Much of Florida’s southwestern coast is shadowed by a string of barrier islands. While most of these slender islands run in a general north-south direction, crescent-shaped Sanibel Island is positioned in more of an east-west direction. Picture-perfect tides sweep thousands upon thousands of shells upon the shores here, and every day, there are people scouring the sands to find exquisite of examples of nature’s artistry. You can find approximately 275 varieties of exotic seashells along the shoreline. But there are a number of things to do beyond the beach. Here is a list of the top ten tourist attractions in Sanibel.
10. Captiva Island
Take a day trip to Captiva by boat and enjoy the open sea while experiencing the wonders of this island. Captiva was once one island until around 3000 B.C when erosion split it into two. Captiva was inhabited by a warrior class called The Calusa Indians which died out in the late 1700’s. An Austrian named Binder made his homestead on Captiva in 1888 and for 10 years he was the only inhabitant. Today, there’s a thriving population with biking, sailing, bird watching, and fishing. While you’re there, visit the Chapel By-The-Sea, or the 2 Islands Gallery, or take an Eco Tour.
9. Sanibel Luminary Festival
Enjoy the holidays by visiting the island at the beginning of December to experience this magical festival. All the streets are decked out in decorations and lights and the Luminary Trail sparkles with illuminated candles from end to end. There is a complimentary trolley service that brings visitors to various stops where they can enjoy shopping, music, holiday activities, and refreshments including edible treats. There is a live nativity scene and Santa will be visiting and available for photographs. The festival begins on the first Friday of December on Sanibel and ends on the first Saturday of December on Captiva.
8. Sanibel Sea School
The sea school was founded in 2005 and teaches kids and adults about marine ecosystems and ocean conservation through experiential education. They offer half and full day classes as well as weekly camps during the summer and select holidays. Some courses include adventures like Calusa – Evidence of a Lost Culture, Dolphins – Flipping through Life, or Manatees – Mermaids Among Us, among many other programs that are fun and educational. The camps include swimming like dolphins, camping in the Keys to study coral reefs, or running around like a Calusa tribe member. This is a great opportunity for the family to learn about the ocean while having a great time.
7. Periwinkle Place
One of the top places to visit in Sanibel is Periwinkle Place with over 21 shops, three restaurants, a golf course, and a spa. Come and explore the unique gifts and galleries such as FantaSea and Naples Soap Company. If you are looking for apparel, stop in at Island Pursuit or Simply Boutique. They also have children’s apparel and toys, beachwear, jewelry, and specialty items. But shopping isn’t the only reason to come here. There is the award winning Blue Giraffe Restaurant to tempt your palette, the 18-hole championship golf course, The Dunes Golf and Tennis Club; and, when you are ready to relax, Sanibel Day Spa will take care of you with massage therapy, skincare, couples massage, and more.
6. Sanibel Lighthouse
The first lighthouse on Florida’s Gulf coast north of Key West is the 98-foot tall lighthouse that was first lit on August 20, 1884. The U.S. Coast Guard tried to extinguish the light in 1972, but the public outcry that resulted in the announcement prevented it. In 2013, after using a $50,000 state historic preservation grant and money from its beach parking fund, the city council awarded a $269,563 contract to Razorback LLC in May 2013 to restore the lighthouse. It used to be the island’s center of activity; today, it is a place to stroll quaint village shops, inns and restaurants.
5. Boat Tours
There are many forms of boat tours available on the island. Some are cruises that offer fishing, dolphin watching, sunset cruises, eco tours, and historical cruises. Others offer guided and non-guided kayak, canoe, and family pontoon boat tours. Or, you can take a short day trip to Ft Myers to take an authentic pirate themed cruise sailing on a 65ft replica Spanish galleon pirate ship where you can experience a real-life pirate voyage. Whether you choose a romantic sunset cruise or get together with your friends to become pirates for a day, you are sure to enjoy every minute of your adventure.
4. Sanibel Historical Museum and Village
The historical museum and village was founded in 1984 with a mission to preserve and share the island’s history and is dedicated to the island’s early settlers. Farmers and fishermen, clergy and teachers, they shared hardships and dreams. There are ten restored buildings that make up the Village that offer a glimpse into their lives. Each building has been restored to its original state. Volunteer docents share the stories of Sanibel with almost 10,000 visitors a year by following the history from when it was settled by the Calusa Indians around 2500 years ago through the Spanish era, up to the mid-1900s. A handicapped-accessible boardwalk and shell paths take visitors past a pioneer garden, antique Model T truck, and a replica of a packinghouse with farm equipment. Donations of $5 per adult are welcomed; however, children are free.
3. Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife
Since 1968, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, or CROW, cares for over 3,500 wildlife patients and more than 200 species of sick, injured and orphaned wildlife in its veterinary hospital. The hospital is a teaching facility and visitor education center; as well as being one of the nation’s leading rehabilitation facilities through top veterinary care, research, education, and conservation medicine. This is not a zoo so you can’t get up close and personal with the animals but they share a number of pictures and have several TV monitors with live feeds of the hospital rooms and other areas with animals. They have a daily presentation Monday through Friday at 11am, along with educational games such as the Surgical Challenge game, Be the Vet game, and the Taking Action Quiz. Admission for children 12 and under is free, adolescents are $5.00, and adults are $7.00.
2. Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the only museum in the United States that is solely devoted to every aspect of seashells, conchology, and malacology, including the paleontological and archeological aspects. It opened to the public in 1995 and now has 34 exhibits, public programs, and in-house resources. It’s a great place to bring kids as there is a little side room just for them with murals, a touch tank, and a matching game with shells. The first floor exhibits portray the important role seashells have played in ecology, medicine, literature, religion, art and as a food source. Then the curators dazzle you with beautiful displays of shells used in cameos, buttons, sailor’s valentines, furniture, and carvings. The shell displays are local and from all over the world. There are also shell fossils and Indian artifacts made out of shell tools.
1. J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge is listed at the top of the list of things to do in Sanibel because it is 6,300 acres that was established in 1976 and is home to 238 species of birds, more than 50 types of reptiles, and 32 different kinds of mammals. The refuge features wonderful bird watching spots paddling, hiking/biking trails, observation tower and a four-mile scenic drive through a mangrove swamp, rivers, lakes, forests, bays, and mudflats. All of which are lush with Seagrape, Wax and Salt Myrtles, Red Mangroves, Cabbage and Sabal Palms, and other native plants. Make sure you don’t miss Alligator Curve, where you are almost sure to observe these prehistoric reptiles. There are almost a million visitors annually and whether you decide to visit for a week or a weekend, this is definitely not to be missed.
As you can see, the island is dotted with numerous places to go to, including natural, historical and artistic attractions, all guaranteed to provide family fun and education. Approximately one-third of this island is a federally protected wildlife refuge making it a perfect place to go hiking, and biking. Most visitors start their vacations though on the beach gathering shells or going canoeing. The best time to visit is December through April and temperatures are mid-50s to mid-70s. So the options for this beautiful island are numerous, you just have to pick.