A tiny reef barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel is a tropical escape for anyone seeking a quieter Florida destination. The gateway to this island gem is usually Fort Myers, where you can follow the Sanibel-Captiva Road to Sanibel and its slightly larger sister island, Captiva. Blessed with soft breezes, talcum beaches, and peaceful sunsets, Sanibel evokes old Florida and a simpler era of beachcombing, fruity cocktails, and lazing under a palm tree.

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01Dive the USCGC Mohawk wreck site

The USCGC Mohawk dive site is also a veteran's memorial. miljko / Getty Images

The decommissioned WW2 combat ship U.S.S. Mohawk was deliberately sunk about 28 nautical miles off the coast of Sanibel in 2012. The idea was to create an artificial reef and underwater memorial to US veterans. You can now dive the wreck, viewing the intact engine room, propellers, and replica .50 caliber guns, all encrusted with new sea life and corals.

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02Beachcomb Blind Pass Beach

Beautiful beaches cover Sanibel, but the best one for shell collecting is Blind Pass, on the narrow strip separating the island from its sister, Captiva. Strong currents in the area bring in a daily rich haul of new shells. But it's also a peaceful, less touristed stretch of soft sand great for strolling. Try Bowman's Beach for calmer, shark-free waters if you want to go for a swim.

03Follow the Great Calusa Blueway

This 190-mile long kayak and canoe trail meanders through bays, inlets and tributaries surrounding Sanibel and Captiva, as well as inland across San Carlos Bay. This clearly marked water trail is a low impact way to experience the natural beauty of Florida's unique ecosystem. You can usually spot wildlife while floating through mangroves and open water, including native treasures like manatees and dolphins.

04Sanibel Historical Museum and Village

The Gulf Coast has a long and colorful history, starting with the Calusa people who fished these waters and lived on Sanibel and Captiva thousands of years ago. The Sanibal Historical Village looks at relatively recent developments with buildings like a 1920s Post Office and General Store and a typical fishing cottage from the 1880s, saved, relocated and preserved for educational purposes. Costumed docents tell colorful stories about the early islanders and describe the period relics with which the buildings are furnished.

05Take a sunset cruise

Sunset and leaping dolphin as seen from a cruise around Sanibel Island. savilleization / Getty Images

Dolphins leaping in Gulf waters, pelicans fishing for their dinner, the sun sinking behind pink and orange clouds --- there's nothing like a cruise for capturing the sights and sounds of the barrier island vibe. Captiva Cruises, based in the middle of Captiva, has a great reputation for taking groups around the main islands, as well as smaller islets like Useppa, Cabbage Key and Gasparilla Island. Their sunset cruises, complete with cocktails and an open air top deck, are justly legendary.

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06Explore the  J.N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge

The biggest attraction on Sanibel Island is wild. Nature lovers from all over the world flock to the J.N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge to observe animals and birds native to the Gulf Coast region in their natural habitat. The Refuge maintains bike trails and boardwalks through the mangrove system and tropical canopy, but you can also take a car along the 4-mile Wildlife Drive. Learn more about crocodiles, manatees, egrets and other local fauna at the excellent Visitor's Center, which also organizes exhibits and daily lectures.

07Escape the heat at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

Learn about the shells at Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, Sanibel. Lisa5201 / Getty Images

Sanibel is one of the best places in the world for picking up jewel-like whelks, chitons, and conches. Learn more about scavenging for shells at this whimsical, yet highly educational museum. Exhibits display super size conch shells, fossils, and a ton of information about the island's original inhabitants, the Calusa, who treated shells as decorative valuables.

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08Check out the Big Arts Center

A one-stop-shop for performance, visual arts and arts education, Big Arts on Sanibel has been a hub for island artists since the seventies. Two theaters in the complex showcase concerts, musicals and plays, while the Phillips and Founders Galleries host rotating exhibitions of painting and sculpture. Tiny island, big cultural presence. The Center also schedules lots of how-to programming with drop in classes and regular workshops.

09Visit the Sanibel Island Lighthouse

The old lighthouse on Sanibel Island gnagel / Getty Images

What's a beach-y island without an atmospheric lighthouse? Sanibel's dates from the late 1800's and really looks like the rusting relic of the Industrial era that it is. Visitors are not permitted to climb the spiral staircase that rises 98 feet in the air to the now de-commissioned lantern room, but the grounds and a nearby beach are open to the public and picture-taking.

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10Visit Sanibel's sister islands

Sanibel is part of a small archipelago that can easily be explored by kayak or bicycle. Larger Pine Island is home to the Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve. Medium size Captiva is as quiet as Sanibel, but allegedly has the best restaurants. And barely-there Cayo Costa is largely taken up by a state park that has a few cabins and campsites for overnight stays. You could spend many Robinson Crusoe hours wandering and exploring the entire coastal system and its many beaches.

11Take a Ride on Sanibel Causeway

The 2.8 miles long Sanibel Causeway connects Sanibel Island with Florida's mainland in Punta Rassa. The causeway consists of three individual two-lane bridge spans with two artificial islands between them. The causeway islands serve as popular public beaches. With terrific snorkeling and a stunning setting, they make for a great day trip.

12Experience the Botanical Gardens

Located at Sanibel Moorings Resort, the Botanical Gardens are the perfect place for a lazy day. The story of the spot is an astonishing one, where the whole site almost came to be by accident. The resort was looking for a gardener to take care of its six-acre unused outdoor space, and they ended up with a passionate botanist. The newly hired botanist made it his mission to create an extensive collection of unusual plants. The garden now stores a variety of native and tropical plants, such as fruits, orchids, palms, cycads, and bromeliads. It's also home to a number of animal species like butterflies, turtles, and rabbits.

13Visit the Tarpon Bay Explorers

Found in the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the Tarpon Bay Explorers make any nature lover's trip worthwhile. They offer nature and wildlife tours in an adventurous and beautiful setting. Their tours focus on the natural landscapes, and one of their main attractions is kayak rentals for the whole family to let you explore the fantastic wildlife of Sanibel Island. Another service they offer is the mangrove kayak tour, which takes you through the mangrove forests and other interesting places, where you'll find anything from alligators to a range of different birds.

14Visit the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife

If you love animals and are keen on learning something new, pay the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) a visit. The CROW is a wildlife rehabilitation center and currently cares for over 3,500 injured, sick, and orphaned animals every year. The 4,800-square-foot center where the animals are treated offers a broad range of educational services. Whether you're an undergraduate student, a veterinarian intern, or simply a family looking to learn something new, you'll have a great and educational time at the CROW.

15Visit the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation's job is tremendously challenging: to protect the Sanibel and Captiva Islands. They do this by conserving the island's coastal and aquatic habitats and the wildlife depending on them. Here you can appreciate the foundation's nature center in Sanibel, comprising four miles of nature trails, a butterfly house, a souvenir shop, and many other interesting things. For the garden lover, they also sell many native plants to level up your backyard.