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 galleries galore continue 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 nearly 70 percent of 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 animals and more than 245 species of birds.
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 fishermen use and it has becoming a common sight on the shorelines of Sanibel and Captiva, as well on the bays and at the refuge. Although fly fishing has been around for many decades, it is a growing popular activity in Sanibel, which is quickly becoming known as a hotbed for the water sport.
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. The 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).
PLACES TO GO
Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum offers educational programming for all ages.
Learn about the mollusks that make the shells found on the beach during the Like Tank Talks held daily at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Make souvenir treasures during Family Shell Arts & Crafts held daily from noon to 4 p.m. Both are included in the admission; no reservations required.
The museum also offers daily beach walks from 9 to 10 a.m., departing from the lobby of the Island Inn, at 3111 West Gulf Drive, Sanibel. They are led by knowledgeable shell experts and space is limited, so reservations are required. To register, visit online or call 239-395-2233.
In addition, the museum offers a BOGO for its admission and beach walks. Buy one museum admission and get a beach walk half off, and vice versa. The costs for both are $15 for adults, $9 for ages 12-17 and $7 for ages 5 to 11; children under 5 are free.
For more information visit www.shellmuseum.org.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is at 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road.
BIG ARTS, or the Barrier Island Group for the Arts, was started by a group of island residents and artists in 1979. It has expanded every year to offer artistic and educational experiences for all.
The education series features workshops and classes, including the Winter Academy, painting and drawing, fine crafts, photography, discussion and writing, pottery, and music and dance. There is also the FORUM of nationally recognized speakers and the Talking Points series dialogue that encourages audience participation with recognized thought leaders on a broad range of topics.
In addition, BIG ARTS hosts film screenings, art exhibits, concerts and more.
For more information or to register, visit bigarts.org.
BIG ARTS is at 900 Dunlop Road.
Botanical Gardens at Sanibel Moorings
The Botanical Gardens at Sanibel Moorings are a must see for all garden lovers.
Built in 1974, the garden was enriched by the first gardener, who was an avid botanist. Each succeeding gardener continued the quest and contributed their specialties to the garden. The current extensive, mature and diverse tropical collection is a result of the never-ending quest for unusual tropical plants. In 2009, it officially became a botanical garden with the American Public Garden Association and is a reciprocating member of the American Horticultural Society.
Enjoy hundreds of native plants and non-invasive tropical species, which include collections of bromeliads, roses, hibiscus, orchids, palms, fruits, and cycads. Do not forget to observe (at a distance) the resident butterflies, turtles, rabbits, birds and more creatures in their wildlife garden home.
The Garden Tour Guide offers guided 90-minute light walking tours to the public on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. Cost is $5 cash, plus tax; check in at the front office. Reservations required at 239-472-4119.
For more information, visit www.sanibelmoorings.com/sanibel-botanical-garden.
The Botanical Gardens at Sanibel Moorings is at 845 East Gulf Drive.
CROW, or the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, is a teaching hospital and visitor education center dedicated to saving wildlife through state-of-the-art veterinary care, research, education and conservation medicine.
Each year, CROW cares for approximately 3,500 wildlife patients including more than 200 species of sick, injured and orphaned wildlife in its veterinary hospital, which is one of the nation’s leading rehabilitation facilities for native and migratory wildlife. It also provides educational fellowships and externship programs for undergraduate students, and internship programs for veterinarian graduates.
The Visitor Education Center offers behind-the-scenes views into CROW’s animal care through live camera feeds, interactive displays and daily presentations by students, staff and volunteers. CROW also offers a Wildlife Walk with Rehabilitators and Staff and Lunch & Learn sessions.
Admission is $12 for ages 13 and older, and $7 for ages 4-12; children 3 and under are free.
For more information, visit www.crowclinic.org or call 239-472-3644.
CROW is at 3883 Sanibel-Captiva Road.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge 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 Visitor & Education Center.
There are the Birds and Wildlife, Calusa/Shell Mound Trail, Birds and Wildlife, Calusa/Shell Mound Trail, Biking the Refuge, Bailey Tract, and Birding tours; Birds of the Refuge, Florida Manatees, Florida’s Venomous Wildlife, Story and Wildlife Wonders, Gators and Crocs, Endangered Species, Horseshoe Crabs, and Nature Photography programs; and Beach Walk and Indigo Trail Walk.
In addition, Wildlife Drive is four-mile long paved road where the common sightings include sandpipers, blue herons, roseate spoonbills and egrets. Visitors can also explore Indigo Trail, the Wildlife Education Boardwalk, Shellmound Trail and Wulfert Keys Trail, which can be accessed via Wildlife Drive. The Bailey Tract is a 100-acre parcel located off of Tarpon Bay Road.
The Visitor & Education Center is free and open to the public.
Admission to Wildlife Drive is $5 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian and$1 per bicycle; Indigo Trail is $1 per pedestrian and $1 per bicycle; and the Bailey Tract is free for pedestrians and bicycles only.
For more information, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/jn_ding_darling or call 239-472-1100.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is at 1 Wildlife Drive.
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
Founded in 1967, SCCF is dedicated to the conservation of coastal habitats and aquatic resources on the islands and in the surrounding watershed. From its earliest days, it was known as a land trust with an impressive acquisition record.
The Nature Center houses several aquaria focusing on the herpetofauna of the islands – snakes and turtles. An interlocking maze of four miles of trails allows visitors to choose a short stroll or a longer walk through the quiet heart of the island, paralleling low lying wetlands and the Sanibel Slough. Indoors, an interactive exhibit, maps, and videos describe the challenges of maintaining benchmarks in water quality. There are several hands-on items made specifically for younger children, such as a life size model of a manatee. Educational programs and guided tour schedules are available.
Visit the Native Landscapes & Garden Center to learn how to encourage birds, butterflies, and other wildlife in your backyard, contribute to better water quality in local waterbodies, help fight the spread of invasive plants on wild lands and conserve drinking water supplies. Stroll through the demonstration gardens to gain inspiration for your property, or get answers to plant questions from an expert staffer. There are also plant related classes and workshops on a seasonal basis.
In addition, SCCF has six preserves open to the public.
Admission to the Nature Center is $5 for adults; children ages 17 and under are free.
For more information, visit www.sccf.org or call 239-472-2329.
The Nature Center is at 3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road.
The Garden Center is at the Bailey Homestead Preserve, at 1300 Periwinkle Way.
Sanibel Historical Museum and Village
The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village was founded in 1984 with a mission to preserve and share Sanibel history.
The story of Sanibel is told from the Calusa and Spanish eras to the early pioneer families who settled on the island in the 1800s. It tells of warriors, adventures, fishermen, farmers and proprietors. Nine historic buildings were moved from their original sites. Each building has been restored to its original state. The village also has a replica of a Packing House and a garage housing a 1927 Ford Model T truck.
Volunteer docents share the stories of Sanibel with almost 10,000 visitors a year.
Admission is $10 for adults and children are free.
For more information, visit sanibelmuseum.org or call 239-472-4648.
The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village is at 950 Dunlop Road.
Sanibel Sea School
The Sanibel Sea School’s vision is a world where all people value, understand and care for the ocean. Its mission is to improve the ocean’s future, one person at a time.
Dedicated to vibrantly teaching children and adults about marine ecosystems – animals, people, plants, land, ocean and weather – it gives students an opportunity to touch, feel and interact with the natural surroundings through a variety of programs and activities.
The Sanibel Sea School offers one-day courses, educational classes for youth and opportunities for the whole family, as well as boat trips, film screenings, social events, speakers and more for adults. There are shelling programs, wetland tours, paddlesports, half-day programs for youth, guided beach walks, birding sessions and more.
For more information, visit www.sanibelseaschool.org or call 239-472-8585.
Tarpon Bay Explorers
Tarpon Bay Explorers is the official concession to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
It provides low impact, recreational and educational activities for refuge visitors, and a portion of its proceeds go back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to benefit the national refuges nationwide. Some of its offerings include guided kayak and canoe tours, a variety of cruises, deck talks, touch tank exploration and stand-up paddle boarding, in addition to tram tours of the refuge. Rent a kayak, canoe, standup paddleboard or pontoon and explore; bike and fishing equipment rentals are also available.
For more information, visit www.tarponbayexplorers.com or call 239-472-8900.
Tarpon Bay Explorers is at 900 Tarpon Bay Road.
The Community House
Historically, the Sanibel Community Association was one of the first non-profits on the island; since 1927, The Community House is still the gathering place of Sanibel. Many social organizations, civic groups, and clubs that first found a home there are still there to this day.
The Community House offers an array of activities and programs, including yoga, painting classes, community socials and guest speakers, to cooking classes and demonstrations for all ages through the Culinary Education Center of Sanibel.
For more information, visit sanibelcommunityhouse.net or call 239-472-2155.
The Community House is at 2173 Periwinkle Way.
THINGS TO DO
Explore the Shared Use Path
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.
In 2018, the League of American Bicyclists recognized the city with a “Gold” Bicycle Friendly Community award. In 2014, Sanibel was one of only four cities in Florida designated as a “Silver” status by the league, and it was first awarded the “Bronze” designation in 2010.
For more information, visit “Outdoor Recreation” under “Recreation” at www.mysanibel.com/Departments or call 239-472-3700.
Head out to eat
Check out delectable delights across the 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 The JAC (1223 Periwinkle Way) or the South Pacific-Hawaiian-Asian hybrid flavoring of the Malia Island Fusion Cuisine (1100 Par View Dr.), there is choice for every craving. Other dining spots of note? The Island Cow (2163 Periwinkle) offers an extensive menu of delights. Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille – named for the famous Randy Wayne White character – has three locations on Sanibel Island (2500 Island Inn Rd.), Captiva Island (5400 South Seas Plantation Rd.), and Fort Myers Beach (708 Fishermans Wharf.) Sports buffs – and others – will enjoy The Sanibel Grill (703 Tarpon Bay Rd.) – “Sanibel’s Only True Sports bar,” a great place to enjoy a football game and more.
Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream has been a tradition for nearly 40 years. Loyal fans return each year to the “little green shop” located 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. For tasty pastry, or grab-and-go beach cuisine, stop right next door at Geppetto’s Beach Foodies.
Pick up keepsakes or staples
Periwinkle Way is the heart and soul of shopping. 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. The 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, while the Paper Fig Kitchen also serves up lunch.
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 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. Jerry’s Food is another option for staples.
Relax on the beach
Blind Pass Beach Park, at 6497 Sanibel-Captiva Road
Located on both the Sanibel and Captiva side of the Blind Pass Bridge, the beach is popular with shellers and fishermen. Signs warn against swimming because of the swift currents.
Bowman’s Beach Park, 1700 Bowmans Beach Road
Pristine and quiet, you will not find any hotels. Park and walk over a bridge to secluded white beach.
Gulfside City Park Beach, 2001 Algiers Lane
Picnic tables and seclusion welcome you, located mid-island on Algiers Lane off Casa Ybel Road.
Lighthouse Beach Park, 110 Periwinkle Way
The site of the historic functioning Sanibel Lighthouse. Located on the eastern tip of Sanibel, it wraps around to the bay side. It is where the T-dock-fishing pier is and a boardwalk nature trail winding through native wetlands.
Tarpon Bay Road Beach Park, 2475 West Gulf Drive
Easy parking for recreational vehicles, and a short hike from the parking lot to the beach. Located at the south end of Tarpon Bay Road at West Gulf Drive.
Take to the water
There is 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 one’s personal watercraft or by charter.
There are numerous barrier islands which line the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Pine Island Sound on the other. The unique set up alone makes the 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.
Sanibel Boat Ramp, 888 Sextant Drive
Sanibel Marina, 634 N. Yachtsman Drive, 239-472-2723, www.sanibelmarina.com