Sanibel Island is connected to Fort Myers, Florida, by a three-mile-long causeway spanning San Carlos Bay. It brings visitors into a wonderland of nature and a piece of paradise tailor-made for rejuvenation of body and soul. Many things keep drawing me back to Sanibel Island, but the top five boil down to these: shells, spoonbills, cycles, seafood, and sunsets. (I realize that cycling begins with a “c,” but it still has that “s” sound, so my alliteration stands).
Sanibel deserves its reputation for being one of the top shelling beaches in the world. A dizzying assortment of shells, technically the “exoskeletons of marine mollusks,” rolls onto the shore in a constant stream. No matter how many shell seekers are looking alongside you, each wave brings more.
On a recent trip to the island, my husband and I found 30 varieties. Even some of the big names (shark’s eyes, lettered olives, Florida fighting conchs, lightning whelks) rolled in for us to find and pick up. The extremely rare Junonia still alluded us, but that just provides another reason to return.
One trip, and you’ll perfect the “Sanibel Stoop” (nickname for the posture seen in shell seekers) in no time. Low tide, late afternoon, and after a storm are said to be some of the best shelling times. I found my treasures at different times of the day. Take a net bag and scoop, and wear sturdy water shoes to protect your feet from the shoreline’s shell fragments.
For a deep dive into shells, a visit to Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is a must. It is the only museum dedicated to seashells in North America, and a fine place to learn through exhibits, films, and observation of live shells in action. It is open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM.
Captiva is connected to Sanibel by a short bridge at Blind Pass and Turner Beach, both considered excellent shelling beaches. Captiva has a different vibe from that on Sanibel and a fascinating mix of old hippies, fabulously wealthy snowbirds, and retirees. It is more laidback and less crowded than Sanibel, but Sanibel has more shells and restaurants. You should check out both.
A more general word might be birdwatching or observing nature, and the best place to do this on Sanibel Island is at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The Visitor and Education Center offers free admission to the public. Due to Covid-19, only the information desk and the gift shop are available at present. Hopefully, the exhibits will reopen soon. The Wildlife Drive can be accessed from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM every day except Friday. The admission fee is $10 per carload.
Inside the Wildlife Drive, there are several trails where you can park your car and get closer to the action. Fishermen and kayakers claim their favorite spots quickly. Early and late afternoon are prime times for spotting some of the 245 species at Ding Darling. One of the most popular is the roseate spoonbill, if you are fortunate to spot one. You can’t miss the pink color and stork-like legs. Osprey, eagles, pelicans, egrets, herons, and ibis share the space with shorebirds, songbirds, and ducks in this photographer’s paradise. Fish, reptiles, and mammals also make up the inhabitants of the refuge.
Tarpon Bay Explorers rent kayaks and canoes by the hour for those who want to observe from the water. My husband rented a kayak for fishing and watched dolphins play beside him. He decided to paddle a little faster when a manatee got uncomfortably close.
Captiva Cruises offers visitors a chance to set foot on neighboring islands with half-day and full-day excursions. You can visit Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Useppa Island, Gasparilla Island, Pine Island, or around Sanibel and Captiva for sunset, dolphin, and sailing opportunities.
Sanibel Island is devoted to physical fitness, exercise, and luring people outdoors. The most visible way that commitment is manifested is through the nearly 25 miles of paved trails that are smooth and clearly marked. Even I was drawn to those trails, and I typically spend more time “riding” a desk chair or a piano bench.
Bicycle rental companies make things easy for their customers. Go by, “test drive” their bikes, choose one that works best, and they’ll deliver it to your condo or beach house and come to get it when you’re finished. There are daily and weekly rates. Bicycles range from single or multi-speed, tandem, recumbent bikes and trikes, adult trikes, and attachments for children’s bikes onto the adult bikes. Bike rental companies also have helmets and all the equipment you might need.
I want to give a shout-out to Billy’s Bike Shop on Sanibel Island. Owner Billy himself patiently helped me find what would work best, which was quite a task since I have rarely ridden since I was a young child. Then, a couple of days later, the chain came off my husband’s bike, and they promptly brought a replacement bike to our condo.
Sanibel trails are safe. Most are on a path separate from vehicle traffic. Crossings are marked, and bicycles and joggers are given priority attention. It usually costs $10 to drive through the Wildlife Trail at the refuge, but bikers can go through for only $1.
4. Seafood (Fresh and Sensational)
Just as Sanibel is committed to a healthy lifestyle with its bicycle and walking trails, the commitment continues through the restaurant menus. I didn’t spy a single casserole during my two-week stay! This is the place for fish (mostly grilled or blackened, rather than fried), fresh vegetables, and fruits. If you must splurge, use the calories for a slice of Key Lime Pie.
My husband and I sampled seafood at Gramma Dot’s, Island Cow, Blue Giraffe, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar, Sanibel Fish House, Tipsy Turtle, and George & Wendy’s Seafood Grille. All had extensive menus with selections to please non-seafood lovers, too. Mudbugs has a New Orleans theme and Cajun dishes. The Bubble Room has menu items with movie star references and a great dessert tray.
If you’re filled to the gills with seafood, Matzaluna rescues you with an Italian-themed restaurant, music, and a tempting menu. And, oh, the incredible aroma you’ll experience when you walk in! Pizzas, pasta, and fresh-baked bread with olive oil and dipping herbs await.
An elegant spot for Sunday brunch is Thistle Lodge Beachfront Restaurant on the grounds of Casa Ybel Resort. Thistle Lodge also serves lunch and dinner, but Sunday brunch is a decadent treat. Enjoy dishes impeccably served on crisp white linens while gazing at the water. Imagine how it looked when Thomas Edison and Henry Ford used to visit.
Before you head to brunch, a visit is the Sanibel Island Farmers Market is a must. The market is open from 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM on Sundays, October through May. The variety of goods will amaze you—fresh seafood, pastries, cheeses, vegetables, fruits, jams, guacamole (made on the spot), salsas, fresh flowers, jewelry, clothing, and fresh bread. Food trucks provide breakfast and lunch items. Go early for the best parking spots and the choicest products.
Sunrise is a beautiful time of day on Sanibel Island, but watching the sunset is almost a spiritual experience. On Captiva, you will notice a ritual taking place. Virtually every person on the island migrates to the beach a few minutes before sundown to watch the spectacle. Folks on Sanibel Island love it, too. Depending on the weather in the afternoon or the number of clouds, sunsets can be breathtakingly colorful. You probably won’t see much from the balcony of your condo. You’ll need to go out to the shoreline for the best view. I highly recommend watching the sunset with someone you love.
Sanibel Island is the kind of place where you are happy to arrive as you sense your blood pressure dropping, a place where you feel fully alive and healthy while you are there, and a place you’re genuinely sad to leave. I’ve been to beaches in California, Maine, North and South Carolina, Florida Panhandle, Mississippi, and Alabama, but THIS is my favorite. My preferred place to stay while I’m on Sanibel Island is at Pointe Santo de Sanibel, which has the best shelling beach.
The location on West Gulf Drive is easily accessible to bike trails, restaurants, grocery stores, and wildlife refuge. The condos provide an attractive, comfortable place to enjoy all Sanibel has to offer. Start making your plans to go. Shells, the elusive roseate spoonbill, cycles, seafood, and sunsets are waiting.
This article was written by Connie Pearson of There Goes Connie.
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