Sanibel Island, Florida

Its famous beach is not its only attraction.

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Gently-sloping, shell-laden Sanibel beach is reason enough for thousands to vacation on Sanibel Island. But it's not the only reason they make Sanibel their vacation destination.

The quiet, laid-back character of Sanibel's beach is an apt metaphor for the entire island's ambiance. The pace is slow. The atmosphere is quiet, romantic, natural - Just the relaxing, renourishing getaway your soul needs.

There are no traffic signals on the island. None. All the roads are two lanes. Fast food formula restaurants are not alowed, in favor of unique island-style dining and drinking. Not a single building rises higher than three stories or 35 feet.

The broad Gulf of Mexico beaches have long stretches where only beachcombers or shell collectors stroll. Sanibel is known for some of the best shelling in the Northern or Western Hemispheres. Beach visitors often adopt the "Sanibel Stoop", a crouch assumed while searching for sea shells in the sands.

If you are interested in knowing more about seashells, here are a couple of resources: Pam Rambo, a knowledgable Sanibelian is blogging about collecting seashells, at http://iloveshelling.com/blog/ There also is the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel.

Before we go further, you may find this video both informative and enticing.

Sanibel Island Beaches and Parking.

Okay. Let's get the beaches out of the way. There are 14 distinct beach areas along the Sanibel shore (and more on neighboring Captiva). Yes, parking can be a problem. To help out, the City of Sanibel offers three different kinds of parking permits.

  • The A permit is available only to Sanibel residents.

  • The B permit is sold at the Sanibel police station. It will set you back $80 if you don't own property on Sanibel ($10, if you do). The B permit allows you park in public lots without - for the most part - paying any additional parking fees. It's a good deal if you are going to be on the island for an extended stay. Pay-as-you-park parking fees can add up.

  • There also is an $80 C permit that allows parking without fees on certain beaches and at the boat ramp. Of course all this is subject to change. A good place to find out the latest is at the City of Sanibel Web site (This is a link to a pdf page you can download and print to bring with you when you visit Sanibel.).

    Another good site for Sanibel Island beach information is here.

    One of Sanibel's greatest beach parking bargains, however, isn't even on Sanibel island. It's on the Sanibel causeway. The beach areas between the toll plaza and the Sanibel Island landfall are now a Lee County park. They are not within the the jurisdiction of the City of Sanibel. It's free to park there (at least for now) and you can actually pull your vehicle, even an RV, up on the sand and park at the water's edge.

    You can't park overnight. But you're there for the Florida sun anyway, right?.

    Caution: The Sanibel sun is relentless. It can burn you before you know it. Even on overcast days, when the rays bounce upoff the water and sand. Always put on sunscreen before going to the beach. (Some medical experts say any spf higher than 30, is unneccessary.) Don't sit out there too long. We think your vacation should be "well done", but not you.

    Here's another beach parking tip. Don't drive. Sanibel Taxi can pick you up, take you to the beach and pick you to go back home when you have had your fill of sun. It will save you cruising for an spot to open, it will save you the parking fee and it will save you the City fine when you inevitably stay longer than you paid for. It really is one of the great undiscovered beach tricks.

    Also, we hate to have to say so, but periodically, all islands along the Florida Gulf Coast experience sea conditions that can be troubling for people with breathing problems. If you are even the least bit concerned, be sure to call the people you are staying with before you leave for Sanibel and ask them for any reports on red tide. This is an occasional condition that festers in the depth of the Gulf but can get in the air when waves carrying the organism break on the beach. Most of the time, and especially if you don't have trouble breathing, you won't even know it is there.

    Sanibel Biking and Hiking

    Bike riding through Ding DarlingRiding bicycles on Sanibel is one our most popular pastimes. It's an excellent way to tour the island, and can keep you out of the traffic that sometimes builds up on the island's main roads. There are 27 miles of bicycle paths (purists call them 'multi-use' paths, because you can walk on them too). They run from one end the island to the other, with spurs to access points of interest. Renting bikes and mopeds (mopeds must stay on the street, not the bike paths) is easy. One of our favorite island places to rent bikes and stuff is Billy's Bikes on Periwinkle Way. Billy also runs tours on Seqways, those two-wheel stand-up personal transporters. Unfortunately, the city fathers don't think you are qualified to to take a Segway out on your own. Other bike rental firms include Finnimore's.

    The Sanibel bike paths run alongside the road in most places but have been diverted into adjacent property at other places, providing a safety buffer from vehicular traffic, and shade from overhanging trees.. Shade is critical on a long ride when the sun can dehydrate a rider. If you decide to make the long trek to Captiva Island, be sure to bring extra water and wear a top and hat. Be very careful if you continue to Captiva, where bikes share the roadway with cars. Safety can be an issue when there are no separate paths. (FYI: Captiva Island is not part of Sanibel. It is a separate community inside unincorporated Lee County and operates by diferent rules and regs. For more about Captiva, click here)

    If you want to cross the roadway with your bike, or even on foot, Sanibel drivers are very accommodating for the most part. Just dismount and stand by your bike, preferably at a crosswalk, and before you know it drivers will stop and signal you to cross. Always, check, however, to be certain drivers in both directions see you and are prepared to yield.

    For more information on Sanibel Island biking, visit this reprint of an article written on the subject a few years ago. Actually, not a whole lot has changed. That's Sanibel for you.

    Sanibel Golf and Tennis

    Opportunities to play golf on Sanibel are limited, with only two golf courses available to the public. Golfers should reserve tee times at the Sanibel Island Gulf Club or at the Dunes. Check with the pro by phone to be sure.

    There are a 'zillion' private, semi-private and public golf courses on the mainland, however. For a slightly dated but largely accurate discussion of golf courses in Lee County check out this article.

    Tennis Courts at Pelicans RoostTennis courts? I have lost count. Most resorts and condo complexes have them. Public courts are available at the Sanibel School Recreation Area.

    Speaking of the Rec Center, it is phenomenal and open to visitors. There is a large community swimming pooll with life guards. Tennis courts. Basketball courts, And an impressive fitness facility. As of this writing, visitors can sign up for $12/day single or $20/day family, $50/week single & $105/week family. Calln the Sanibel Recreation Center, 239-472-0345, for the latest information

    High Seas and Low Seas on Sanibel Island

    Fishing charters and boat rentals are available at various marinas such as Jensen's Marina and 'Tween Waters Marina, which are both on Captiva Island, and Sanibel Marina. There's also Adventures in Paradise just off island before you enter the causeway to Sanibel. Whether you are a sailor or a power boater, you are just yards from the open waters of San Carlos Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. (If you want to learn to sail, one of the foremost sailing schools in the country, Offshore Sailing School, has a base on Captiva Island.

    (Here's an article that appeared a few years ago about sailing around Sanibel. While possibly dated, most of the information still applies)

    If you fish, you will have your line in the water before you can open a beverage. One of the favorite fishing spots is off the Sanibel pier at the lighthouse end of the island.

    Venture into the Gulf by boat and you may find tarpon that will give you a good fight or some of the grouper that visit the artificial reefs.

    There's even diving to get a look at the schools that teem around sunken barges, old bridge spans and even railroad cars that have been dropped in the deep to attract reef dwellers.

    Speaking of artificial reefs, here's an article from a few years ago about diving on these reefs off the Sanibel shore. Since it was written, the recently sunken USS Mohawk is attracting schools of fish.

Nature lovers love Sanibel

A watchful pelican on Sanibel IslandAlmost half of the island is nature preserve, including 5,000+ acres known as the world famous J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. You can tour it by bicycle, car or by kayak, or you can ride the tram around its five-mile nature drive.

Try Tarpon Bay Explorers for canoe and kayak rentals with access to the refuge. To learn more about "Ding" Darling, visit dingdarling.org. If your travels bring you here in October, set aside time for Ding Darling Days from the 20th to the 26th this year. It's a week of concentrated nature study and celebration in this extraordinarily pristine wildlife setting. If you've missed this year's event, there always is next year. The web site is updated annually.

The kayak trails in Tarpon Bay are part of the Great Calusa Blueway, a markered kayak and canoe trail maintained by the Lee County tourism organization. It stretches from the Imperial River in Bonita Springs all the way north past Matlacha to Charlotte Harbor. A spur to the west runs along the causeway, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island. Keep an eye open for announcements about the annual Great Calusa Blueway Festival.

Restaurants range from friendly and funky to white table cloth formal, although there are more of the former than the latter. We like breakfast at the Island Cow on Periwinkle Way and the Lighthouse Cafe at the lighthouse end of the island. Also, if you are staying at West Wind Inn, the Normandie Seaside Pub serves a hearty breakfast. Grandma Dot's is fun for lunch, especially if you like hanging around boats. It's at the Sanibel Marina.

Dinner is a hoot at the Lazy Flamingo. For something more formal, we like Thistle Lodge, Trader's or Sweet Melissa's. For mid-island Sanibel dining, try Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille, (named for the main character in Randy Wayne White novels - he's part owner) off San-Cap Road, Wendy & George's Corner Grill at the corner of Tarpon Bay Road and Periwinkle way, and the Blue Giraffe in Periwinkle Place. Now, a new restuarnt has opened in the old (but renovated) McT's. It's named Sanibel Fish House and is a companion to other Fish House Restaurants at Bonita Beach and Fort Myers Beach. I have eaten at the Bonita Beach restaurant and it was very good food and good value. We'll see what the future brings to the Sanibel version.

On Captiva, there are the very islandy, Key Lime Bistro, very funky is the nearby R.C. Otters, the more sedate Sunshine Seafood Cafe, and the Mexi-Western menu of Cantina Captiva , all under the same Captiva Island Inn management. Then there is the venerable Mucky Duck, with great sunsets daily and the bayside Green Flash.

Bring money - please - and take home a treasure

For shopping, Sanibel Island and its sister island, Captiva, offer several chic shopping centers and some down-right funky free-standing shops. Everything from art by island artists to T-shirts and souvenirs are available for you to take home something to spark memories of your visit. Since these change from season to season, you might want to check out the Chamber of Commerce web page.

There are two major grocery stores on Sanibel: Bailey's, which includes a hardware store, and Jerry's, which is located in an upstairs center, famous for its caged parrots in the forecourt. Jerry's is on Periwinkle Way at Casa Ybel Road. Bailey's is in the shopping center of the same name on Tarpon Bay Road at Periwinke Way.

A crass commercial announcement - past visitors to Sanibel Island may look for the gallery, Aboriginals: Art of the First Person, which was located in the Village. It has closed it's physical gallery but still can be reached online at one of these links: TribalWorks, ZuniLink, Native-PotteryLink or Native-American-Jewelry.org.The Sanibel Island lighthouse

For other things to do, check out the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum, the only museum in North Americadevoted exclusively to seashells. Another interesting visit is to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (aka CROW). It's interesting to see them care for injured wildlife, with the intention of returning them to thewild.

The historic village is a quaint reminder of what Sanibel once lived like. And don't miss that island landmark, the old Sanibel lighthouse.


BIG Arts is an island arts organization that presents concerts, lectures, performances, visual arts exhibits, classes and workshops. Musical reviews at The Herb Strauss Theater are sure to keep you humming and happy. There's even an Island Cinema showing first run films.

So, even though you are laid back and relaxed, there is plenty to do, if that is your inclination. One of the big nighttime attractions for some people is to go outside and stare at the heavens. With its "dark skies" policy, Sanibel is the perfect place to wish upon a star on a clear night.

Fine and dandy, but where will you stay on this island paradise? We highly recommend the West Wind Inn for a "true sanibel" experience. We also like Casa Ybel, especially for its romantic setting. Or for the "cottage" experience, Gulfbeach Cottages. If you prefer a condo rental, look into Sanibel Moorings, Sanibel Arms West and Pelican's Roost. There are plenty of options for staying on Sanibel. The Chamber welcome center can be helpful and often has last minute specials.

For more information about Captiva island, go to About Captiva.com.

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