Stunning sunrises and sunsets, beautiful white beaches perfect for swimming, diving or snorkeling the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, a vast assortment of shells, endless shared use paths for exercise, resorts, restaurants and art gallery galore continues to bring visitors to Sanibel and Captiva Islands.
An abundance of wildlife can be seen on the island due to its conservation efforts, resulting in approximately 70 percent undeveloped grasses, marshes, back bays and rivers, all mostly kept as wildlife and natural preserves. The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which is approximately 6,400 acres, consists of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass birds, cordgrass marshes and West Indian hardwood hammocks, providing the perfect habitat for many animals and more than 245 species of birds.
There are more than 7,300 residents in Sanibel and fewer than 1,000 in Captiva. The numbers, of course, swell with seasonal snowbirds and visitors surging into paradise. In all of Lee County, Sanibel and Captiva produce the most income through bed taxes generated by approximately 4,500 available rental rooms.
Florida is a world capital for fishing, with saltwater fishing licenses alone generating over $30 million each year. Recreational fishing brings nearly $8 billion in statewide revenue, or some 109,000 jobs to the Sunshine State’s workforce.
The history of the islands is steeped in fishing tradition, specifically sport fishing. Even more specifically, tarpon fishing. It was the Silver King that put Southwest Florida on the map. W.H. Wood became noted as the first to catch a Silver King on rod and reel off the shores of Sanibel in 1885 while visiting from New York. Thomas Edison was a noted tarpon angler.
Before Wood, there were the indigenous Calusa Indians, followed by the Spanish-Cuban fishermen and the Punta Gorda Fish Co. with its fish houses dotting Pine Island Sound. Many fish houses remain and are viewable by local boating tours.
Fly fishing is instantly recognizable with the casting action anglers use and it’s becoming a common sight on each of the shorelines of Sanibel and Captiva, as well on the bays and the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Although fly fishing has been around for many decades, it’s a growing popular activity in Sanibel, which is quickly becoming known as a hotbed for the water sport.
There is also a group – the Sanibel Island Fly Fishers – in which fly fishermen of all skill levels can join in Sanibel. It provides a prime opportunity to meet others and share information and stories of fly fishing from around the world. The growth of the club has been substantial, after its creation in 2001 in islander and fly-fishing author Norm Zeigler’s living room.
As word spread about the Sanibel Island Fly Fishers, the number of attendees for the once-a-month meetings grew. Soon, they had to leave Zeigler’s living room in search of larger accommodations, which ended up being at the Sanibel Public Library. On average, the club has about 50 to 60 enthusiasts attending the monthly meeting, with more than 250 on the email list to receive its newsletter.
So cast away and enjoy yet another prime activity in paradise.
The islands are recognized around the globe for shell collecting along the white sand beaches. It is simple geography that created the wealth of shelling. The islands bend like an elbow instead of lying parallel to the mainland. This shape acts like a vacuum collecting shells that are deposited in abundance on the beaches. Shelling created the famous “Sanibel Stoop” and “Captiva Crouch” as the official stance of visitors bending over to pick up a treasure of shells, (non-living only, please.) While the islands’ identity and shelling are synonymous, it started with the Calusa Indians, who came to collect shells for food, tools and use as a foundation for their homes. Shell mounds still dot Southwest Florida, with taller mounds reserved in tribal times for leaders and elders.
Think a sea shell is just a sea shell? It’s not that simple. It can be said every single shell, which ends up on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva, has its own personal story, from creation to demise.
It can be a sort of forensic science to determine how the mollusks, which inhabited each shell died and lived its life. These stories are told each morning during Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum beach walks, which start at 9 a.m. at the Island Inn, and are led by a marine biologist who will teach about shells, mollusks and the many other marine life which is washed ashore from the Gulf of Mexico’s tide.
Shells with small puncture holes in them mostly likely came to end from a predator, which bores a hole through the shell to get to the mollusk inside. Other shells have worm-like marks bored into them. Sea worms do this, even though they are not looking for a meal, but instead protection. Most of everything which is in the ocean is some sort of sea animal. Even if it looks like a plant, most likely it’s an animal. Sea grass and some forms of plants do grow in the ocean, with most of it being red algae.
Another common and befuddling sight is the snakelike lightning whelk’s egg casings. These are long, winding structures, which resembles a snake. But what it is the first home to over 10,000 lightning whelks, which can grow into a common seashell and live up to 10 years. Sponges are another marine species which find its way on the beaches. Although they don’t look alive, they are known as one of the world’s simplest multi-cellular living organisms.
Of the 5,000 species of sponges which have been identified, less than a dozen are actually harvested for commercial use. Sponges are known for its tiny pores, which serve as to letting massive amount of water flow through them to help collect nutrients, while releasing waste.
There is an abundance of life – or remains – which will wash up on shore, with each one having a particular story of how it got there.
Sanibel and Captiva are ranked No. 1 on the continent for shelling. Shellers now gather to compare and appreciate shell collections and shell art on display at the Annual Sanibel Shell Festival in March. The festival is the major fundraising event for The Community House and Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club. The event draws enthusiasts from around the country, Canada and the Caribbean.
Hallie “Granny” Matthews (namesake of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum) organized the earliest shell fairs in the lobby of her hotel, today’s Island Inn. Her tradition of islanders helping visitors appreciate their shell finds continues 80 years later at the festival, the first weekend of March, and a wave of shell shops, shell tours and shell clubs.
Sanibel has established itself as a bikers’ paradise with 25 miles of bike paths around the island, making destinations from one end to the other easily accessible by bicycle. Path users frequently stop to take in the island’s natural world of wildlife and environmental educational opportunities lining the path. Sanibel continues to cement its place as a top destination for bicyclists and others using the island’s ribbon of paved footpaths.
The city has been recognized with a silver award by the League of American Bicyclists. The city in 2010 was awarded a bronze designation by the association that was founded in 1880 as the League of American Wheelmen to advocate for paved roads.
The silver “Bicycle Friendly Award” recognizes Sanibel’s commitment to improve conditions and investing in bicycling pathways, education programs, infrastructure and pro-bicycling policies. There are some 326 U.S. communities with the same silver status, only three others in Florida.
Islanders since the 1970s have been at the edge of creating a bike-friendly community. Leaders of the movement, in fact, staged protests to fund pathways, blocking causeway traffic, risking arrest. They would raise some $50,000 selling T-shirts and buttons, holding raffles and selling phone directories to meet the goal. A bicycle rodeo was also part of the funding campaign. The first 2.1 miles of pathway ran from Lindgren Boulevard to the Bailey’s shopping complex. One of the leaders of the movement, Mariel Goss, is the wife of the city’s first mayor.
There’s an adventure starting anywhere off the coast of Southwest Florida which can bring stops with its own unique personality at each one. Several different worlds can be visited all in one day trip on the water by either one’s personal watercraft or by charter supplied by Captiva Cruises, which are the experts of barrier island hopping through the Pine Island Sound.
There are numerous barrier islands which line the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Pine Island Sound on the other. That unique set up alone makes these barrier islands one of the best and popular estuaries in the United States.
Pine Island Sound is one of the best bodies of water to enjoy boating, since it is protected on all sides of it. The barrier islands protect it from the Gulf of Mexico’s tides and winds, while one of Florida’s largest island -Pine Island – protects it from the North.
Islands which can be hopped to include North Captiva, Cayo Costa, Useppa, Cabbage Key, Boca Grande and Pine Island.
Things to do
Visit J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, on 1 Wildlife Drive, is one of 560 refuges across the United States. Named after editorial cartoonist and conservationist Jay Norwood Darling, the refuge features nature trails, excursions, and wildlife programs inside the Education Center for naturalists and families.
The Refuge vendor, Tarpon Bay Explorers, offers guided kayak and canoe tours, deck talks and stand-up paddle boarding in addition to tram tours of the Refuge.
For more information on the Refuge call (239) 472-1100.
For more information on Tarpon Bay Explorers call (239) 472-8900, or visit www.tarponbayexplorers.com.
Live music in a dinner and club-like setting can be found at many restaurants and establishments across the island, such as ‘Tween Waters Inn, Key Lime Bistro, Casa Ybel, George & Wendy’s, Traditions on the Beach and Traders Cafe & Store, among others.
The Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater on Periwinkle Way has been entertaining visitors and residents for many years with popular musical and comedy productions with Broadway-quality talent.
BIG ARTS has been providing cultural enrichment and fulfillment to island residents and visitors since 1979. BIG ARTS began when a group of artists dreamed of a cultural center on the island. Today, BIG ARTS members and participants enjoy a wide spectrum of performing and visual arts events, and the community participates in more than 200 educational classes and workshops each year. BIG ARTS Center is at 900 Dunlop Road.
Visitors looking for a gathering place on Sanibel can stop by The Community House at 2173 Periwinkle Way to take a class in painting, yoga, and beading, or register for a class in their Culinary Education Center of Sanibel. More information can be found at sanibelcommunityhouse.net.
Patrons of the Great White Grill on Sanibel’s Palm Ridge Road can enjoy a football game while selecting from the island’s largest draft beer selection – 31 picks with eight rotating craft beer choices. The menu will get you started with a basket of fries or lightly-dusted and fried calamari; and offers a variety of salads, like the Pittsburgh Salad, as well as pizza selections from The Great White with a garlic olive oil base, fresh tomatoes, spinach and artichoke to The Sanibel with traditional red sauce, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, bacon and extra cheese.
Gramma Dots Seaside Saloon, at the Sanibel Marina on the east end, offers a lunch and dinner menu featuring fresh seafood, salads, sandwiches and more. Dine leisurely dockside, whether you come by land or boat. The restaurant is named after Gramma Dot (Dorothy Stearns) by her son Myton Ireland. She was a woman of many talents with a zest for life.
Check out delectable delights across Sanibel Island. From the elegant style of Il Cielo (1244 Periwinkle Way) or casual elegance at Cip’s Place (2055 Periwinkle Way) to a seafood feast at one of the two Lazy Flamingo locations (1036 Periwinkle Way and 6520-C Pine Ave.), there is choice for every craving. And do stop by The Island Cow (2163 Periwinkle), which offers an extensive menu of delights.
Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream has been a Sanibel Island tradition for nearly 40 years. Loyal fans return each year to the “little green shop” in the Seahorse Shopping Center on the east end of the island at 362 Periwinkle Way. Pinocchio’s displays 37 of the 130-plus flavors from its repertoire each day. Among the signatures flavors are the World Famous Sanibel Krunch, the Dirty Sand Dollar, Wedding Bells and Gator Stew. For tasty pastry, or grab-and-go beach cuisine, stop right next door at Geppetto’s Beach Foodies.
Periwinkle Way is the heart and soul of shopping on Sanibel. The island’s largest centers – Periwinkle Place, Tahitian Gardens, Village Shops, Olde Sanibel Shops – are conveniently located in close proximity.
Periwinkle Place, the largest complex on the island, sits on seven acres of lush landscape. This oasis consists of more than 41,000 square feet of stores and parking. There are 26 shops running the gamut of clothing, jewelry, art, restaurant and even a relaxing day spa. Tropical fountains, a butterfly garden and a children’s play area offer a charming and tranquil atmosphere.
Nearby, encounter 11 shops at Tahitian Gardens where you can find elegant women’s wear or jewelry and even create your own burger at Cheeburger Cheeburger. Breakfast or lunch is available at Sanibel Cafe, which also offers homemade jam, crab cakes and quesadillas.
Tucked away at Periwinkle and Palm Ridge Road are the Village Shops. Pamper yourself while looking for clothing, handcrafted exquisite jewelry, a new piece of art or a tropical wine by visiting Tribeca Salon. Grab a bite to eat or stop for cocktails at the recently opened T2 Traders.
Olde Sanibel Shoppes at Tarpon Bay Road is pet-friendly with an old Florida charm. Over Easy Cafe, an award-winning establishment with outside seating, anchors the center that has become a favorite with locals and visitors. Island Paws serves your four-legged family members near other stores offering art, jewelry by noted designers.
For shoppers, Bailey’s General Store in the plaza at 2477 Periwinkle Way, is a must-visit. Founded in 1899, it has been family owned and operated ever since. Bailey’s is a full-service grocery with bakery, deli and coffee bar, as well as a full-service hardware store.