Sanibel is a Gulf Coast barrier island, easy to reach via causeway from Fort Myers, Florida. Time spent in Sanibel is reminiscent of an old-fashioned Florida seaside vacation, before mass tourism was the rule in the Sunshine State. There are no theme parks, no high-rises to mar the ocean views and no fast food, except for a discreet Dairy Queen. What you will find are “Mom and Pop” shops, restaurants that feature locally caught seafood, miles of unspoiled beach, spectacular birds and wildlife in abundance. There are no swim with the dolphin experiences here, rather a variety of activities that are conservation oriented and aim to promote interacting with nature in a respectful and responsible way.
Two attractions you don’t want to miss are the 6,000-acre J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, but, of course, you will want to allow plenty of time for the beach.
With over 25 miles of pancake-flat, paved trails, Sanibel is a great place for families to explore on two wheels. Even novice bikers who have recently ditched the training wheels should be able to handle the gentle trails without frustration. Rent your bike, trike or canopied surrey at Billy’s. Helmets and locks are available.
2) Shell Collecting
Sanibel is renown for the incredible variety of shells that wash up onto its shores. The island’s unusual east-west orientation is what accounts for the copious sprinkling of awesome shells. Low tide is the best time to search for them and you can expect to share the beach with scores of serious collectors. No live shells may be taken or disturbed, but you will find loads of gorgeous-hued specimens to fill your pail or bag.
The warm gulf waters and the calm surf means that swimming is usually safe even for beginning swimmers. The sand is bright white and very clean. Bowman’s Beach is a relatively secluded beach with a well-equipped playground. Sunsets here are especially scenic.
The pristine waters surrounding Sanibel means the fish are usually biting. Try fishing off the lighthouse pier, at the “Ding” Darling Refuge and right on the beach. You may catch grouper, snapper, sea trout and more. You can purchase bait at the Bait Box and buy an inexpensive license here, necessary if you are over sixteen.
5) Sanibel Lighthouse
The Sanibel Lighthouse has been a landmark since 1884 and is worthy of a visit, even if you are not allowed to climb to the top. The fishing pier and nature trail are popular.
6) Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
It is entirely apt that shelling mecca Sanibel has a museum devoted to mollusks and bivalves. There are tons of different varieties from around the globe, with an emphasis on species from southwest Florida. Stop by the colorful kid’s lab complete with shell specimens, puzzles and books.
7) Sanibel Historical Museum & Village
Delve into the islands past by exploring seven turn-of-the-century buildings. Peek into the one-room schoolhouse, general store and post office to get an idea of what life in Sanibel was like for the pioneers who settled here. Closed in September and October.
8) J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
The refuge’s mangrove estuary provides a safe haven for an array of shorebirds and birds of prey, including great blue herons, snowy egrets, white ibis, pelicans and osprey. You may also see raccoons, otters, lizards, alligators, butterflies, turtles and crabs. Slowly drive, bike or ride the open-air shuttle bus around the refuge’s four-mile scenic drive. Don’t miss visiting the Education Center, which includes a children’s area with interactive exhibits. Closed each Friday.
9) Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife
C.R.O.W. cares for thousands of injured and sick animals each year. The Healing Winds Visitor Education Center offers a rare glimpse into the world of western and eastern methods of animal medicine. Interactive touch-screen activities, critter cams and the ability to play vet and follow sick animal cases make a visit here compelling.
10) Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
SCCF is dedicated to conservation of the delicate coastal habitat. The Nature Center offers several miles of easy trails, an observation tower, a touch tank and a butterfly house. There are regularly scheduled guided walks and environmental workshops.
11) Ride a Boat
Tarpon Bay Explorers is the official concessionaire of the “Ding” Darling Refuge and they aim to show families wildlife without disturbing the animals or land in any way. They have a full range of guided kayak and canoe tours for all ages and levels of paddlers. They run 90-minute narrated pontoon boat rides several times daily. Unspoiled Tarpon Bay is a prime place to spot dolphins and manatees. There is a touch tank that the enthusiastic naturalists allow you to explore before you venture out onto the water.
12) Explore a Semi-Deserted island
Captiva is about a 20-minute drive from Sanibel. McCarthy’s Marina is located here, the departure point for Captiva Cruises catamaran excursion to Cabbage Key. This island paradise is accessible only by boat, a one-hour ride. There is a casual restaurant, small inn and nature trails where you won’t run into anyone, giving it a Gilligan’s Island-feel. The boat picks you up a few hours later and brings you back to Captiva. Good thing lunch at the Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant is tasty, as you pretty much need to eat here, since you are not supposed to bring food with you. Thousands of autographed dollar bills hang from the restaurant’s ceiling, some signed by celebrities who have visited.
13) Sea School
Sanibel Sea School is dedicated to teaching kids and adults about marine ecosystems. They use the natural setting of the island as a field lab to give students a greater understanding of the immediate surroundings and the global environment. Morning and afternoon sessions are offered daily. The drop-off classes are for kid’s ages 6-13, but you are welcome to stay and shadow your child if you prefer. Teens can join the adult classes. Topics covered include Sea Turtles, Shorebirds and waves.
14) Sanibel Public Library
The library is one of the nicest I have ever seen, with a children’s area and a teen space. Visitor’s can purchase a temporary library card for $10, and have access to DVDs, computer lab, books and more. This is the perfect place for a rainy day.
There are no big-box shops on the island. Shells are the classic Sanibel souvenir. If you don’t find what you want during your own shell collecting, visit Sanibel Seashell Industries. They have shells, sand dollars and starfish in every conceivable size and shape.
16) The Sanibel Island Bookshop is a small, independently owned bookstore. They feature local authors and have a good selection of children’s literature.
Sanibel is about a 45-minutes drive from Fort Myers, and most visitors will arrive at the its modern Southwest Florida International Airport. Fort Myers is well worth a stop, especially the following two attractions
17) Imaginarium Science Center
This innovative children’s museum promotes interactive learning and encourages kids of all ages to explore the mysteries of science. Relax in the Lipman Family Courtyard, where comfy seating, the shade of native plants and the butterfly garden should give everyone a second wind.
18) Edison & Ford Winter Estates
The side-by-side winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford offer a profound look into both men’s ingenious inventions. These two didn’t just come to Florida to swim and golf, they got to work creating brilliant inventions. Kids will probably want to skip touring the living quarters, but should enjoy access to Edison’s lab and lush experimental gardens, with its monumental banyan tree, the largest specimen in Florida. The museum is loaded with memorabilia, including a Model-T Ford.
When to visit
19) Christmas Luminary Trail & Open House
On the first weekend of December, hundreds of light candles illuminate Periwinkle Way, Sanibel’s main drag.
20) “Ding” Darling Days
For one week each October, The refuge invites families to celebrate nature with festivities. Programs on wildlife preservation, guided beach walks, puppet shows, hot dogs, crafts, face painting, live animals and tons of environmental displays cater to families for an entire week.
Where to eat
21) The Bubble Room in Captiva is a treasure trove of kitsch, bursting with Hollywood and Christmas memorabilia. A giant collection of miniature trains, Jukeboxes, puppets, toys and servers dressed in scout uniforms will keep kids entertained. The portions are gigantic, but save room for the dessert. Triple-layer cakes, sliced in wedges large enough to satiate a family of four, are ceremoniously presented. The orange cake is award winning, but we couldn’t stop eating the red velvet.
22) Timbers is a fish market and casual family restaurant, with a wide menu of market-fresh seafood. Shrimp, oysters, stone crab and many more offerings are available depending on the season and the catch. A kid’s menu with fish, burgers, chicken and steak are served with a smile.
23) The Lazy Flamingo has two Sanibel locations. The grouper sandwich, a local specialty, is served mesquite grilled or fried. The kid’s menu comes served on a Frisbee with a take-away cup. The key lime pie is mouth-watering.
Where to stay
24) The West Wind Inn is a super-clean, low-key, beachside inn. The units have ample kitchenettes, so you can purchase groceries at Bailey’s down the road and prepare light meals and snacks. The property has a large pool, toddler pool, butterfly garden, shuffleboard, small library, computer center and bikes for rent. Walk out of your door and onto the glorious sand.
25) In Captiva, South Seas Island Resort sits on miles of unsullied beach, sprawling out over 335 acres. This high-end resort has multiple swank pools and water slides and lots of nature-oriented children’s activities plus tennis, golf and more. Good on-site restaurants. Lots of visitors never leave the property.
For more information on the area, visit www.fortmyers-sanibel.com.