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‘Must do’s’ while visiting Sanibel

By Staff | Oct 6, 2021

Bowmans Beach, Sanibel. Photo courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

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 connects people to the natural world through their love of shells and the animals that create them. Its mission is to use exceptional collections, aquariums, programs, experiences and science to be the nation’s leading museum in the conservation, preservation, interpretation and celebration of shells, mollusks and their ecosystems.

Permanent exhibitions include the Great Hall of Shells, which displays highlights of the museum’s collection of some 500,000 shells, as well as the Beyond Shells living gallery of aquariums and over 50 species of marine life. The museum offers fun and educational activities for the whole family. Kids love touching live mollusks in the touch pools, winning scavenger hunt prizes and watching the giant Pacific octopus.

Admission is $23.95 for adults, $14.95 for ages 12-17 and $8.95 for ages 5-11.

For more information, visit www.shellmuseum.org or call 239-395-2233.

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is at 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road.

BIG ARTS

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 painting and drawing, fine crafts, photography, discussion and writing, pottery, and music. There is also the FORUM lecture series of nationally recognized speakers and the Talking Points lecture series that encourages audience participation with recognized thought leaders on a broad range of topics.

In addition, BIG ARTS hosts performances from theater to classical music, including a broad spectrum of artists, along with community concerts, a Monday Night Films series and fine art exhibitions.

For more information or to register, visit bigarts.org or call 239-395-0900.

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.

Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife

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.

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

Named after editorial cartoonist and conservationist Jay Norwood Darling, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one of 560 refuges across the United States.

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.

Admission to Wildlife Drive is $10 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, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation is dedicated to the protection and care of Southwest Florida’s coastal ecosystems. From its earliest days, it was known as a land trust with an impressive acquisition record.

The grounds of the Nature Center feature 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.

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.

In addition, SCCF has six preserves open to the public.

For more information, visit www.sccf.org or call 239-472-2329.

The Nature Center is at 3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel.

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.

The facility reopens to the public for season on Oct. 19.

Admission is $10 for ages 18 and older.

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.

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