There’s something about the ocean that draws humans to it. The sound of the waves brings calmness to your thoughts and creates a sense of immediate relaxation. If you’re looking for your next island adventure, Sanibel Island, Florida is a great place to visit. Sanibel is a small island located on the gulf side of the southern tip of Florida. The island is unique in that it’s known for its shelling and unspoiled beaches. Sanibel Island is a great place for families and a great beach that’s far away from spring break revelers.
Sanibel Island may seem remote but it’s easy to get to from two major airports, Fort Myers and Tampa. The drive from Fort Myers to Sanibel is only 25 miles and 150 miles from Tampa International Airport. Sanibel Island is accessible by only one bridge, built in 2007, which costs just $6 to cross.
The charm of Sanibel Island is the feeling that the town is unspoiled and will forever remain that way. The population of Sanibel Island is approximately 6,700 people. The island has 15 miles of beaches, 50 miles of bike lanes and no traffic lights. During times of heavy traffic, cops direct traffic at the two busiest intersections. Most of the city is located on the east end of the island, but more than half of the island is dedicated to wildlife refuges.
Sanibel Island’s government has adamantly fought to keep the island in its natural charm, which includes signing the Sanibel Comprehensive Land Use Plan in 1974 which helps to maintain a balance between developments and preserving the island’s natural ecology. Because of this land use plan, there are only two building on Sanibel that are taller than two stories and the only chain restaurants are a Dairy Queen and Subway which were on the island before plan went into effect. To continue the fight against development the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation started in 1967 and goes strong today fighting for the preservation of natural resources, plants and animals.
When To Go:
The best time to visit Sanibel Island is March and April, which is also the peak tourist season. During the peak season you’ll get the best weather, it’s warm but not yet too hot. Temperatures will be in the mid 70s (24 C) during the day but may get down to the mid 50s (13 C) at night and in the early morning. Make sure to bring a sweatshirt for early morning beach walks or dining out at sunset. Sanibel Island is quiet year round, so you might enjoy the peak season best. Prices do go up during the December through April season, but if you plan ahead, you’ll easily find a place to stay and the higher prices are worth the great weather. March is the busiest month on Sanibel Island.
October and November are the off season on Sanibel Island, but you’ll still get good weather. Throughout October and November temperatures stay between 60 to 80 degrees (16-26 C) with the evenings and early mornings being chilly and breezy. The ocean will be chilly during this time of year, but the sun will still be warm. Room rates are inexpensive, about the same as in the summer, but there’s no threat of storms at this time of year. If you’re visiting Sanibel for the shelling, there are good low tides at this time of year.
Mid-December through mid-February are the coldest months with temperatures getting down to 50 degrees (10 C), but cold spells rarely last more than a few days and temperatures almost never get below freezing. This is also the best time of year for shelling because the winds and tides are favorable for bringing shells up onto the beach. Bird watching is best during the late fall and winter (October through March) when the migratory birds are passing through.
July through September is hurricane season. Throughout the summer (May through November) thunderstorms in the afternoon are common. The rainy season is the cheapest and least busy time to travel to Sanibel Island but some shops and restaurants will be closed, especially in September. If you are visiting during hurricane season, you might get some great shelling after a storm. The winds stir up the ocean and bring shells up onto the beach up to two days after the storm.
If you can, try to avoid Sanibel Island during hurricane season (July to September). If you do want to travel there in the summer, go in May and June before the worst of the storms. June is the rainiest month on Sanibel Island but temperatures will be in the mid 80s (29 C) if the sun is out. Prices are good during this time of year. Red tide, which is an algae bloom that can cause coughing, is most common in the summer and early fall, from May to September…
Things To Know Before You Go:
There are a few Sanibel curiosities that it’s good to know about before your arrival.
Captiva, the small island connected to Sanibel, has a famous landowner. Robert Rauschenberg, an early pop artist, bought 20 acres of land on Captiva Island, the small island connected to Sanibel, where he lived and worked for 40 years. The buildings have now been turned into an artist’s residency program that supports 70 artists annually. The community of Captiva supported Rauschenberg as the biggest land owner on the island because he used the land responsibly and prevented big business development.
There are certain shells that if you find them you’ll get your picture in the newspaper. One of those shells is the elusive junonia. The shell generally lives in very deep waters in the Atlantic making it a rare find on the beaches of Sanibel Island. Many avid sellers have sought after a junonia for dozens of years before having the lucky find.
Shelling is an important part of the Sanibel Island culture. It’s likely that on your beach sojourns you’ll see more than one person performing the Sanibel Stoop. What has become known as the Sanibel Stoop is the posture, doubled over at the waist, knees bent, hands on the knees, that is adopted while looking for seashells on the beaches of Sanibel Island. Known as one of the best shelling beaches in the world, you might just find yourself doing the Sanibel Stoop before long.
Sanibel may sound idyllic, but it is not always perfect. Every once in a while, Sanibel Island experiences an increase in a specific type of algae that at high levels can cause respiratory irritation (such as sneezing, coughing or watery eyes) or skin irritation when swimming. For most people, the irritation is no more than what might be felt during allergy season, but for those with skin sensitivity to plant materials or respiratory sensitivity, they may have more serious symptoms. This algae bloom is commonly called red tide (as it sometimes turns the water a red color) and will be documented in local weather reports and news.
The only other things you need to worry about on Sanibel Island are the no-see-ums. These tiny bugs (get it? You can’t see them!) Pack a powerful bite. Depending on your sensitivity the bite may be itchy for up to 10 days, but the bite itself may not be noticeable. No-see-ums are especially active during the dawn and dusk and during the wetter months of the year. These little bugs are found all over Florida and the Caribbean, but as long as there’s a breeze, you’ll likely escape their bite.
When booking your room reservations on the island, be aware that there’s a bay side and a gulf side of the island. The gulf side will face open water and waves while the bay side seems more like a calm river.
What To Do:
Though the main attraction of Sanibel Island is the shelling and white sand beaches, there’s lots of other things to do to keep busy.
Playing on the beach
- One of the best and easiest forms of entertainment on Sanibel Island is to walk, explore, sunbathe, read or play on the beach. There are public beaches around Sanibel Island but most of the beach is privately owned by the condos and homes near the water. Though you can walk anywhere on the beach, whether public or private, the privately owned parts of the beach are usually quiet and less busy when compared to the public beaches and other Florida beaches in general. Though the water might be cool in the wintertime, the water from the Gulf of Mexico is swimmable year round. The water is shallow for many feet out and the waves are usually not very big making this an ideal beach for kids to play and be safe. There are endless amounts of shells, natural corals and seaweeds for kids to decorate sandcastles with. Most resorts offer beach chairs and umbrellas for patrons to borrow during their stay. You can also pack yourself a little picnic to enjoy on the beach and maybe a bottle of wine for the sunset.
Most of the sea life that you will see on Sanibel Island is harmless. Mostly you’ll see seagulls, pelicans, other types of birds, dolphins, sea cucumbers and the small animals that live inside the seashells. Very rarely, jelly fish will wash up onto the shore and during very warm months, stingrays congregate near the edge of the water to feed. The most common jellyfish on Sanibel Island is the moon jellyfish and its stingers are not strong enough to penetrate human skin, they’re nothing to worry about. Stingrays are shy creatures and mostly ignore people. The problem is one of their favorite places is in shallow water, buried in a light layer of sand, making them very hard to see by swimmers or walkers. If you’re visiting Sanibel between April and October, be sure to shuffle your feet when walking in the water to disturb any stingrays so you don’t accidentally step on them. Another animal you might see on the Sanibel beach is the sea turtle. Especially from October 31st to May 1st, which is sea turtle nesting season, there are special guidelines for avoiding these delicate creatures.
Another fun thing to do on the beach in Sanibel is walk at night. This is great fun for kids or adults. You can bring a flashlight or just go out on a night with a full moon and let the moon guide your way.
On the island you’ll find a few chain shops (such as Fresh Produce and Eileen Fisher) but you’ll also find many local shops with lots of eclectic items and beachwear.
If you’re looking for local shops, you’ll find a great antique store, a local bookstore and lots of small shops that carry local, beach art, island wear, beachy jewelry and lots of other island-y trinkets. If it’s a rainy day and you just need to wander the island, there are seven or eight small shopping centers to poke around in.
If you’re unlucky enough to have two rainy days or you’re not interested in shopping, there’s a movie theater on the island.
The theater has two screens and shows two movies at a time.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge:
This 6,300 acre nature reserve is a great day adventure for anyone visiting Sanibel Island. You can walk, bike, kayak or drive through the reserve to see the native plant and animal species of Sanibel Island. The refuge is closed one day every week to give the animals a break so that they can forage for food near the road without worrying about visitors or cars.
The reserve includes 220 species of birds, some alligators, mangrove forests, an education center and more than 4 miles of roads and many more gravel paths for exploring. The best months to see animals are from November to April as the reserve is an important stop on the southern migratory route for birds such as cuckoos, ospreys and herons.
The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum:
Known as the only museum in the world entirely dedicated to shells, this is a must-see for all first time visitors to the island.
The museum has over two million shells on display and includes many exhibits to educate patrons about Sanibel Island and the shells that wash up on its shores.
Eat fresh seafood:
You can buy fresh-off-the-boat seafood from any restaurant or grocery store on the island.
Eat out or cook it at home, it’s guaranteed fresh.
One of the biggest draws of Sanibel Island is the beautiful beaches. Included in that is the fantastic shelling. Sanibel Island is what’s known as a barrier island that runs east to west. This orientation is what makes Sanibel such a shell friendly place. The shells wash up onto the beach after storms when the wind or the waves push them into the island. If you’re visiting Sanibel and are interested in going to the beach, be sure to invest in some good beach shoes. Sanibel’s beaches are not pristine because they’re not maintained and are covered in shells.
The Sanibel beaches are unmaintained to preserve a natural ecosystem for the plants and animals. This means that the vegetation is allowed to grow naturally and is not cut back. Seaweed and animal life roll up onto the beach occasionally and is not cleaned up either. The shells can be sharp on your feet and going barefoot is not recommended. If you wear flip flops or sandals on the beach, the rough sand may get under the straps and rub your skin. Shells are plentiful on the beach and are fun to collect for people of all ages. If you pick up a shell book from one of the local shops, you can even begin classifying the shells and learning their names. Be sure not to collect live shells, it’s illegal to pick them up and they’ll be very smelly.
Go out on the water:
There are lots of sunset cruises, dolphin cruises and high speed cruises to take you around the island and out on the water. One of the best tours to take around the island is the Sanibel Thriller. This high speed boat gives you a tour of the island with a tour guide explaining the history.
The dolphins love to ride the wake of the boat so try to arrive early and get a seat towards the back for the best views. Though you may get damp from the spray of the boat, the sun and the hour and a half tour of Sanibel will keep you warm.
Sanibel Community Playground:
Even children can get tired of the beach.
If you have kids who need to get some more energy out, be sure to visit the covered playground at the corner of Dunlop and Periwinkle. There’s a great playground, public bathrooms and picnic tables.
Rent and ride bikes:
Sanibel Island is known for its fantastic bike trails.
If you’re interested in touring the island by bike, many condos have bikes to rent and there are also companies on the island that will rent bikes by the hour.
Sunday farmer’s market:
Every Sunday the island hosts a farmer’s market from 8 to 1. The best produce goes early so try to arrive before 10 when the market starts to get busy. Parking gets full quickly so consider biking to the market.
The farmer’s market carries a little bit of everything, fresh produce, fish, meat, breads and other goodies such as sweets, teas and cheeses. Most of the produce is local, but be sure to ask the vendors to be certain. The market is open from late fall to early spring so be sure to check online if you’re visiting during the off season.
If you’re looking for a book to read or just for a computer and wifi, this is the place to stop. The Sanibel Island Public Library has a wide array of books, DVDs and things for kids.
You can get a one week membership or a year long library card for just $10. The kids department and screened in reading porches are a big draw for readers wanting a break from the beach.
If biking around the island and walking the beach aren’t enough exercise for you, be sure to check out the golf courses and the tennis courts.
There are a few around the island and one is sure to fit your needs.
Visit the lighthouse:
The lighthouse is located on the easternmost point of the island and offers great views of Fort Myers and the bridge across to the mainland.
The lighthouse parking lot costs $2 to park and offers access to a public beach, which can get busy on the weekends during the season. The lighthouse was built in 1884 and is a picturesque spot for taking photos. The land surrounding the lighthouse is now a wildlife reserve.
Enjoy a live theatre performance:
The BIG ARTS Herb Strauss Theater offers shows throughout the year from comedies to plays to musicals.
Be sure to check their schedule online and buy your tickets.
Things To Do Nearby:
Sun Harvest Citrus:
If you’re looking for fresh Florida oranges, orange juice, grapefruit or other citrus, be sure to stop at Sun Harvest Citrus.
You can sample all of the fresh squeezed juices and pick up some of the juiciest and most delicious citrus you can find. Be sure to grab a soft serve ice cream swirl of vanilla and orange, it’s one of the most refreshing snacks you can get.
There are a few large shopping and outlet malls located on the road from Fort Myers to Sanibel Island. If you’re looking to get great deals on shopping, check out Miromar Outlets which has over 140 designer and name brand shops. If you’re shopping for food before heading to Sanibel Island, you can find a Super Target and Costco (plus dozens of other shops) at the Gulf Coast Town Center.
This is also the place to go for a movie if you have a rainy day and don’t want to see whatever movie is playing in the island movie theater. Both of these shopping malls are near to the airport, but are within a 30 minute drive from Sanibel Island. If you don’t want to stray too far from the island, there’s the Tanger Outlets just across the causeway and about a 15 minute drive. If you’re interested in finding some bargains, be sure to stop at Flea masters Flea market for over 400,000 square feet of shopping and groceries.
Visit Captiva Island:
Captiva Island connects to Sanibel on the northwest corner of the island is only a short drive away.
If you’re looking to explore other shops, beaches, restaurants or the former residence of artist Robert Rauschenberg, be sure to take the short drive over to Captiva.