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.