Sanibel has four public beach-access areas with metered parking: the eastern point around Sanibel Lighthouse, which has a fishing pier; Gulfside City Park, at the end of Algiers Lane, off Casa Ybel Road; Tarpon Bay Road Beach, at the south end of Tarpon Bay Road; and Bowman's Beach, off Sanibel-Captiva Road. Turner Beach, at Blind Pass between Sanibel and Captiva, is popular at sunset because it faces due west; there's a small free parking lot on the Captiva side, but parking on the Sanibel side is limited to holders of local permits. All except Tarpon Bay Road Beach have restrooms. Note: Although nude bathing is illegal, the north end of Bowman's Beach often sees more than its share of bare straight and gay bodies.
Another popular beach on Captiva is at the end of Andy Rosse Lane in front of the Mucky Duck Restaurant. It's the one place here where you can rent motorized watersports equipment, but you'll have to use the Mucky Duck's restrooms if you need to go. There's limited free parking just north of here, at the end of Captiva Drive (go past the entrance to South Seas Resort to the end of the road).
Sanibel and Captiva are famous for their seashells, and residents and visitors alike can be seen in the "Sanibel stoop" or the "Captiva crouch" while searching for some 200 species. Only if you're a hard-core shell fanatic should you check out the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Rd. (tel. 888/679-6450 or 239/395-2233; www.shellmuseum.org), the only museum in the United States devoted solely to saltwater, freshwater, and land shells (yes, snails are included). The museum is a far cry from the tourist-trap shell factories you'll see throughout the state. Shells from as far away as South Africa surround a 6-foot globe in the middle of the main exhibit hall, showing their geographic origins. A spinning wheel-shaped case identifies shells likely to wash up on Sanibel. Other exhibits are devoted to shells in tribal art, fossil shells found in Florida, medicinal qualities of various mollusks, the endangered Florida tree snail, and "sailor's valentines" -- shell crafts made by natives of Barbados for sailors to bring home to their loved ones. The library attracts serious malacologists -- those who study mollusks -- and a shop has clever shell-themed gifts. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm; admission is $7 for adults and $4 for children 5 to 16.
For a great shelling excursion, Sanibel Island Cruise Line (tel. 239/472-5799; www.sanibelislandcruiseline.com) takes you on a 3-hour shelling and dolphin cruise to Cayo Costa for $50 per adult and $40 per child 12 and under.
The months from February to April, or after any storm, are prime times of the year to look for whelks, olives, scallops, sand dollars, conch, and many other varieties of shells. Low tide is the best time of day. The shells can be sharp, so wear Aqua Socks or old running shoes whenever you go walking on the beach.
Don't Take Live Shells -- Florida law prohibits taking live shells (those with living creatures inside them) from the beaches, and federal regulations prevent them from being removed from the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.