11 things to do on Florida’s Sanibel and Captiva islands
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The gorgeous Gulf Coast barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva — just a 30-minute drive from Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) — have lured visitors to their shores for decades.
You won’t find glitzy condominiums, sprawling resorts with lazy rivers and waterparks or America’s favourite chain restaurants here. If that’s what you look for in a Sunshine State escape, definitely look elsewhere.
On Sanibel, everyone takes advantage of the wide, paved bike and walking paths while you’ll see more golf carts in the neighbourhoods on Captiva. Growth has been limited here over the years and the emphasis is on conservation. There are a plethora of beach parks, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and other nature tracts that have been preserved for the benefit of the wildlife here. Seeing bottlenose dolphins, West Indian manatees, alligators and all manner of shore and wading birds will absolutely delight you. And, don’t forget, this is the seashell capital of the world and the sunsets from the beaches are legendary.
If you’re headed to Florida’s Gulf Coast, you couldn’t find a better home base than Sanibel or Captiva. When you visit, here are some of our favourite things to do. Just remember, whenever you head outside, you should always carry water, bug repellent, sunscreen and a hat.
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Visit the beach for shelling
There is no “best beach” on Sanibel and Captiva. From the beaches at the Causeway, the entrance to this wonderland, all the way to the northern tip of Captiva, this stretch of the Gulf Coast comprises many fantastic “don’t miss” beaches. Everyone has their favourites for walking, running, sunning, fishing, dolphin-spying, sunset-watching or shelling.
In fact, people from all over the planet come here to look for shells. Sanibel is, after all, known as “the shell capital of the world.”
Some people call it the Sanibel stoop. Others prefer the Sanibel shuffle. Once you visit a beach on the islands, you’ll immediately understand why. Due to the orientation of the islands, the shoreline is a treasure trove of beautiful seashells. To find them, slowly walk along the waterline and keep your eyes on the ground — maybe even bend down a bit to get a better look. Gently shuffle your feet as you walk to loosen the shells from the wet sand and you may be rewarded with incredible conchs, junonias, lightning whelks, murex, tulips, olives and coquinas.
If you’re interested in shelling, visit the beach at low tide when the maximum amount of beach is exposed. Low tide during a full or new moon is even better. And, it’s a treat to go shelling after a big storm when thousands of shells have been tossed up on shore. Check for the 2020 tidal times (warning: it’s a PDF download) or visit U.S. Harbors for that information.
Just remember to never take a live seashell home with you. If a creature is living in a shell you pick up, put it back where you found it and admire it from afar. And to really enjoy shelling, pack water shoes (you do not want to walk barefoot over broken shells — trust me on this), a bucket or net bag to deposit your newfound treasures and a long-handled scoop (that will save your back).
Don’t miss the sunsets
If you’re the type of beachgoer who arrives early, enjoys a picnic lunch, goes shelling, plays volleyball and then packs it in by 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., you’ll miss one of the best shows in the world: Sanibel and Captiva sunsets. They truly are legendary.
If you don’t want to spend the entire day at the beach, make a note of sunset and make a plan to get back on the beach about a half-hour before the sun goes down. It’s a tradition here.
Bring your beach chairs or sit on the sand as you enjoy a beverage and watch nature’s extravaganza unfold. If you’re lucky, you may even see a dolphin breach right as the sun is going down. If you’re incredibly lucky, you’ll see the phenomenon know as the green flash. Right before the sun’s orange glow sinks into the horizon, a brilliant flash of green crosses the horizon.
The best Sanibel beaches
There’s really no bad beach on these islands. You will find shells or the perfect spot to watch the sunset on any of them. The East End beaches have a shallow slope so they may be best for families travelling with little kids, but the West End beaches tend to be less crowded. For shelling, I really love Gulfside City Park and Blind Pass Beach.
Parking at nearly all of Sanibel’s public beaches costs $5 per hour via a self-serve machine. If you’re staying a while, buy a “B” parking permit for $124 at the Recreation Center. You can park for free at some of the public lots and also gain entry to B-permitted beach accesses at Bailey Road, Dixie Beach Boulevard, Beach Road and Nerita, Fulgur and Donax streets.
And, of course, many of the islands’ cottages, inns and condos sit directly on the Gulf and guests have easy access to those sections of beach as well.
Related: 13 of the best beaches in Florida
Here’s a look at some of the most popular stretches of sand:
Causeway Beaches: As you approach the island from Punta Rassa, you’ll drive over the Sanibel Causeway. The three-span, two-lane bridge crosses San Carlos Bay with two manmade islands in between. Besides being the gateway to Sanibel, the causeway is home to some very nice beaches on those manmade islands. It’s free to park, has picnic tables and grills (first come, first served) and are popular spots for fishing (but you need a license; see the fishing section below for more information).
Others head to the Boat Ramp (888 Sextant Drive; first left as you enter the island). There’s plenty of parking ($5 per hour) and it’s a quarter-mile walk to the Bailey Road beach access. It’s a great spot for fishing, by the way. Come autumn, you’ll catch snook, redfish and flounder.
Lighthouse Beach and Fishing Pier: At the tip of the island (153 Periwinkle Way), near the causeway, this is quintessential Sanibel. Every visitor should stop by at least once. This is where you’ll find the 1884 lighthouse and a fishing pier that’s used by both humans and pelicans. Since water rushes around the point, currents can be swift, so it’s not the optimal place to swim — but it’s beautiful, and many travellers walk away with incredible seashells. Amenities include showers, restrooms, drinking fountains and a picnic area with grills.
There’s also an area that offers beach access to visitors in wheelchairs or people using walkers. Park in the easternmost lot and access the beach from there using the matt.
Gulfside City Park: Also known as Algiers (2001 Algiers Lane), this is one of my favourite Sanibel spots. We’ve been here many times when the beach was just about empty. And, the shelling is fantastic. There are 46 parking spots, an outdoor shower, restrooms, drinking fountains, a shaded picnic pavilion and grills.
Bowman’s Beach: Bordered on each side by residential neighborhoods, not many people walk to Bowman’s Beach (1700 Bowman’s Beach Road). That means the competition for those perfect little seashells eases up a bit here! There’s plenty of parking — 218 spots, including RV and oversize spots — but it’s a short quarter-mile walk over a footbridge crossing Clam Bayou to the beach itself. There’s a dock from which to launch kayaks and canoes, a nature trail, playground, picnic tables and grills, outdoor showers and restrooms. There are even drinking fountains and vending machines.
Tarpon Bay Beach: Mid-island (111 Tarpon Bay Road), just about halfway between the lighthouse and Bowman’s Beach, this is a great spot for shelling, sunning and sunsets.
Blind Pass Beach: Another place I adore is Blind Pass Beach (6497 Sanibel-Captiva Road). It’s at Sanibel’s skinniest spot, right before you cross over to Captiva Island. That means you’ve got both Gulf and bay access here. Sometimes, manatees hang out on the bay side under the bridge.
There are a few nice restaurants here, including Sunset Grill (try the Key lime French toast at breakfast) and the gourmet Mad Hatter, open for dinner only. You can rent a cottage at Castaways Beach and Bay Cottages as well as at some nearby owner-operated properties you’ll find on sites like VRBO. There are only 27 parking spots, but it’s worth jockeying for a spot.
Unfortunately, there are no restrooms here, and Turner Beach — where there are facilities, on the Captiva side — is currently closed due to a shoreline stabilization project through early November 2020. But, this is an amazing place to watch the sunset and shell.
Captiva’s best beaches
If you’re not staying on Captiva within walking distance of a beach, it’s not as easy to enjoy the facilities there. The shoreline perpendicular to Andy Rosse Lane is beautiful, but there’s no public parking. Alison Hagerup Park (14790 Captiva Drive) is the best for shelling and sunsets, but parking is very pricey — $25 for two hours!
So, the logical option is Turner Beach at Blind Pass. Cross the bridge to Captiva and you’ll find Turner Beach right after Sanibel’s Blind Pass and they share all of the same terrific attributes. While parking is still tight on this side, there are restrooms, outdoor showers and a drinking fountain. (Though, again, Turner Beach is closed through early November 2020 for a shore stabilization project.)
Focus on the wildlife
Wildlife is the heart of Sanibel and Captiva. On any given day, you may see alligators, bobcats, coyotes, bats, raccoons, river otters and all manner of feathered friends, including raptors, wading, sea, shore and marsh birds.
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
A trip to this area isn’t complete without a visit to the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge ($10 per car). Even if you’re not super athletic, it’s easy to see a lot of the refuge due to the 4-mile-long Wildlife Drive. If nothing else, follow the road slowly and you’ll see plenty right from the comfort of your vehicle. But take the time to pull over, get out and really enjoy the scenery if you can.
Bring bug repellent and binoculars, and then geek out as you watch for the 245 species of birds that live or visit this reserve. The multistory observation tower is the ideal lookout spot. On a recent visit, we saw several types of herons, egrets, pelicans (white and brown), white ibis, wood storks and others.
You can also take a 90-minute tram tour along Wildlife Drive that’s narrated by a naturalist. Or, pick one of the trails to hike or bike.
Tarpon Bay Explorers is the concession of the refuge and you can rent a bike, kayak, canoe, standup paddleboard, pontoon boat and other watercraft to explore the area.
Turtle nesting season
Sanibel’s turtle nesting season starts on 15 April and wraps up by 31 October. Loggerheads are the most common species that lay their eggs on the islands but you may also see green turtles. Rarer, but not impossible to spy, are leatherbacks and Kemp’s Ridleys.
Since turtles nest and hatch at night, Sanibel residents and guests need to turn off beach-facing lights at 9 p.m. You should also close any curtains or blinds. The light can confuse the animals since the light they expect to see, from the moon, is what guides them to their nest. Conservationists mark off turtle nests so humans don’t disturb them. And, of course, whenever enjoying any beach, leave no trace.
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
Your family may also enjoy a visit to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road at Mile Marker 1). There are 4 miles of walking trails, boardwalks and an observation tower you can climb to overlook the Sanibel Slough (also known as the Sanibel River). This is a rare freshwater feature that attracts roseate spoonbills and herons. (Note: There’s also a Nature Center with a marine-life touch tank, mangrove diorama and alligator jawbone but it’s closed for renovations at this time.)
Explore Sanibel’s walking trails
There are plenty of hiking trails to explore on Sanibel and many of them are within J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. There’s a super easy quarter-mile option on a boardwalk that winds through the woods. Look for the Calusa Shell Mound Trail, which is accessible to wheelchair users. The Indigo Trail is also really popular. Depart from the Education Center parking lot for a 4-mile trek through the park where you can see alligators, ibis, herons and more.
If you’d prefer a stroll where you can stop to smell the flowers, book the Wednesday guide tour of the botanical gardens at Sanibel Moorings Resort. The mature gardens focus on native plants and noninvasive tropical species such as bromeliads, hibiscus, orchids, palms, fruits and cycads. (Note: This tour is currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Call to find out if the tour is operating during your visit.)
Rent a bike
You will love the miles and miles of wide, paved bike paths on Sanibel. I avoid biking on Periwinkle Way in Old Sanibel though since there are a lot of retail shops and restaurants and distracted motorists can unexpectedly pull into those driveways.
A favourite for bikers is the 4-mile, one-way trail that loops around J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Bicyclists ages 16 and up pay $1 each to access the Wildlife Drive trail.
Another fun option — especially if your kids want to see cute marsh rabbits — is the Rabbit Road Trail that runs along a canal and behind the homes on Rabbit Road. You can often see all sorts of birds and alligators on the one-mile path from Sanibel-Captiva Road to West Gulf Drive.
If you need to rent a bike, you can do so at Billy’s, Finnimore’s Cycle Shop and Tarpon Bay Explorers. The roads on Captiva don’t lend themselves to biking so it’s best to stick to Sanibel for safety’s sake.
Get out on the water
You probably picked an island holiday since you love the water. If that’s the case, get out there and enjoy it. You can rent personal watercraft like canoes, single or double kayaks or standup paddleboards. Or, opt for something like a pontoon. Rentals are available at Tarpon Bay Explorers on Sanibel and Sunny Island Adventures and Jensen’s Twin Palm Marina on Captiva.
Alternatively, book a cruise or eco-tour. There are a number of options, including:
- Captiva Cruises: Dolphin-watching and sunset cruises along with day trips to places like Cabbage Key, Useppa Island, Cayo Costa State Park, Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island and Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island.
- New Wave Eco Charters: Sunset cruises as well as half- and full-day eco-tours.
- Sanibel Island Cruise Line: Private cruises to Cayo Costa State Park.
- Tarpon Bay Explorers: Nature and sea life cruise, breakfast and evening nature cruises, kayak trail tours and standup paddleboard excursions.
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You will see plenty of folks fishing on Sanibel and Captiva. People fish from the beach, bridges and boats. You can bring your own gear or rent it on the islands. You can also book a fishing excursion (group or charter), which can be a ton of fun whether you’re a seasoned angler or an absolute beginner.
If you decide to go fishing, you need a license, which you can purchase from local businesses like Bailey’s General Store or Tarpon Bay Explorers, or get it directly from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Enjoy a picnic
For those driving to Sanibel, be sure to stow blankets, towels, beach chairs and a cooler in your car. Then, it’s a snap to picnic just about anywhere on Sanibel. Take a trip to Bailey’s General Store (2477 Periwinkle Way) or Jerry’s Foods (1700 Periwinkle) and fill your cooler with sandwiches, snacks and drinks.
Or, grab takeout from The Clam Shack (2407 Periwinkle Way). Think: lobster rolls, fried Ipswitch clams or a full New England-style clambake. Another favorite is The Pecking Order (2496 Palm Ridge Road) with fried chicken, chicken pies and baked goods. Paper Fig Kitchen (2003 Periwinkle Way), owned by a private chef and caterer, offers made-to-order and grab-and-go gourmet sandwiches, tacos and salads. And, if the kids are asking for pizza, check out Dante’s (937 East Gulf Drive), which also serves pasta, subs, burgers, chicken wings and baby back ribs.
Visit a museum
While I generally don’t look for museums on beach holidays, there are two on Sanibel that are very interesting.
The first is the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum (3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road). If you arrive on the island at high tide, when the shelling isn’t so hot, head to the museum instead. Here, you can learn all about shells, the ones you can expect to find on the island and even have a touch-pool experience. Tickets are $23.95 for guests 18 and older, $14.95 for visitors ages 12 to 17, $8.95 for kids ages 5 to 11 and free for kids under 5.
If you’re interested in learning about how the island was settled, check out the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village (950 Dunlop Road). It showcases pioneer history as well as restored period buildings. Pick up the museum’s Heritage Trail brochure to learn more about other historic sites on the island.
Take part in small-town America
One of the reasons Sanibel is so popular is because of its small-town feel. It’s a beachy version of fictional Mayberry where residents wave and greet each other by name at the weekly farmers market (800 Dunlop Road; Sundays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.) and the town puts on special events throughout the year to celebrate as a community.
My favourite is Luminary at the beginning of December. Old Town Sanibel, the retail shopping and dining area, is decorated for the holidays with candlelit luminary bags lining the sidewalks. Local businesses offer treats to everyone walking along Periwinkle Way as they enjoy the music, lights and festivities. (Note that the traditional two-day Luminary is not happening in 2020 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.)
On Sanibel, you can book tee times at the public 18-hole Dunes Golf and Tennis Club (949 Sand Castle Road). At Captiva’s South Seas Resort, you can play a round at the nine-hole, par-3 executive course, which was designed by Chip Howell.
Featured image by SunflowerMomma/Shutterstock.com
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