More than a year after Category 4 Hurricane Ian slammed Sanibel with a 13-foot storm surge, the beach, the sea shells, the birds and wildlife — all the natural stuff — is back. But the things that people built, they have a ways to go.
At the end of November, my husband and I spent a few days on Sanibel, a place we loved and have visited at least 20 times over four decades.
As Florida prepares for another tourist season, I wondered: With Sanibel Island damage still being repaired, should people return this winter? There’s no easy yes or no, but I’ll try to give you some insight to help you decide.
Conditions vary widely in Sanibel Island damage, recovery
Your experience starts as you drive over the causeway, once a scenic parkway with broad water views where you passed grass, trees, picnic tables and people on boats enjoying sparkling San Carlos Bay.
Today, it’s a huge and ugly construction site as the causeway is rebuilt, with trucks and workers and frequent lane closures.
When we reached the island, we saw a range of conditions. Some homes and buildings look like Hurricane Ian was yesterday. Some look like it never happened. And most are somewhere in between.
Walking the big, wide, hard-packed white sand beaches, however, was as beautiful as ever, with mounds of shells and flocks of birds. From the beach, you’d almost forget about the hurricane. The condos and buildings lining the beach are on the other side of the dunes, but if you look closely, you see most appear damaged and few are occupied.
Riding on the extensive network of bike lanes, we got a closer look at the state of reconstruction around the island. From the street, where the view of the beachfront development is closer, you see many condo complexes enclosed in chain link fences that are active construction sites seven days a week.
Yet, in the middle of that, there are mansions with perfect lawns and landscaping and holiday decorations. Were they unscathed? How did they get their repairs done so quickly and completely?
As we drove toward Captiva, it was disorienting to see so many familiar scenes so changed. That wide swath of beautiful open beach? What was there?
I turned to Google maps to figure it out. Since Google maps has not updated its street-view photographs, I could see what was once there – the Castaways! This complex of tropically colored cottages right on the beach near Blind Pass had been there for decades, the sort of iconic Old Florida scene that defined Sanibel. It’s gone now, just white sand and “keep out” signs. And it’s not the only one.
Crossing the bridge at Blind Pass onto Captiva Island was another surprise. With flowers blooming and much landscaping intact, Captiva looks like Ian was a long time ago. The little colorful cottages that house businesses in the downtown are open and busy.
The Mucky Duck, directly on the beach at 11546 Andy Ross Lane, looks unchanged. Amazingly, Hurricane Ian did only exterior damage; there was no sand or water on the interior, and the “Lucky Duck” reopened four months after the storm.
Another Captiva icon, the Bubble Room is still being repairedand won’t open until fall 2024, although a small coffee and dessert café operated by the Bubble Room called Boops, is open and busy next door.
On Captiva, it is possible to forget about the hurricane. It is almost as lovely as ever.
Some favorite Sanibel things to do are still great
To our delight, the 25-mile network of bike paths that makes Sanibel such a cyclist’s haven, is intact and it’s still a pleasure to pedal around the island. The scenery isn’t as lovely, however, with less of a tree canopy and the lack of thick vegetation.
More from Florida Rambler: Biking Sanibel Island: Bicycle trails take you to all the best spots
We bicycled to the Lighthouse Beach, always a favorite. If you didn’t know there had been historic buildings around the base of the lighthouse, all irreparably damaged in the hurricane and now gone, you’d think it looks fine. (There are some areas with caution tape around the lighthouse.)
Near the lighthouse, one of our favorite spots to have breakfast on Sanibel, the Lighthouse Café, is closed. But we know it’s rebuilding in a new location and will reopen, possibly in the first quarter of 2024.
If you visited Sanibel in the past, this experience, of looking for a familiar restaurant or store and finding it gone, is likely to be repeated over and over.
We rode our bikes through Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve on the smooth, paved road. It is shared with cars, but it’s one way and there’s a 15 mph speed limit. It’s still a great place to bicycle and we were happy to see a few birds, especially a flock of white pelicans. These winter visitors are a treat because they are brilliantly white and so easy to spot — they are among the largest North American birds.
We checked out the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village in the center of Sanibel at 950 Dunlop Road, where over the years pioneer homes have been moved and preserved. Happily, it’s in good shape. On our visit, it had not yet opened for the season. The historical complex began its regular schedule on Dec. 2, Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a $15 entrance fee for adults 18 and up.
The buildings range from the original post office to the first schoolhouse to residences ordered as kits from Sears. Each building has a story, told in a few sentences on the signs. What’s remarkable in reading these stories in 2023 is how much of Sanibel’s early history revolves around recovering from hurricanes. The big one in 1926, it said, brought eight feet of water over the entire island, and changed everything.
We stopped at several other beaches, all of which are open with restrooms. (The Lighthouse Beach still has porta potties only.) One of our favorites is Bowman’s Beach, across the island from Ding Darling Preserve. With a mile of perfect beach lined with vegetation and wetlands instead of condos, it is the least developed and most secluded of the beaches on Sanibel. Beachcombing, shelling and birding were always excellent here and continue to be.
Not open yet on Sanibel are the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. A note on the museum website says: “We expect to reopen the Living Gallery of Aquariums in February and the Great Hall of Shells and Special Exhibitions later in the spring.” The fishing pier near the lighthouse has also not reopened.
Another popular attraction, the cruises and tours from Adventures in Paradise, has reopened. It has been operated by the Stewart family since 1986. The offerings include shelling cruises, dolphin cruises, luncheon cruises to Cabbage Key and sunset cruises.
One thing to note about our visit to Sanibel in November: The no see ums were bad; worse than we remember and not limited to dusk. If you look online at recent reviews of Sanibel, many commenters reference this, so it wasn’t just during our visit. Bug spray is essential and we always chose places to stand or sit where there was a breeze, which helped reduce their impact. (And this condition can change as the winter progresses, of course.)
Hotels on Sanibel Island now
In early 2024, there are only a handful of hotels open, though more are opening every month.
We stayed at Sanibel Island Beach Resort, 1231 Middle Gulf Drive. With all the post-Ian renovations, it felt like a brand-new hotel, with beautiful décor, a new well-designed bathroom and excellent amenities. Its pool was newly renovated but the on-site restaurant had not yet opened. A food truck and pool bar provided a dining option, however. The hotel complex is located on a beautiful beach. All the nearby condos, however, are still being repaired.
The Sanibel Visitor Center lists another dozen places to stay on Sanibel and four on Captiva, plus vacation rental agencies. Hotels.com lists only two. A recent addition: Sanibel Moorings reopened in December 2023.
Some buildings are being finished room by room. At Signal Inn on Middle Gulf Drive, for example, some rooms are ready for occupancy but work continues on others. The small (24 unit) Sandpiper Beach condo building reopened in early February 2024.
With the small number of accommodations available and so many condos not yet occupied, the beaches on Sanibel won’t be crowded.
Restaurants on Sanibel
There’s good news for visitors, though, in that there are several dozen restaurants open, according to an updated list from the Sanibel Visitor Center. This makes Sanibel a possible day-trip destination.
We dined in two old favorites, where the food and drinks were excellent and the staff was friendly. We can recommend them both:
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille, 2500 Island Inn Road. Doc Ford’s celebrated its 20th year in 2023. It was founded by author Randy Wayne White, who worked for a decade as a fishing guide on Sanibel and whose first book “Sanibel Flats” introduced the character of Doc Ford, a marine biologist and former NSA agent. There have been two dozen Doc Ford books since.
Not only does the author still live on Sanibel, he stayed on the island during Hurricane Ian and shot videos of it happening. (He says he’d never do it again.) There are four Doc Ford restaurants on the Gulf Coast now, and despite the owner’s fame, it’s the quality of their food that has made them successes.
The Timbers Restaurant, 703 Tarpon Bay Road, was founded in 1978 and is well known for its fresh seafood and its signature dish, the crunchy grouper. It’s an informal restaurant with good sized entrees plus soup or salad and bread. We appreciated it was one of very few restaurants open on Thanksgiving Day.
Gramma Dots, 634 N Yachtsman Dr, Sanibel, which is inside the Sanibel Marina, reopened in mid-February. It calls itself “a seaside saloon,” but it serves lunch and dinner too.
If you were a fan of the only franchise restaurant on Sanibel, Dairy Queen, you will be sad to know it won’t reopen. It had been operated by a single family at that location for 52 years. The property sold in 2023 for $1.65 million and is said to be the site of a new restaurant, which will also serve ice cream.
Shopping on Sanibel and Captiva Islands
Many of the unique shops that visitors loved have yet to reopen, but they’re making progress.
The original Chico’s store reopened in January in Periwinkle Place. It opened its doors in 1983 and was always popular for its island vibe. (There are now 1,500 Chico stores.) The iconic She Sells Seashells, one of the first businesses you see as you drive onto the island, is open too.
But in first quarter 2024, shopping is not going to be a major attraction.
Traffic on Sanibel Island in first quarter 2024
There are two things making traffic a problem: Construction on the causeway and all the contractors who need to get on and off the island every day.
As a result, there is a serious morning and afternoon back up. Day trippers and other travelers are advised to leave before 3 p.m. or after 7 p.m. During the worst of rush hour, there can be a 30 to 45 minute backup.
So, should you plan a trip to Sanibel now?
Our family has a long-term connection to Sanibel. We’ve been coming here for decades; some of my favorite memories of our daughters as children is of us collecting live shells, sand dollars and hermit crabs in a “lagoon zoo” we dug in the sand. (No animals were harmed in the making of those vacations.)
For us, returning to Sanibel, even in its current broken state, has a nostalgic appeal. We love the place and want to support the hotels and restaurants that are taking the difficult role as pioneers forging the way back.
When I travel on getaways, if I’m lucky, what I feel is delight; delight in what I am seeing, doing and learning. On Sanibel, with Hurricane Ian so fresh in everything I saw, that delight was tempered with sadness. It was hard not to be bummed out by how much work has yet to be done and how long it will take for the lush vegetation to again overtake the island.
Sanibel never was and is now not an inexpensive place to visit. I asked myself: Would I be better off spending that $250 a night on a hotel in another Florida beach town that doesn’t feel tinged with sadness?
On our final evening, my husband and I sat outside on the beach as the sun set.
In the distance in the Gulf, I saw the fins of dolphins. Then pelicans dove with huge splashes near them. The sun made everything golden. The tide was at its low point and as I walked on the beach, I found the best shells I’d found on this visit, and they glowed like gems in the sun. Nearby, a couple was taking pictures of their baby, who was thrilled with her new beach bucket. A bunch of young men were playing soccer on the beach.
It was the happiest scene – pure delight, the sort I’d always found on Sanibel Island.
Things to do near Sanibel Island:
- On your way to Sanibel: Six Mile Slough is a wild boardwalk minutes off I-75.
- Fort Myers Beach in winter 2023-24: Work needed after Ian, but Margaritaville Resort is open.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.