For those who are weary of Zoom meetings and computer screens, Sanibel Island and her sister island Captiva offer displays of nature that can help restore our hearts and refresh our minds.
Located on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sanibel lures visitors outdoors with its palm trees, flowers, hypnotic waves, abundant wildlife and dizzying array of seashells. Twenty-five miles of paved bike trails indicate the commitment of the locals to good health and enjoyment of nature, while area restaurants and farmers’ markets offer produce and dishes prepared with the freshest ingredients and seafood straight from the Gulf of Mexico.
Sanibel Island is connected to nearby Fort Myers by way of a three-mile-long causeway bridge. Captiva is accessed by a short bridge on the opposite end of Sanibel. There is a $6 toll for island-bound travelers but no fee for those leaving to return to Fort Myers and points beyond.
Flying into Southwest Florida International Airport and then renting a car might be the quickest way to reach Sanibel, but there is also an easy-to-follow route for driving from Alabama by heading down U.S. 231 from Montgomery and Dothan to I-10 West, then south on I-75.
Beachcombing and perfecting your own version of the Sanibel Stoop as you retrieve countless shells might become your No. 1 reason for loving Sanibel Island, but the overall environment, climate, scenery and unique vibe of the location will compete for second place.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands are consistently listed among the top shelling beaches in the world. The quantity and variety of shells are astonishing, and visitors quickly get addicted to the search for perfect specimens. Blind Pass, Bowman’s Beach, Lighthouse Beach and Turner Beach are noted hot spots, but I’d put Tarpon Bay Beach at the top of my list.
If you stay in a condo or a beach house on the Gulf, you can walk out to the edge of the waves at any time, but public beaches put the shells within reach for everyone.
There is a per-hour fee to park in the adjoining lots, so plan to arrive early to secure a spot. Most have restrooms available, but Bowman’s Beach does not.
Shell bags and a long-handled scooper are great collecting tools, but remember that live shelling is not permitted. Water shoes are important too because of all the sharp shell pieces along the shoreline. Sanibel is home to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, the only one of its kind in the country and a fascinating place to learn about the world of mollusks.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge makes up more than 6,400 acres of Sanibel Island. The mangrove forests, marshes and seagrass beds compose the perfect habitat for over 245 species of birds, as well as many other mammals, amphibians and fish.
The Visitor’s Center is free and very informative, but you also can take a narrated tram tour or drive the 4-mile-long wildlife trail at your own pace. Take two things: your camera and insect repellant.
This is a refuge rather than a park, so the emphasis is on the welfare of the wildlife rather than that of the visitors. The wildlife trail fee is per car.
Walking and biking trails
There are plenty of places to pull to the side of the road for closer looks, plus you can fish, put in a kayak or walk one of the six trails on the refuge. This is a photographer’s dream location.
Sanibel lures you outdoors and encourages good health by making exercise easy.
For example, Sanibel’s biking and walking trails are almost completely separated from the automobile traffic.
When the trails cross the two-lane roads, the path is clearly marked, and pedestrians and bikers are given courteous consideration.
Billy’s Bike Shop and Finnamore’s Cycle Shop are the most popular places where visitors can rent bikes. They offer a wide variety from multispeed bicycles to adult trikes, and from recumbent bikes to tandems and attachments for children. The bike shops will deliver your chosen bike to your condo or beach house and pick it up when you’re finished.
They also will provide a quick repair or substitution if you encounter a mechanical problem.
Seafood is the star on most restaurant menus. Oysters, shrimp, grouper, crab and more are prepared in many ways and are accompanied by delicious sides.
However, this is not the place for casseroles, cornbread and hushpuppies, as wonderful as those dishes are.
Instead, expect colorful steamed vegetables and delightful fresh fruits. Your meal might even arrive garnished with a tiny orchid.
Restaurants I have tried and eagerly recommend include George & Wendy’s Seafood Grille, RC Otter’s Island Eats (on Captiva), Gramma Dot’s, and Island Cow.
If you want your seafood prepared with Cajun seasoning, try Mudbugs, and if you’ve had your fill of seafood, head to Matzaluna for fabulous Italian cuisine. Go to Thistle Lodge for an upscale experience overlooking the Gulf, or try The Bubble Room on Captiva for fun, quirky decor and enormous desserts.
From October through May, the Sanibel Farmers Market on Sundays and the Captiva Farmers Market on Tuesdays bring together vendors from the surrounding area with locally grown produce, fresh-caught seafood, home-baked breads, cheeses, desserts, guacamole and salsas, as well as plants, jewelry and clothing.
They also attract food trucks, which feature breakfast and lunch favorites prepared and ready. These markets are extremely popular. I guarantee you will find something you can’t resist.
The history of Sanibel dates to the time when Ponce de Leon was searching for the Fountain of Youth and includes Calusa Indians, pirates and brave pioneers.
The Sanibel Historical Museum & Village is the place to learn all about it. Adjacent to the village is BIG Arts Center (Barrier Island Group for the Arts) which is a modern entertainment complex and art gallery.
The gallery presents new exhibits regularly. The schedule for plays and concerts is rebounding from the pandemic and will be back in full operation very soon.
Those who enjoy shopping while on vacation will love exploring Periwinkle Place with its lovely setting and nice selection of stores, including the very first Chico’s.
Tahitian Gardens, The Village Shops, and Olde Sanibel Shoppes are other good choices.
Judging from the car tags spotted, people from the Northeast and Midwest have discovered and embraced the charms of Sanibel and Captiva Islands. I believe people from Alabama will find it to be a valuable and beautiful vacation destination as well.