Named for the Des Moines Register cartoonist who was a frequent visitor and who started the federal Duck Stamp program, the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/dingdarling), on Sanibel-Captiva Road, is home to alligators, raccoons, otters, and hundreds of species of birds. Occupying more than half of Sanibel Island, this 6,000-plus-acre area of mangrove swamps, winding waterways, and uplands has a 2-mile boardwalk nature trail and a 5-mile, one-way Wildlife Drive. The visitor center shows brief videos on the refuge's inhabitants every half-hour and sells a map keyed to numbered stops along the Wildlife Drive. The best times for viewing wildlife are early morning, late afternoon, and at low tide (tables are posted at the visitor center and available at the chamber of commerce). Mosquitoes and no-see-ums (tiny, biting sand flies) are especially prevalent at dawn and dusk, so bring repellent.
Admission to the visitor center is free. The Wildlife Drive costs $5 per vehicle, $1 for hikers and bicyclists (free to holders of federal Duck Stamps and National Park Service access passports). The visitor center is open January through April, daily from 9am to 5pm; off season, daily from 9am to 4pm. It's open on federal holidays January through April, but closed on holidays the rest of the year. The Wildlife Drive is open year-round Saturday through Thursday, from 1 hour after sunrise to 1 hour before sunset. For more information, contact the refuge at 1 Wildlife Dr., Sanibel Island, FL 33957 (tel. 239/472-1100).
Newly opened to the public in 2010: Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife's Healing Winds Visitor Education Center, 3883 Sanibel Captiva Rd. (tel. 239/472-3644; www.crowclinic.org), offering an up-close look at how one of the nation's leading rehab hospitals cares for and rescues injured animals. Admission is a donation of $5.
You'll get a lot more from your visit by taking a naturalist-narrated tram tour operated by Tarpon Bay Explorers, at the north end of Tarpon Bay Road (tel. 239/472-8900; www.tarponbayexplorers.com). The tours last 1 1/2 hours and cost $13 for adults, $8 for children 12 and under. Schedules are seasonal, so call ahead.
Tarpon Bay Explorers also offers a variety of guided canoe and kayak tours, $30 adults, $20 kids, with an emphasis on the historical, cultural, and environmental aspects of the refuge (call for schedule and reservations, which are required). It also rents canoes, kayaks, and small boats with electric trolling motors.
A short drive from the visitor center, the nonprofit Sanibel/Captiva Conservation Foundation, 3333 Sanibel-Captiva Rd. (tel. 239/472-2329; www.sccf.org), maintains a nature center, a native-plant nursery, and 4.5 miles of nature trails on 1,100 acres of wetlands along the Sanibel River. You can learn more about the islands' ecosystems through environmental workshops, guided 1 1/2-hour trail walks, beach walks, and a 2-hour natural-history boat cruise (call for seasonal schedules and reservations). Various items are for sale, including native plants and publications on the islands' birds and other wildlife. Admission is $3 for adults, free for children 16 and under. The nature center is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 4pm, Saturday from 10am to 3pm.
Also nearby, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (C.R.O.W.), 3883 Sanibel-Captiva Rd. (tel. 239/472-3644; www.crowclinic.org), is dedicated to the care of sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife. C.R.O.W.'s Visitor Education Center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Admission is $5 for adults and children 4 and older.
Worth a stop after you've done everything else here, the Sanibel Historical Village & Museum, 950 Dunlop Rd. (tel. 239/472-4648), includes the 1913-vintage Rutland home and the 1926 versions of Bailey's General Store (complete with Red Crown gasoline pumps), the post office, and Miss Charlotta's Tea Room. Displays highlight the islands' prehistoric Calusa peoples, as well as old photos from pioneer days, turn-of-the-20th-century clothing, and a variety of memorabilia. It's open from November to May, Wednesday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm; from June to mid-August, Wednesday through Saturday from 10am to 1pm. Admission is by $3 donation.
In addition to its other trips, Captiva Cruises (tel. 239/472-5300; www.captivacruises.com) goes on daily sunset cruises from South Seas Island Resort, on Captiva. The cruise costs $25 adults, $15 children 6 to 12. Call for times and reservations.
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.