Sanibel & Captiva Islands

Removed, and only seemingly remote.

There are no stoplights on Sanibel or Captiva, and there are no buildings taller than the tallest palm tree. Both serve as a reminder of what happens when we leave well enough alone. For generations, people have escaped over the three-mile causeway to a different pace of life – one that includes ungroomed white sand beaches filled with thousands of shells, great seafood restaurants, unmatched wildlife viewing and a family focused village atmosphere where only the absolutely necessary parts of civilization are included.

Sanibel & Captiva Islands Community

"Palm-tree and flower-lined islands are famous for their beaches and the incredible variety of shells."

The barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva connect to the mainland by a three-mile-long causeway that stretches from the southwestern reaches of Fort Myers out across San Carlos Bay, where the Caloosahatchee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Created by nature to protect the mainland, the palm-tree and flower-lined islands are famous for their beaches and the incredible variety of shells that wash up on their shores.

Beaches range from the Gulf-to-bay sands at Lighthouse Park at one end of Sanibel, punctuated by the historic light tower and home to a popular fishing pier, to Captiva’s romantic beaches, where sunset draws a nightly crowd. In between are family-friendly sandy playgrounds and long stretches of unpopulated sands fronting beautiful houses. Seashells carpet all the beaches, but Bowman’s Beach is especially known for fine selections, as well as great birding.

Once devoted to grapefruit and coconut farms, the islands exert a charming reluctance to allow too much infringement of the modern, metropolitan world. To maintain their rural character, no stoplights or street lights intrude on either island. Captiva Island feels (and is) more remote than Sanibel. Quirky, with its one-of-a-kind colorful restaurants and unusual shops, the tiny village dwells in its own state of existence – equal parts waterside playground and pure whimsy.

On Sanibel, there are multi-use paths – 25 miles total – that function as sidewalks, bike paths and recreational trails; buildings are “no taller than the tallest palm tree." Residents and visitors alike maintain a healthy respect for and commitment to the environment. Half of Sanibel’s acreage has been preserved against development. The intelligent and sensitive way the islands balance resorts with nature has made them a state-wide model for eco-tourism.

Throughout history, Sanibel and Captiva have been used variously as stopovers for Spanish explorers and resorts for the rich and famous, including one special cartoonist, Jay Norwood Darling, who helped create the 6,400-acre national wildlife refuge that bears his name. Other notables who sought escape on the islands before the causeway made visits easier and more popular include Teddy Roosevelt, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Edna St. Vincent Millay. From artist Robert Rauschenberg to weatherman Willard Scott, the famous still seek refuge at this preserve for wildlife and the human soul.

Visitors to both islands enjoy not only the natural, ungroomed beaches, but also the languid pace of island life, great restaurants, theater and museums such as Sanibel Historical Village and the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Education centers at Sanibel’s two main eco-attractions introduce the uninitiated to the island’s marine, freshwater and hammock habitats, where river otters, loggerhead sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, bald eagles and hundreds of native and transitory birds find refuge.

Restaurants on both islands excel at seafood succulence in settings that range from porch cafes to waterfront views and modern elegance. Although seafood is the centerpiece, menus range from Mediterranean to New American in style. Dining and shopping are favorite pastimes on the island for those ready to leave the beach for a spell. Sanibel Island is known for its art galleries, which specialize in wildlife paintings. Don’t miss the monthly Art Nights during the winter season. Seashell shops, resort clothing boutiques and jewelry stores selling custom, sea-inspired adornments line small shopping centers prettily decorated with bougainvillea, shady ficus trees and swaying palms.

The islands’ marinas offer plenty of opportunity to get out on the water. Offerings include shelling on secluded islands, hitting a beach away from it all, fishing, sailing, snorkeling, learning about marine life or camping on a bridgeless island. Many resorts and outfitters stock kayaks, sailboats, paddleboats and an assortment of water toys for vacationers’ enjoyment.

Between Sanibel and Captiva, visitors can find a resort to precisely match their style of vacationing. Small inns provide an intimate experience, Gulf-front resorts cater to beach buffs, cottages have that delicious barefoot feel and grand destination resorts leave no vacation whim unfulfilled with a full complement of marina, tennis, beach and golf facilities.

Sanibel & Captiva Islands Quick Trips

"Something for everyone with these short adventures"

Get Rolling: Look, Ma – no hills! Well, unless you count a couple of the bridges crossing canals along Sanibel Island’s 23 miles of paved bike path. It connects to the four-mile Wildlife Drive at the J.N. “Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, another popular cycling route.

Windsurfing the Sanibel Causeway: Big winds bring joy to windsurfers along the causeway spoil islands. For rentals and instructions, contact nearby Ace Performers (239-489-3513). For extremely extreme, ask about kite-boarding.

Follow Ancient Trails: Paddle your way from one end of the county to the other along the Great Calusa Blueway (239-461-7400), a marked and GPS-plotted Intracoastal Waterway trail named for a native tribe that covers 190 miles.
Captain Your Own Destiny: Or at least your own salty, exciting day riding the waves: Rent a powerboat from one of the local marinas. Explore secluded beaches, visit uninhabited islands and cast for your fantasy fish.

Hit the Deck and Learn: Tarpon Bay Explorers (239-472-8900), Sanibel Island, official tour concession for the J.N. “Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, holds free themed deck talks Monday through Friday to educate about alligators, sea turtles, manatees and more.

Big on Culture: BIG ARTS (239-395-0900), Sanibel Island’s cultural heart, beats with an energetic schedule of entertainment, from high-brow musicians to film and kids’ programs. The center also has art galleries and offers lecture series and numerous workshops.

Be One with the Birds: A favorite resort for birds traveling the major “flyway" overhead, the J.N. “Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (239-472-1100), Sanibel Island, accommodates its guests – from bald eagles and roseate spoonbills to sanderlings and warblers – with pure wetlands and mangrove estuaries. American alligators, manatees, dolphin, raccoons, river otters and the rare bobcat also share the refuge.

Admire Showcase Shells: When it comes time to ID your beach finds and delve into the history – natural and social – of shells, the gallery-like Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (239-395-2233, 888-679-6450), Sanibel Island, is just the spot.

Sip a Key Lime Martini: At Key Lime Bistro (239-395-4000), smack in the middle of “downtown” Captiva (if there is such a thing), people-watch, tap your foot to live jazz and relish fresh seafood. And don’t miss the Sunday Jazz Brunch.

Sleep in the Past: Cottages at historic Captiva Island Inn (239-395-0882), with such delightful names as Bird of Paradise and Orchid, hearken back to the 1950s with hand-carved molding and a storybook vibe.

Genuflect to the Past: Captiva Island’s seasonal nondenominational Chapel-By-The-Sea, once a one-room schoolhouse, is today a popular spot for weddings and seaside meditation. Island pioneers were laid to rest in its seaside cemetery.

Look for Fins and Snouts: Each day brings new surprises when you set sail on a nature cruise. Some tours cast seine nets to introduce visitors to tiny creatures from the sea. Others go in search of dolphin, manatees and birds where they live.

Root for the Under-Crab: Gentlecrabs, start your … um… claws? Every Monday and Thursday at 6 p.m., the Crow’s Nest Lounge at ‘Tween Waters Inn (239-472-5161) on Captiva Island hosts the zany NasCrab Races with fanfare and prizes.

Go Fly a Kite: The beaches along the Sanibel Causeway benefit from a stiff crosswind that makes them popular for windsurfing and kite-flying alike. On a good day, it’s fun to watch the action, or for even more fun, let your imagination (and kite) take flight.

Talk to the Animals: Tucked among the lush vegetation at Jerry’s Supermarket shopping plaza on Sanibel Island, tropical cage birds sing and talk to you. They’re at their chattiest in the evening.

Hear the Word: Call about weekly storytelling and reading sessions at the beautiful Sanibel Public Library (239-472-2483). While you’re there, get a visitor’s card and check out some beach reading.

Witness the End of an Era: Remnants of the early commercial fishing industry, historic stilted fish shacks strut the shallows around North Captiva. Once the homes for fishermen and their families, they survive as scenic reminders of the region’s rich fishing heritage.

A Day on Sanibel & Captiva Islands

"Go kayaking, hit the theater and check out the shell museum."

World-class shelling isn’t the only thing you’ll find on Sanibel and Captiva. Go kayaking, hit the theater and check out the shell museum.

Captiva IslandStart with breakfast at the Lighthouse Café, where diners recently overheard discussion of closing the restaurant so “The Kennedys" could dine in private (yes, most likely those Kennedys).

Next, visit the well-presented displays at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum to identify your finds and learn about shell history and architecture. Lunch at the Over Easy Café is a brightly colored affair. Then either bike some of Sanibel’s 25 miles of paved paths (try Billy’s Bikes & Rentals and Segway of Sanibel) or head over to Tarpon Bay Explorers for a guided kayak trip.

Round out the evening with dinner at Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille, then take in a spot of culture at The Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater.

    “Beyond expectations.” - Florida

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    “Really cool!” - Florida

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    “Great place!” - Reviewer

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