What to Do on Sanibel, Captiva Islands: A-to-Z Guide

“Sanibel & Captiva Islands A-Z” appeared in the February 2014 issue of Naples Illustrated.

Sanibel and sister island, Captiva, have their own rules—most of them dictated by nature and the needs of wildlife. With more than two-thirds of Sanibel preserved and safeguarded from development, the islands keep their promise of pristine beaches, raw wetlands, and ardent wildlife stewardship. You will see lots of birds and animals on Sanibel, but you won’t see a single streetlight or traffic signal. Explore the islands with our insider’s guide from A to Z.


ALLIGATORS. Sanibel Island is one of only a few Florida islands with a freshwater river. That means alligators, one of the island’s strongest attractions for wildlife watchers. Look for them at Bailey Tract (see J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge) and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (see Xtra Special). Incidentally, fresh water also means bobcats and river otters.

BOATING. Getting out on the water is paramount to the island experience. Captain your own adventure with a rental, or hop aboard a tour boat. The Sanibel Thriller zips you around the islands, while New Moon Sailing out of Captiva takes the slow, island-time approach. Captiva Cruises does soothing island-hopping and sunset tours.

Sanibel Thriller.

CAUSEWAY ISLANDS PARK. The beaches along the Sanibel Causeway hop with family picnics, kite- and windsurfers, jet-skiers, and anglers. You can pull your vehicle right up to the beach, which makes barbecue picnics utterly convenient.

DOCTORING CRITTERS. The vision of one woman in 1968, Care & Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) has been nurturing injured and orphaned critters by the thousands every year since. In 2009, a new visitors center opened to educate the public about its mission and procedures with immersive elements.

ECLECTIC RESORTS. Don’t look for chain hotels or over-the-top luxury resorts. Sanibel and Captiva boast a reputation for family destination resorts, such as Captiva’s South Seas Island Resort and Sanibel’s Sundial Beach Resort. The scale of accommodations ranges from the historic Island Inn and charming Gulf Breeze Cottages & Motel on Sanibel to fishing-frenzied Jensen’s Twin Palm Cottages & Marina and historic ‘Tween Waters Inn on Captiva.

The Old Captiva House restaurant at ‘Tween Waters Inn.

FESTIVITIES. Plan your visit to the islands around one of their lively annual events. Most famous and signature, the 77th annual Shell Festival takes place on Sanibel Island March 6-8 this year, paying homage to the island’s reputation as a top shelling destination. The 28th annual Sanibel Music Festival fills the month with classical music, March 4-25. Highlights throughout the year include the 25th annual “Ding” Darling Days October 19-25 and 33rd annual Taste of the Islands on November 9 on Sanibel; and Captiva Holiday Village, Thanksgiving through Christmas on Captiva.

GALLERIES. Inspired by the beauty and nature of the islands, artists fill local galleries with original paintings, photography, sculpture, pottery and art glass. We love Tower Gallery, a co-op enterprise on Sanibel, and Jungle Drums, whimsical and delightfully creative on Captiva.

HERB STRAUSS THEATER. Professional actors perform comedies, dramas, musicals and revues in an intimate setting throughout the winter season. This April-May, catch the musical The Big Band.

BIG ARTS Herb Strauss Theater.

ISLAND-STYLE SHOPPING. Stroll flower-lined plazas for unique finds that reflect island life. Some favorites: Pandora’s Box, Island Style, Suncatchers’ Dream, C Turtles, and Congress Jewelers on Sanibel Island; and the Bubble Room Emporium on Captiva.

J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge is popular with birders.

J.N. “DING” DARLING NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE. Occupying about one-third of Sanibel Island, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has been harboring wildlife in an easily accessible setting since 1945. The four-mile Wildlife Drive passes wetlands that host flocks of winter birds. Trails for biking and hiking penetrate the wilderness on the main campus. At its Tarpon Bay Recreation Area, visitors can explore by kayak, stand-up paddleboard and nature boat cruises. The trail at the Bailey Tract satellite branch delves into freshwater habitat. Another type of trail at Buck Key off Captiva Island invites paddlers to view birds along its canopy paddling trail.

KEEPER FISH. Whether you choose freshwater, back bays or deep water, you’ll have fishing tales to share after your island visit. From land, cast from the beach or the Lighthouse Park fishing pier. For offshore fishing, check out the islands’ marinas for rental boats and experienced fishing guides. Get your tips, bait and gear from Norm Zeigler’s Fly Shop or The Bait Box on Sanibel.

The Sanibel Lighthouse is on Lighthouse Park Beach at Sanibel’s southeast end.

LIGHTHOUSE. A beacon of welcome, the Sanibel Lighthouse has been guiding boaters since the cattle-shipping days of the late 1800s. Today it serves as the centerpiece of Lighthouse Park Beach, a popular beach that rounds Sanibel’s southeast end.

MUSEUMS. Although most equate Sanibel and Captiva with beaches, the islands offer their share of history and culture. Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum examines Sanibel’s shelling culture with a look at seashells in the context of history, religion, ecology and art. Take a step into island bygones at the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village, a collection of 10 historic and re-created structures that tell the island’s story. New on Captiva, the Captiva Island Historical Society’s exhibit room in the Captiva Memorial Library peeks into eras of farming, WW II servicemen, Teddy Roosevelt, and other famous visitors.

The International Osprey Foundation began on Sanibel Island in 1981.

NATURE TOURS. Get in touch with the islands’ eco-side with naturalist-guided tours. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge offers a number of programs during peak season, and its Tarpon Bay Explorers concession can take you on kayaking, paddleboarding and nature boating tours. Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation [SCCF] also schedules seasonal programming that explores the beach and freshwater habitats, plus a narrated dolphin and wildlife excursion with Captiva Cruises. Adventures in Paradise’s Sea Life Excursion departs from off-island, but trolleys provide pickup service.

OSPREYS. The islands are known for their more than 250 species of birds, but the osprey is particularly loved because The International Osprey Foundation began on Sanibel Island in 1981. Since then, the building of nesting platforms has raised Sanibel’s osprey population from 35 pairs to around 100.

PADDLING. Part of the countywide 190-mile Great Calusa Blueway Trail, the paddling trails through and around Sanibel and Captiva have been highly ranked by Canoe & Kayak magazine. In recent years, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) has made a splash in the water-sports world. The best places to try out SUP are at Tarpon Bay Explorers on Sanibel and YOLO Watersports on Captiva. They both offer kayak rentals, instruction and tours, too. Also check out Captiva Kayaks and Adventure Sea Kayak on Captiva.

The islands’ paddling trails are part of the Great Calusa Blueway.

QUIET SPOTS. Here are some local secrets for escaping the beaten-path crowd on the islands in exchange for a little peace. On Captiva, historic Chapel-By-the-Sea occupies a meditative spot that sees crowds only on Sundays. On Sanibel, follow the shared-use path off Middle Gulf Drive to the pioneer cemetery and nature trail in Gulfside Park. Another little-known trail overlooks the Sanibel River at Bob Wigley Preserve. Ride your bike down Dixie Beach Road to take the shell road at waterfront Woodring Point. Stop at the bayside Bock Peace Park for a rest and eyeful of sea.

RESTAURANTS. So many restaurants, so little time? Here are some of our picks: Traders Café for lunch on Sanibel, Sweet Melissa’s Café and Blue Coyote Supper Club for special nights out on Sanibel, Doc Ford’s on Sanibel and Captiva or Lazy Flamingo at two Sanibel locations for casual, and the Bubble Room on Captiva for touristy kitsch. Don’t miss Sweet Melissa’s fish stew or Doc Ford’s Yucatan Shrimp.

The Bubble Room on Captiva Island.

SEASHELLS. Thanks to its east-west scoop at the island’s south end, Sanibel manages to intercept tons of seashells washing up from the Caribbean and gulf. And that’s what makes it the “shelling capital of North America.” People come from around the world to collect seashells. Bowman’s Beach and Gulfside Park are two of the island’s best shelling beaches. Didn’t find the shell you wanted? No worries, Sanibel’s seashell shops are also plentiful. Try the Seashells.com shop and its warehouse sister property Sanibel Seashell Industries behind it for the best selection and prices on rare and common shells, shellcraft supplies and shell gifts.

TWENTY-FIVE MILES OF BIKE PATH. Officially known as the Sanibel Shared-Use Path, the paved trail takes you all over the island—from beach to shopping to wildlife preserves. Bring your own wheels or rent from Billy’s Bikes on Sanibel Island or YOLO Watersports on Captiva.

USS MOHAWK. The latest artificial reef in Sanibel waters, the 165-foot World War II cutter was sunk in 2012, to the delight of local scuba divers. The intact battleship attracts schools of fish, a number of sea turtles and one docile whale shark that seems to favor its new stomping grounds 90 feet under.

USS Mohawk: The 165-foot World War II cutter serves as an artificial reef. (Photo courtesy of Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau)

Sanibel-Island-at-SunsetVIEWS OF SUNSET. The best show on the islands takes place nightly, with potential for a green-flash finale. The best place to watch is from the front deck of the Mucky Duck restaurant on Captiva with a glass of Champagne. The Mad Hatter on Sanibel also has front-row seats. Or just throw down a beach towel and enjoy the curtain call from Turner Beach or Alison Hagerup Beach Park on Captiva.

WHITE SAND. Under all those seashells lies a blanket of fine white sand—perfect for castle-building and toe-sinking. Besides beaches already mentioned, sink your toes into Tarpon Bay Beach. Here’s a little secret: Visitors on bike or foot can use the secluded resident-only beach accesses west of Tarpon Bay—if they don’t mind the lack of facilities.

XTRA SPECIAL. Two island organizations that deserve a special pat on the back are SCCF, which has worked tirelessly to raise funds for preserving more than 30 parcels throughout the islands; and BIG ARTS, which brings culture to the islands in a big way—from workshops to theater.

YUM. Sweet toothers, get ready for a sugar buzz. Here are our recommendations: the Sea Salt Caramel number at Simply Cupcakes, Pinocchio’s Dirty Sand Dollar ice cream, the Sanibel Blossom croissant next door at Geppetto’s, Pelican Poop truffles at Rosie’s Cafe, the bacon-maple donut at Bennett’s Fresh Roast and Gramma Dot’s Key lime pie.

ZEALOUS GUARDIANSHIP. The city’s Sanibel Plan was designed to guide decision-making towards what is best to preserve the island’s natural beauty. Laws protect the environment by restricting fertilizer use, bird- and alligator-feeding, taking live shells, building height, exotic-plant landscaping and more. The result: a model for green cities across the nation.

Courtesy of Milissa Sprecher Photography.

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