for kayakers and snorkelers.
When to Go
May is an excellent time to go: The water is warm, and the sun is generally shining during the island's shoulder season. Wait until June, however, and it's Sanibel's rainiest month—and then hurricane season begins. Winter is also lovely, although it might not be possible to get in the water: January to April is actually peak season on the island, with temps in the mid-70s in late spring, and it draws in birdwatchers, snowbirds, and shellers.