Nature and wildlife abound on Sanibel and Captiva Islands connected to the west coast of Florida by a 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) causeway. Fishing, birdwatching, and shell hunting may be the primary reasons visitors come, but there is also plenty of history to explore, boutiques to browse, trails to walk, and seafood to devour. Visitors may spend all their time staring at the hypnotic waves rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico or stay busy exploring all the islands have to offer.
1. Shells, shells and more shells
Sanibel and Captiva Islands live up to their reputations for offering some of the best shelling beaches in the world. Although live shelling is prohibited, residents and visitors will still find hundreds of beautiful specimens every day and return the next day to find a fresh batch that has rolled in overnight. Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the place to go to learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about shells and the creatures who inhabit them. It is open seven days a week and is the only museum in the United States devoted exclusively to seashells and mollusks.
Other good places to visit to learn from the locals and view rare shells are She Sells Sea Shells on Periwinkle Way and Sanibel Seashell. Both can help you with ideas for using the seashells you find in decorative ways around your house.
If you stay long enough to explore every beach on Sanibel and Captiva, half-day and full day excursions to Cayo Costa State Park, accessible only by boat, are offered by Captiva Cruises and give yet another stretch of sand where beautiful shells are waiting to be found.
2. Birds and wildlife in a protected environment
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge attracts birdwatchers and nature photographers from all over the United States because of its annual sightings of more than 245 different types of birds. However, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians make their home on the refuge as well. Admission to the Visitor and Education Center is free and open from Monday to Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The 4-mile-long (6.4-kilometer) Wildlife Drive is open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day except Friday. Admission is 10 USD per vehicle, but if you’re walking or biking, you can enjoy the trail for only 1 USD.
From the Wildlife Drive, there are places to launch a canoe or kayak, fish, or take short hikes on the Wulfert Keys Trail, the Indigo Trail, or the Calusa Shell Mound Trail.
Tarpon Bay Explorers is a licensed business connected to the wildlife refuge that rents canoes and kayaks and provides guided fishing and nature tours.
3. Miles of bike trails
Sanibel Island has close to 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) of smooth, almost flat, paved bicycle trails. These are almost entirely off of the main roads, and crossings are well-marked making them extremely safe for bikers, pedestrians, and joggers. To take advantage of those trails, several businesses keep a brisk pace renting bikes to those coming in for an extended visit. In addition to traditional bicycles, they also offer tandem bikes, recumbent bikes and trikes, kids’ bikes, surreys, and all-important helmets. Billy’s Bike Shop and Finnimore’s Bike and Beach Rentals are the most popular. They are very helpful in allowing customers to test several models to determine the one best suited. They will deliver the bicycle you choose to your accommodation and pick it up when you’re finished using it. They are also quick to make a repair or a substitution if you run into a problem.
The climate and the wildlife on Sanibel Island make it an ideal place for biking.
4. A wide variety of fresh seafood
Sanibel and Captiva Islands may be small in terms of geographical area, but they stand tall in the number of culinary offerings. As expected with the location on the Gulf of Mexico, seafood is predominant on most restaurant menus with shrimp, oysters, scallops, snapper, and grouper served raw, fried, grilled, blackened, inside a sandwich, on a skewer, or flanked by vegetables and sides.
Gramma Dot’s is an island favorite located at the Sanibel Marina. The Island Cow has an astonishingly extensive menu and is on Periwinkle Way. George & Wendy’s Seafood Grille has a corner spot beside Bailey’s General Store. Mudbugs gives a New Orleans style twist to its menu, and RC Otter’s Island Eats is on Captiva near McCarthy’s Marina. I can personally recommend each of these restaurants, but there are plenty more from which to choose.
5. Key Lime Pie taste tests
When you’re on vacation, dessert can be a very sweet splurge. Key Lime Pie goes with seafood and the beach as much as waves, shells, and seagulls. Virtually every restaurant on the two islands has its own version of the specialty. Why not try at least one every day to determine your favorite? Some garnish their slices with whipped cream and lime twists, while others add crushed nuts to their graham cracker crusts. Some versions are sweeter. Some are more tart. All are delicious.
No doubt the largest individual servings come from The Bubble Room on Captiva Island. Their portions appear to be designed for sharing with a friend.
The recipe used at Gramma Dot’s seemed pretty much perfect in my opinion, but I urge you to decide for yourself.
6. Learn of Sanibel Island’s history
Sanibel has a history dating back 2500 years to the time when Calusa Indians inhabited it. Ponce de Leon was reported to have discovered Sanibel in 1513, while he was searching for the Fountain of Youth. For a time, Sanibel was referred to as “Buccaneer Coast” because of the comings and goings of pirates with ill intentions, one of whom was Jose Gaspar who was captured by the United States Navy in 1821. Florida became a state in 1845, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War that Sanibel was considered safe for settlers.
The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village serves as a living history museum describing pioneer life through the use of seven original buildings that have been brought to the site on Dunlop Road. The museum is slowly reopening following the pandemic and is now open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
7. Thriving arts
Fine arts and performing arts are alive and well on Sanibel Island as evidenced by the modern, gleaming building housing the BIG ARTS Gallery and BIG ARTS Performance Hall at 900 Dunlop Road. BIG ARTS stands for Barrier Island Group for the Arts which was formed in 1979. The current gallery opened in 1990 and the performance hall in 1997. The gallery, which has exhibits that change often, is open Tuesdays through Fridays and on Saturdays and Sundays during the high season of October to May. BIG ARTS, like so many other performance venues, was hit hard by the pandemic but is rebounding with music, theater, and dance events beginning to be scheduled for 2022. Long-time Sanibel residents with a passion for art have sustained the program with their hard work and donations
8. Bustling Farmers Markets
A Sunday tradition on Sanibel Island and a Tuesday tradition on Captiva Island are the Farmers Markets which bring together dozens of local vendors and hundreds of hungry, curious shoppers. Fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, seafood, pastries, breads, cheeses, jams, salsa, sausages, and guacamole made on the spot are a few of the offerings. Food trucks provide breakfast and lunch items, and makers of jewelry, art, and decor items also participate. It is highly recommended to arrive when it opens at 8:00 a.m. in order to get the choicest products and the best parking spaces. The markets close at 1:00 p.m. Make a note that the Farmers Markets are not open from June through September.
9. Upscale and outlet shops
For basic groceries and supplies, those who live or visit Sanibel and Captiva make their way to Jerry’s Foods and Bailey’s General Store. Those who really enjoy shopping for clothes, accessories, shoes, and household items will want to head to Periwinkle Place which has wonderful shops. They include the original location of Chico’s, a brand that has spread across the United States. For bargain hunters, a quick trip across the causeway will lead you to Sanibel Outlets which has rows of stores representing 40 different brands. Sanibel Outlets is technically in Fort Myers but is located only 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the Gulf of Mexico. If you get hungry while you’re shopping, Blue Giraffe is at Periwinkle Place, and four eateries are tucked among the outlet stores. Be aware that there is a 6 USD toll fee crossing from Fort Myers into Sanibel, but it doesn’t cost anything to travel in the opposite direction.
Sanibel and Captiva have a number of designated public beaches, but the parking fee is 5 USD per hour. If you arrive by bicycle, you don’t have to pay the fee. Most have restroom facilities, but a couple of them do not. However, if you can afford to stay on the beach, that is a much better solution. Condos and beach houses give you quick access to the waves and those all-important shells, and most provide continuous views of the ocean with its many moods and colors.
While you’re relaxing in one the beach, enjoy a novel by Randy Wayne White. He is a prolific author who lives in Sanibel. His first novel “Sanibel Flats” led to a 26-book series about a character named Doc Ford. That, in turn, led to the creation of Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille, which now has 4 locations in the area.
11. The ritual of sunset
Watching the sunset every afternoon is practically a religious experience on the islands, particularly in Captiva. A half hour or so before the sun sets, you will notice a migration of people onto the sand to find a good viewing spot. Many times the resulting show is a spectacular color panorama. It is even better if you can witness the event with someone you love.
Fun for everyone
All ages of people will find interesting things to do and plenty of delicious dishes to devour on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. Outdoor enthusiasts, artists, shoppers, history lovers, beach bums, and foodies can add these islands to their must-visit list. To get the maximum effect, you will want to visit from October through May, but that is also when it is most expensive. For a quieter, bargain-friendly vacation, June through September will work. Arriving by car, you will travel down Interstate 75. Those who choose to fly will land in Fort Myers and be on the islands in less than an hour.
Get Trip101 in your inbox