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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.