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