Sanibel Island, Florida
A Barrier Island Sanctuary
Our staff are local experts of Sanibel Island and can give you the best tips to make your stay an incredible one. From where to stay, what to do and how to explore the beaches. Your Florida vacation can be customized for you and your interests.
What sets Sanibel Island, apart from other Florida vacation spots?
Sanibel Island is legendary for its miles of white, shell-strewn beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, its abundant wildlife, and its nature preserves including the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the island. Because of its wetlands refuge and ecotourism, birdwatchers flock to the island to see some of the more than 230 species of birds such as bald eagles, ospreys, pileated woodpeckers, mangrove cuckoos, roseate spoonbills, and in the winter months, dozens of migrating bird species.
Unlike most Florida beach towns, Sanibel Island has few chain stores or fast food outlets and most shops are small, independently-owned and include stylish boutiques and art galleries. Sanibel Island restaurants serve fresh, succulent local seafood such as gulf shrimp, grouper, and stone crab.
Located near Ft. Myers Beach, Sanibel Island joins to the mainland by a causeway consisting of three bridges and two small islands. A high-span bridge, the gateway to your Sanibel vacation, offers an unparalleled panorama of San Carlos Bay, which is dotted with uninhabited mangrove islands and is a magnet for anglers and boaters. At the island’s opposite end, the Sanibel-Captiva bridge over Blind Pass connects to nearby Captiva.
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What is the Sanibel Stoop?
Bending over and gathering seashells on Sanibel Islands beaches is a popular pastime and has been dubbed by locals as the “Sanibel Stoop.” Sanibel Island’s shape, east-west orientation, shallow offshore shelf makes and east-west orientation make the ideal conditions for Gulf of Mexico currents to carry and deposit seashells from south seas. It should be noted the collection of live seashells on Sanibel Island beaches is prohibited.
Seashells are important to Sanibel Island’s culture and it is home to one of the leading shell museums in the world, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Sanibel Island also hosts the Sanibel Shell Fair & Show each year in which exhibitors and shell-lovers from all over the world attend. While shelling on Sanibel Island beaches, keep an eye out for an ivory colored shell with brown, rectangular spots. Chances are it is a Junonia (Scaphella junonia), in which about one a day is found on Sanibel Island.
What are the best Sanibel Island beaches?
Sanibel Island beaches are popular for their sugar-white sand, abundance of seashells and natural settings. Visitors have many options when it comes to visiting Sanibel Island’s 15 miles of beaches. Lighthouse Beach & Fishing Pie is the site of a historic functioning lighthouse and is located on the eastern tip of Sanibel Island. It includes a fishing pier and boardwalk nature trail. Mid-island are Gulfside City Park, perfect for beachgoers seeking seclusion; and Tarpon Beach, ideal for those with large vehicles and who don’t mind a brief hike from the parking lot to the beach. Bowman’s Beach is located on the upper island and typically offers tranquility and is known for the best shelling. It’s the only Sanibel Island beach with barbecue grills. A small fee charged to park at Sanibel Island beaches. Causeway Beaches are fantastic for fishing, swimming and picnicking and there is no fee to park at them. Find them along both sides of Sanibel Island’s roads.
What are the best Sanibel Island restaurants?
Fresh seafood rules the roost at Sanibel Island restaurants but there truly is something for every type of flavor and experience, especially when looking for outdoor, family-friendly, romantic or dog-friendly dining.
What is the history of Sanibel Island?
The Calusa Indians, “shell people,” are believed to be the first inhabitants of Sanibel Island dating back about 2,500 years. Clams, conchs, whelks and other seafood were consumed as food and the emptied seashells converted into tools. They built shell mounds, some intact today, and built their huts upon these mounds to avoid flooding.
Historians believe Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Sanibel Island, which he named “Santa Isybella” after Queen Isabella, in 1513 while searching for his “Fountain of Youth.” He and his Spanish conquistadors battled the Calusas for years, and Ponce de Leon was eventually killed by a Calusa arrow in 1523. Although the Spanish were not able to establish a settlement in this part of Florida, they brought with them diseases that eventually led to the extinction of the Calusa people in the 18th century.
On Aug. 20, 1884, the Sanibel Lighthouse was first lit in this area on Sanibel Island, which is today considered “Old Town Sanibel,” now had permanent settlers following decades of raids by Indians from the Seminole Wars. Docks were constructed at Sanibel Island’s east end in 1928 which opened ferry service to the island from the mainland and the area welcomed more settlers.
Sanibel Island has welcomed its share of famous visitors including President Teddy Roosevelt, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling.
During the mid-20th century, Sanibel Island became more attractive to visitors because of its beaches, shelling, fishing, and nature walks. It was a true sanctuary. They traveled on a 30-minute ferry ride from Fort Myers. In 1963, the Sanibel Causeway was completed making Sanibel Island more accessible to visitors and settlers. The City of Sanibel was formed in 1974 to control the growth and use of the island which is what makes it a special, natural choice today.
What are things to do on Sanibel Island?
In addition to visiting Sanibel Island beaches and gathering seashells, there is plenty to explore during your Florida vacation:
Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum – This is the only museum in the United States entirely devoted to seashells. Learn about the science of seashells as well as their history and how people have been incorporating them into their lives throughout the centuries.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge – The 6,400-acre national wildlife refuge is known for its birdlife with the best birding months to visit being December through March. Low tide is the best time to view wildlife because birds are feeding on exposed mud flats. Begin a visit at the refuge’s visitor and education center for a refuge orientation. The Wildlife Drive is a must and terrific opportunity to view some of the refuge’s wildlife and is open Saturday through Thursday and closed every Friday. The refuge offers hiking and biking trails as well as canoe/kayak launches. Guided canoe and kayak tours as well as sealife and tram tours are offered by Tarpon Bay Explorers. Bicycles, canoes, kayaks and pontoon boats are available for rent and saltwater fishing is a popular activity along the Wildlife Drive. There is a $5 per vehicle and $1 per hiker or biker fee to enter the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Biking – There are 25 miles of paved, family-friendly multi-use biking paths on Sanibel Island. The paths weave through shopping districts, back roads, neighborhoods and along waterways. Wildlife Drive at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Dixie Beach Road are popular rides. Bicycles are available for rent throughout Sanibel Island.
Boating – Because Sanibel Island is located on the Gulf of Mexico, it is a boater’s playground with easy and wonderful access for boating ranging from sail boats to fishing boats and tour boats to kayaks. Several marinas offer boat dockage or if you do not have your own, rent one for a morning or full day. Don’t be surprised if a dolphin or manatee makes an appearance during your voyage.
Cruises – Several tour boat operators offer a variety of cruises ranging from shelling expeditions to dolphin-watch cruises to sunset sails. Whatever your adventure level is, you are certain to find a cruise that floats your boat.
Canoeing, Kayaking and Standup Paddle Boarding – Lee County, in which Sanibel Island is located, is home to the 190-mile Calusa Blueway Trail. Sanibel Island offers several access points to this trail which offers varied scenery ranging from mangrove tunnels in J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to open water off Bowman’s Beach. If you do not have your own paddle power, several operators on Sanibel Island rent canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards as well as offer guided tour.
Fishing – Sanibel Island offers prime fishing whether it is offshore or inshore/back bay fishing. Offshore fishing is excellent thanks to ship wrecks and artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. Depending how far a boat travels offshore, fish often caught include snook, snapper, Florida pompano, gag grouper, yellowtail snapper, permit and cobia. Inshore fishing is also popular for redfish, sea trout, snook and tarpon. Fly fishing Sanibel Island’s saltwater is growing in popularity and provides a decent challenge. If you do not have access to a boat, fishing is permitted from beaches, the fishing pier and J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In most cases, a Florida saltwater fishing license is required. Or, hire a fishing charter captain to put you on the fish.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving – Within a 15-mile radius of Sanibel Island lies more than a dozen artificial reefs with Edison Reef being one of the largest making this area popular for scuba diving and snorkeling. Charters are available for snorkeling adventures.
Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife (C.R.O.W.) – This facility cares for injured, abandoned or orphaned Florida wildlife and treats more than 3,000 patients annually.
Old Town Sanibel – Find quaint village inns, restaurants and inns in this historic area located on Sanibel Island’s east end. Pick up a walking and biking tour map to stroll along 2.5 miles of “yesteryear” produced by the Sanibel Historical Society.
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation – Take a walk on Sanibel Island’s wild side at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Nature Center and learn about the island’s ecosystems along 4.5 miles of trails. There’s also an observation tower and butterfly exhibit.
Sanibel Lighthouse (Point Ybel Light) – The Sanibel Lighthouse was first lit in 1884 and although the U.S. Coast Guard had planned to extinguish the light in 1972, the public demanded it stay lit. Today, the Florida Coast Guard maintains the lighthouse which is not open to the public but is probably the most iconic structure on Sanibel Island.
Shopping – When you’re on island time, you may as well shop like an islander. Sanibel Island offers a fine collection of unique and boutique shops owned by independent retailers ensuring you’ll find the perfect gift. Antique shops and art galleries are plentiful, too, in addition to shops that stock the grocery essentials, and beach and swimwear.
Golf – There are two public golf courses on Sanibel Island and a private course. These courses are in natural island settings and are Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses sanctioned courses, designated as such for preserving the natural golf heritage and protecting the environment.
Captiva Island – Adjacent to Sanibel Island is Captiva Island with a host of lodging and activities ranging from beaches to shops to flavorful and one-of-a-kind dining experiences.
What tips for vacation rentals should we consider on Sanibel Island?
Private owners and managed properties offer hundreds of Sanibel Island vacation rentals, either in a home or condo and the right one depends on what you are seeking. We recommend researching your vacation rental choices by reading reviews and contacting the owners directly. Be alert to scams involving wire transfers, especially to someone overseas. If a vacation rental seems too good to be true, it probably is.
What is the toll to enter Sanibel Island?
The Sanibel Causeway connects Punta Rassa, which is mainland Florida, with Sanibel Island. The bridge toll to enter Sanibel Island is $6 for cars and $2 for motorcycles. There is a $3 per axle fee for larger vehicles. Bicycles are free. There is no toll when leaving Sanibel.
Is Sanibel Island a good spring break destination?
Sanibel Island is the perfect spring break destination for anyone looking for seashells and serenity. Although spring break is at the height of visitation, families and couples are typically the ones soaking up the sun on Sanibel Island beaches. Traffic is typically heavy during spring break so it is wise to plan accordingly.
Is Sanibel Island safe?
Personal safety is an important factor when choosing a Florida vacation spot and the best advice is to conduct your research. According to City-Data.com, crime is relatively low on Sanibel Island. You can also check with the Sanibel Island Police Department for crime stats. While at the beach, heed warnings, and while enjoying watersports, exercise common sense to ensure a positive Sanibel Island vacation.
What are the best Sanibel Island hotels and resorts?
Sanibel Island offers cozy beach cottages, quaint inns, full-service waterfront resorts as well as vacation home and condo rentals.
How is the weather in Sanibel Island?
Many weather websites and apps can provide current Sanibel Island weather. Sanibel Island has a sub-tropical climate resulting in mild winters January – March with January typically being the coolest month and June the warmest, although July and August can see high temperatures in the 90s F. The rainy season is June – September. For average temperatures visit weather.com.