Ask Chris: Things to do in Sanibel Island, Florida

by Chris on May 22, 2012

Ask Chris: A reader heading to Sanibel Island wonders about things to do, restaurants to try and off-island activities.

This is part of my ongoing  ”Ask a travel expert” series.

Things to do in Sanibel Island

Question: We’re going to Sanibel this weekend for the first time, arriving Sat. and staying four nights. We’d welcome any guidance, esp. on dining, but also on best beaches and birding spots and what else we should do on the island. We’re thinking of a kayak excursion or two, worth it? Also, is it realistic to do a day trip to the western Everglades, or should we just plan on staying low-key in the area? Any guidance appreciated! —B. 

Answer: Ah, Sanibel Island! Last year, another travel writer asked me what my favorite getaway was, a destination that I like so much that I almost never write about it. Well, Sanibel Island is that place for me. It’s my vacation default, the place that I go to get sunshine and warm weather when the Seattle clouds get me down.

Sanibel Island beaches

My family started going to Sanibel when I was a teen-ager, mostly to escape the Minnesota snows. My parents eventually bought a condo there, and they now live on Sanibel about nine months of the year. I got married on neighboring Captiva Island in 2007, and my sister is getting married just off shore next year. So it’s not an overstatement to say that we have history there.

When I go to Sanibel, I’m not there as a tourist or a travel writer. I’m there as a quasi-resident. When I was there for two weeks last December, I had  a long list of restaurants and activities that I wanted to check out. Instead? I read books and sat by the pool. So I might not be the best tour guide of the island. But I’ll give it a shot:

Shelling on Sanibel

Shelling on Sanibel Island

The first thing you need to know about Sanibel is that the island doesn’t have the powder white beaches that you find in Florida’s Panhandle or on islands such as Turks & Caicos. What Sanibel does have is shells. Lots and lots of shells. So the beach is messy.

Some people can’t stand it. I like it, though, because committing to a natural beach is part of the Sanibel ethos. The island has strict zoning laws. You won’t see any fast food restaurants (ok, there is a Dairy Queen and a Subway that was grandfathered in). If a greater commitment to the environment means I have to wear shoes down to the beach, that’s fine with me.

(Incidentally, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh, found inspiration in the shells. She wrote Gift from the Sea after vacationing on nearby Captiva. Most bookstores/guest homes on Sanibel have copies lying around).

Shelling on Sanibel

People who love shelling get up early to see if they can find treasures before others have picked over the  beach. But at all hours, you’ll see people hunched over as they walk the beach, looking for the odd starfish or sand dollar. The pose is so prevalent that it has a name – the Sanibel Stoop. Earlier this year, the island got into the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the world’s largest shell scavenger hunt. You’ll be hard-pressed not to take a few home (make sure you bleach them first).

I’ve embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to the Shell Museum. Most people I know who have gone have kids; you guys might want to skip it unless you really love shells.

Sanibel Island beaches

Some of the more popular beaches on Sanibel are Bowman’s Beach and the beach near the Sanibel Lighthouse. I also like the beaches up on neighboring Captiva (which is one reason why I got married up there instead of on Sanibel). Everyone gets their requisite sunset photo at Turner Beach, just past Blind Pass.

Ding Darling

Ding Darling

Besides the shells, Sanibel’s other main attraction is the wildlife. You can see all kinds of birds (and maybe even an alligator or two) at the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, which takes up a huge chunk of the island. You can stop by the visitors center and either take the Wildlife Drive or bike it. There are also several nice hikes off the drive (although it is going to be wicked hot if you’re visiting in May – if you do hike, bring plenty of water, sun protection and insect repellent).

Ding Darling

Kayaking is an excellent way to explore the refuge. Tarpon Bay Explorers run guided paddles. Given the season, I’d go for the Sunset Rookery Paddle so you can see the birds come in for the night (it will also be a little cooler too).

Other Things to Do on Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island has miles of bike paths – and it’s flat. I love renting a bike for a week from Billy’s and using it to get around. They also have Segway tours.

Biking on Sanibel

Taking a powerboat out to look for dolphins might not sound so environmentally friendly. But the Sanibel Thriller is pretty awesome. Once the boat picks up speed, the dolphins seem to race right to it, jumping and leaping through the wake.

Over the years, we’ve gone sailing, deep sea fishing and taken sunset cruises. Really, there are as many ways to get out on the water as you wish.

Sand Turtle on Sanibel Island Beach

Sanibel Island Restaurants

One of my biggest complaints about Sanibel is that the island’s restaurant scene isn’t really on par with the destination. Places tend to be high-priced for what you get, which is why I patronize the delis at Jerry’s and Bailey’s when I’m there.

Savvy shoppers pick up groceries for their timeshare or condo in Ft. Myers before they get on the island, as everything is more expensive once you cross the Causeway.

Still, there are a few places that are worth mentioning:

The Sanibel Grill is my absolute favorite place to go on the island. It has a sports bar atmosphere, a ton of locals and the best crunchy grouper on the island. The adjacent Timbers is a quieter, higher-end spot next door that also has quality seafood. Don and I had a date night there at Christmas.

One of my best friends went to Sanibel earlier this year and celebrated her anniversary at the Thistle Lodge at Casa Ybel Resort. My sister also liked the food there when she was scouting wedding locales. More casual faves include the Lighthouse Cafe for breakfast and Grandma Dot’s at the Sanibel Marina.

Sanibel is fairly sleepy so there isn’t a huge nightlife. If you want more of a bar atmosphere, head up to Santiva, the isthmus where Sanibel and Captiva meet, and go to the Lazy Flamingo. The Crow’s Nest at the ‘Tween Waters Inn (where I was married) has NASCRAB races on Monday and Thursday nights. The jokes are stale, even at the later “adult” races, but it’s still fun to bet on a hermit crab. You might even win a kazoo.

Red Velvet Cake, the Bubble Room

There’s a fun strip of restaurants up on Captiva that are worth seeking out. If you’re looking for a beach vibe, go to the Mucky Duck around sunset. And DO NOT miss the desserts at the Bubble Room. While the meals, served by “Bubble Scouts,” are only average, the cakes and pies are spectacular – and huge. Bring a piece of red velvet cake back to your hotel room to split later.

Off Island

Honestly, for a first trip, especially one that is only four days long, I would stay on Sanibel. But if you do want to range farther afield, the western Everglades are in reach. I’m a little amazed that this travel story I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer about taking an airboat ride near the park is still online (I wrote it in 2006).

In Ft. Myers, the Thomas Edison & Henry Ford estates are worth a stop. I put together a photo post about the estate for Britt Conley’s blog, the Photo Garden Bee, back in 2010.

And finally, I keep telling myself on every trip that  I will take a day cruise to Useppa Island or maybe Cabbage Key. But then I get into island mode, where long walks on the beach and good mystery novels engulf my time. Maybe you’ll be more ambitious – but if you aren’t, that’s perfectly OK.

Have any other Sanibel tips? Leave them in the comments!

 

 

 

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Laitham Haddad May 22, 2012 at 9:12 am

There is no place in the world like Sanibel and it has its own unique charm. I’m a Sanibel Island resident and photographer and I have spent the last two years capturing images of Sanibel & Captiva Islands that are not seen every day. Please join me on my facebook page under Two Eyes One Image Photography for “no strings attached” enjoyment of my images!

http://www.facebook.com/twoeyesoneimage

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Chris May 22, 2012 at 10:09 am

Maybe we can have coffee next time I’m on the island.

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Ben June 1, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Thanks so much for the advice, Chris! Between beaches and biking and wildlife — and crunchy grouper, yum! — we had a great time. The sunset kayak tour to see the roosting birds was particularly amazing. And I’ll add some advice for future readers: The guided tram tour at Ding Darling was totally worth it, not only did we spot a lot we might have missed, we learned what to look for on our own bike rides through the refuge later. Would also recommend the Bailey Tract for bird and alligator sightings.

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Chris June 3, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Ben – So glad you enjoyed it! And thanks for the rec about the tram tour. I’ll have to give it a whirl next time I’m on the island.

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Abby June 2, 2012 at 7:07 am

Gorgeous!!! I was so young when my family used to go there that I barely remember it, even though I have such fond memories. I used to go to Captiva Island and North Captiva, too. What a fun trip down memory lane! Beautiful beachy photos.

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Chris June 3, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Abby – Yep, Sanibel is truly my home away from home. You’ll have to visit again sometime soon.

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Lisa Marie June 4, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Sanibel is truly breathtakingly beautiful! My husband and I were married right next to a lighthouse and through the years have enjoyed taking road trips along the Oregon and California Coast to enjoy the ocean view and to see lighthouses along the way. We have not been to Florida yet but are planning a trip there in the next year. We will certainly include Sanibel Island as a must see while we are there! We are looking forward to having lunch at the Lighthouse Cafe as well as taking a photo of the lighthouse to add to the others we have acquired over the years. Are there any family friendly activities for really young children? Ours are ages 1, 2, and 6 and we don’t think they would be up for hiking or biking.

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Chris June 23, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Lisa – Maybe some other parents will chime in, but if I had young children, I’d probably spend most of my time by the pool where you have a controlled environment. While they will love exploring the beach, you might find yourself watching carefully to make sure they don’t put any shells in their mouth!

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Adam June 18, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Headed back to Sanibel next week for the third summer in a row; it truly is a wonderful place. I recommend Timber’s, Gramma Dots, and The Island Cow (for breakfast). The cruise to Useppa and Cabbage Key are definitely well worth it.

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Chris June 23, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Adam – Thanks for the recommendations! I swear, next time I’ll take one of those cruises.

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Smokey Joe June 19, 2012 at 8:48 am

Make sure you check out Cantina Captiva! Great fajitas and best prices on the island.

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Chris June 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Joe – I’ve passed Cantina Captiva several times. It looks cute, and I’m glad to hear the prices are reasonable. I’ll give it a try on my next trip.

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Bea June 19, 2012 at 9:01 am

I am fortunate to live on Sanibel. I would like to note that I always recommend Traders for lunch and Happy Hour. Dinner is wonderful, but perhaps pricey for some. Over Easy is wonderful for breakfast and lunch. Don’t overlook the local art, theater and music scene at our BIGARTS. I also take visitors to our beautiful library!

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Chris June 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Bea – My parents have a subscription to Big Arts during the season, and the library is a great place to pick up some reading material. We went to Traders on our last trip. While I enjoyed the food, I thought it was a little overpriced for what you get. I’ll have to try Over Easy on my next visit.

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Susan Andrews June 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm

What a terrific blog. All good points about Sanibel Island too. I began writing a blog as part of my real estate marketing (my company is SanibelSusan Realty Associates). With your permission, I’d like to link to your blog this week & I’m going to follow your feeds in the future (love to travel too).
(I post my blog each Friday afternoon at http://www.SanibelSusan.wordpress.com.)

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Chris June 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Thanks, Susan. Glad you enjoyed it.

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leslie June 22, 2012 at 5:28 pm

We have been frequent visitors to Sanibel for the last three years and always make sure to eat at least one meal at Sweet Melissa’s. It is the only restaurant that has innovative cuisine, and although pricey, they offer the option of ordering a half entree size at half the price. If you do that,t you can try an appetizer and an entree and have a great meal at a more reasonable price.
I also recommend Sanibel Susan’s blog for those thinking ( or dreaming) of owning a piece if paradise.

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Chris June 23, 2012 at 7:18 pm

Leslie – I’ll have to give Sweet Melissa’s a try at some point. Thanks for telling us about the half entree size.

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Robin June 22, 2012 at 8:51 pm

The Mad Hatter is by far the best restaurant–always great!

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Chris June 23, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Robin – I remember going to the Mad Hatter years ago and not being impressed. But I’m sure it’s changed since then. Thanks for the recommendation.

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