If you’re looking for the best things to do in Sanibel Island, come follow our two-day adventure across the San Carlos Bay to a new world.
I’ve locked away fond memories of our short stay on this very special island. I love its charm, the slow pace, and the fact that it’s not overdeveloped. The opportunities to get out and explore the island’s mangrove ecosystem and its animal and plant life are plentiful.
Here are a few firsthand recommendations I can make for maximizing the relaxation and the romance in this Southwest Florida town across the bay from Fort Meyers.
Gulf Breeze Cottages. This small property on the southeast side of Sanibel Island earns five gold stars in my book. It’s not lavish or upscale by any means; it’s the place to stay if you’re looking for clean, comfortable, affordable cottage lodging.
For our first two nights on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the Gulf Breeze Cottages were ideal for my husband and me. I loved the beachy, casual feel to the white clapboard buildings trimmed in light blue and soft pink.
Our one-bedroom cottage with full kitchen was perfect for us: we made breakfast on our own each morning (saving us from spending money on a meal out), but there are also restaurants within an easy drive or bike ride.
While we weren’t in one of the two-bedroom Gulf-front cottages directly facing the water, our cottage was mere yards from the white sandy beach and its plethora of shells. Which brings me to…
Shelling. Shell collectors come to Sanibel from around the world to pick up the pretty conch, tulip, olive, whelk and cockle shells, among others. Even if you don’t set out to gather seashells, it’s nearly impossible not to bend down and pick up the pretty pink and white shells that catch your eye.
You’ll find shells all along the Gulf-side beaches on Sanibel – we recommend Blind Pass Beach for your procuring pleasures. For ease of collecting, bring a bag or bucket (unlike me, who piled them in my hands and my husband’s pockets).
Another great shelling location is Bowman’s Beach, about 20 minutes from the cottage, on the southwest part of the island, on the way to Captiva Island.
If you really want to learn about these shells and the lovely shelling history of the island, then be sure to make a stop at Bailey Matthews Shell Museum.
Bicycling. The network of paved recreation paths that run along the main roads in Sanibel make it so easy to get some exercise on the island. If you don’t bring your own, rent bikes from Billy’s Rentals, which is easy to find on Periwinkle Way. The flat trails make it easy to pedal on the one-speed, no-hand-brake beach cruisers that are so popular here.
We recommend riding the bike to the eastern tip of the island, to the Sanibel Island Lighthouse. On the way back to the cottages, make a small detour and visit Pinocchio’s Italian Ice Cream – the owners learned their technique in Italy so you know it’s delicious!
Kayaking and J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. A highlight of our stay on Sanibel was our morning spent kayaking through the Commodore Creek kayaking trail within the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge.
We borrowed kayaks from Tarpon Bay Explorers, the refuge’s licensed outfitter, and we followed markers by ourselves for about an hour and a half round trip, admiring the rich bird life along the way.
We encountered four other couples intermittently on our morning kayaking experience, but otherwise we were by ourselves in the mangroves, enjoying the marvelous peace and quiet. Just prior to launching our kayaks, we spotted two dolphins in Tarpon Bay, which I thought was pretty darn cool.
The Visitor Center at the J.N. “Ding”Darling Wildlife Refuge is absolutely worth a visit. If you’re with kids, check out the outdoor GPS “treasure hunt” to learn more about the animals that make their home in the refuge or the indoor opportunity to earn a Junior Refuge Manager badge. Since we were sans children, we simply enjoyed walking through the indoor exhibits and learning about about the fascinating Mr. Darling, an editorial cartoonist from Iowa who dedicated much of his life to preserving the wildlife on Sanibel, his winter home. He was a true pioneer in wildlife conservation in the early 20th century.
We also took our car along Wildlife Drive through the refuge (note: it’s closed Fridays), hoping to spot some alligators in the water, among the mangroves. Alas, no alligators for us, though we did come upon a web with the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in my life (I should have put my hand next to it to show its height — at least 4 inches long!). It costs $5 to drive through the refuge yourself; just $1 to walk or bike through. Tarpon Bay Explorers also offers a tram tour for $13.
Captiva Cruises. Technically this outfitter is located on the northern tip of Captiva Island, just northwest of Sanibel and about a 45-minute drive from the Gulf Breeze Cottages. But, since many folks staying on Sanibel take advantage of the many boat tours the company offers, I’ll share the scoop here!
We went on a sunset sail aboard a 40-foot catamaran with the incredibly affable captain Jorge and his equally accommodating and friendly first mate Ruben. The sail was fun — we appreciated getting on the water for a different perspective of the islands.
Plus, Jorge is incredibly knowledgeable about Sanibel and Captiva’s history and ecology, and he shared his insight with us. Our catamaran wasn’t too full; it can accommodate 24 passengers, and there were only 12 of us, so it was nice to be able to have plenty of elbow room. We all enjoyed a complimentary first drink, and inexpensive ($2 and $4) beverages that followed. We lucked out with the weather and enjoyed a stunning sunset over the Gulf.
Captiva Cruises offers other boat rides, including shelling cruises to remote Cayo Costa state park (an island accessible only by boat), dolphin-watching tours and and excursions to exclusive Cabbage Key and Useppa Island.
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille. Mojito anyone? Yep, this is “not your ordinary sports bar,” with a full array of rum drinks on offer, including creative drinks made with mint leaves (aka mojitos) and fruity pineapple concoctions. Of course there’s loads of beer on tap, too, and at least a half dozen TV screens for watching the big game. But I think it’s the stellar food that keeps people coming back to this Sanibel eatery.
The menu — served from 11 a.m. to close — is vast, and focuses on seafood with Caribbean influence: Cartagena Shrimp Sausage Quesadillas, Conch Chowder, Lime Panko Crusted Fish Sandwich, Island-Style Shrimp & Grits… you get the picture. For non-seafood eaters at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill, there are items like Panamaniac’s Pulled Pork, Steak Salad and Texas Babyback Ribs.
If you recognize the name Doc Ford, it may be because you’ve read Randy Wayne White’s mysteries about a tropical adventuring protagonist of the same name. Doc Ford’s is in a nondescript building on interior Sanibel, but it drew us in with the plethora of cars in its parking lot on a Thursday night. Indeed, even during the slow “off season,” the dining room saw plenty of customers, and we were told that during the high winter season the restaurant — including an outdoor back patio — is packed to the gills.
For more information on visiting Sanibel and Capitva islands, peruse The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel website.
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Thanks to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau for organizing and subsidizing our trip!