A First Timer's Guide to Sanibel Island, Florida's Nature Escape
Note: This gallery was published before Sanibel Island was devastated by Hurricane Ian in September, 2022.
The shrimp-shaped slice of sand known as Sanibel Island floats along Florida’s southwest coast near Fort Myers. In contrast to the overdeveloped, tourist-clogged parts of the state, Sanibel is a nature lover’s dream characterized by pristine beaches, bird-packed wildlife refuges, and launch points to other quiet isles accessible only by boat. With few chain restaurants or hotels and most buildings no taller than three stories (the approximate height of the tallest trees), this eco-friendly destination will redefine your preconceptions of what a Florida vacation can be.
Less than an hour’s drive from both Southwest Florida International Airport and downtown Fort Myers, family-friendly Sanibel sits just across the Gulf of Mexico from rowdier Fort Myers Beach. Visitors access the island by driving across the Sanibel Causeway (pictured), a toll bridge with picturesque water views that are worth the price of admission alone. Sanibel’s main drag of Periwinkle Way will take you to most of the shops in the more developed eastern part of the island, while Sanibel Captiva Road continues to the wilder western side and Sanibel’s smaller sister isle, Captiva.
Sanibel’s busiest time is January through April, when the arrival of snowbirds leads to backed-up traffic on Periwinkle Way. But most of the action centers on the shops and restaurants in the area just after you enter the eastern end of the island. Turn off the main road and traffic mercifully disappears. The 1884 Sanibel Lighthouse is nearby, on the isle’s easternmost tip. The structure is certainly worth checking out—there is also a nice beach and fishing pier here—but you’ll want to make your way west for the really good stuff. One of the most popular ways to explore Sanibel is by renting a scooter or bike and hitting the 22 miles of paved cycling paths. A local outfitter like Billy’s Bike Shop (1509 Periwinkle Way) can set you up with wheels and send you on your merry way.
Sanibel is not the cheapest of destinations, especially when it comes to accommodations. Your best bet for budget lodgings is to stay in Fort Myers and drive in for the day. For hotels on the island, Sanibel Island Beach Resort provides a nice blend of affordability and comfort with prime real estate on the beach and a breezy outdoor area with a lively tiki bar under swaying palm trees. A more upscale option is South Seas Island Resort (pictured) on Captiva. Set along more than 2 miles of beach extending across a vast nature preserve, this renowned family-friendly retreat has a mind-boggling number of amenities, including several restaurants, boat and golf cart rentals, a shuttle service, and pretty much anything else a Florida vacation could possibly require.
Sanibel and Captiva are known for some of the best shelling in North America. In fact, there’s even a name for the bent-over position that beachcombers take when searching for seashells here—it’s known as the “Sanibel Stoop.” Blind Pass Beach (located just before you pass into Captiva) is popular with shellers as well as fishermen. Locals cast lines from the Blind Pass Bridge near the beach. Join them for the chance to reel in some beauties (fishing license required), including the unusual-looking black-and-white-striped sheepshead fish. About 3 miles to the east, Bowman’s Beach (pictured) is one of Sanibel’s more secluded spots, with no hotels and a bridge from the parking lot leading to an often unpeopled stretch of sand and a shelling bonanza. A surprisingly underrated spot is located right off the busy road that enters Sanibel. The 10-acre Causeway Islands Park is great for lounging under palm trees, and there’s plentiful free parking.
It would be a shame not to spend a little time exploring Sanibel’s crystal-clear waters. In addition to kayak and canoe rentals from outfitters such as Tarpon Bay Explorers (900 Tarpon Bay Rd.), catamarans and yachts are available for hire—but prices are steep. Sign up instead for a piloted excursion from Captiva Cruises (11401 Andy Rosse Lane) or another local business. Among your seagoing options: sunset, shelling, and wildlife cruises with near-guaranteed dolphin sightings. Thanks to their locations on the west side of Florida, Sanibel and Captiva are legendary for their sunsets, and the combination of blazing sky and rippling ocean is even more impressive when viewed from a boat bobbing in the waves. Put a cocktail in your hand and you’ve got all the ingredients for pure island bliss.
Nature preserves make up a sizeable portion of Sanibel Island, and no natural area is bigger than the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the U.S., the park’s 6,400 acres are home to more than 245 kinds of birds and dozens of reptile species. For an overview of the refuge, walk, bike, or drive the 4-mile Wildlife Drive loop or take a 90-minute tram ride. Both inside and outside protected areas, Sanibel and Captiva are teeming with wildlife, including dolphins, manatees, and bald eagles. Even Sanibel’s three golf courses are sanctioned as wildlife habitats by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf. Flower seekers should check out Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens (845 E. Gulf Dr.), though colorful blooms such as bougainvillea can easily be spotted along the main road en route to Captiva.
The primary business district of tiny, 1.64-square-mile Captiva Island covers roughly one street, but it might just be the cutest street in America. It’s called Andy Rosse Lane (Captiva and Sanibel are connected by roads—no ferries required), and it’s lined with palm trees, a handful of inviting restaurants, live music bars, and quirky shops between the main access road and Captiva Beach. And that’s pretty much everything you’ll find here: sleepy small town, white-sand beach, lots of peace and quiet. That’s all. And for most of us, that’s enough.
The Mucky Duck, set along the beach in downtown Captiva, is one of the area’s best-known dining spots for a good reason: The location can’t be beat. Grab a cocktail from the outdoor bar and finish it on the beach during sunset, or head inside to dine on some insanely fresh fish in a fun, rustic environment. Back on Sanibel, Sanibel Deli (2330 Palm Ridge Rd.) is a must for a quick sandwich you can take to the beach with you. Gramma Dot’s (pictured; 634 N. Yachtsman Dr.) is a terrific place to grab lunch overlooking the harbor. And the Island Cow (2163 Periwinkle Way) in downtown Sanibel has live music and a friendly communal atmosphere. For an off-the-beaten-path option favored by locals—and for the best burger on the island—stop by the American Legion Post 123 (4923 Sanibel Captiva Rd.).
There are some artsy and educational attractions to keep you busy, too. The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum (pictured; 3075 Sanibel Captiva Rd.) is the country’s most comprehensive institution dedicated to the study of seashells and the organisms that call them home. To get an idea of the island’s past, walk through the restored schoolhouse, post office, general store, and other buildings at the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village (950 Dunlop Rd.). Steps away, Big ARTS Sanibel regularly hosts live performances, film screenings, and gallery displays. Digging through the stacks at an independent bookstore like Gene’s Books (2365 Periwinkle Way) is another fine way to take a break from the sun.
There are several small islands nearby that can only be reached by boat, which means they’re even more uncrowded than the places we’ve visited so far. Captiva Cruises provides access to a number of these idyllic specks. Laid-back, Old Florida vibes permeate Cabbage Key (pictured), where you can eat lunch between walls plastered with dollar bills at the historic Cabbage Key Inn & Restaurant. In the more upscale seaside village of Boca Grande, there are no traffic lights and golf carts are the preferred mode of transport. Meanwhile, Useppa Island is dotted with white cottages that belong to a private club that can only be visited by cruise if you aren’t a member.
If there is one thing you must do in Sanibel above all others, it’s taking the trip to the magnificently serene Cayo Costa State Park. With 9 miles of untouched beach that’s only accessible by ferry (operated by Captiva Cruises) or private charter, this untouched strip of sand lets you experience only the good parts of being a castaway—Wilson the volleyball not included. Go shelling on the beach. Hike on trails through pine forests and tropical hammocks. Paddle along the shore in search of manatees and dolphins. Or just kick back on the beach and do nothing for a while. After a day of strolling Cayo Costa’s soft white sands under a cloudless blue sky, you might not want to leave. Lucky for you, there are campsites and cabins for overnight stays.