Things to do on Sanibel Island
Note: All of Sanibel’s beaches reopened in time for July 4th holiday weekend. Other areas of the island are still recovering from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022. The following story was written before the storm.
There are lots of beautiful beaches in Florida. Usually, I’ll stroll along the shore, soaking up the serenity and beauty and then I will come to that inevitable spot, where it ends.
“Oh, this is the part they wrecked,” I’ll think, as the high rises cast their shade on a beach or as the sand is studded with cigarette butts instead of seashells.
That doesn’t happen on Sanibel and Captiva.
You can walk until you drop and you never get to the part they spoiled.
Sanibel and Captiva are special spots; they are truly unspoiled. Half the islands’ land is preserved as wildlife refuges. As the rest of Florida fell under the thrall of developers in the 1970s, conservationists ruled in Sanibel. The only fast food restaurants are a Dairy Queen and a Subway, which were on the island before laws were enacted to bar fast food chains, and there are no highrises.
If you are planning a visit to Sanibel, once you choose lodging, you don’t have to do a lot of research on things to do in Sanibel. It’s an easy-to-enjoy resort island where the idea is NOT to do too much.
But to make the most of its magic, I suggest these nine things to do on Sanibel:
- Bring or rent a bike. With 25 miles of high-quality paved trails, few places make biking as carefree as this. If you ride a bike, you can explore spots on the island where provisions for parked cars haven’t been made, like Sanibel’s pioneer cemetery. Here’s our guide to biking on Sanibel.
- Bring or rent a kayak and explore the tangles of mangrove islands on the bayside of the island. Sanibel attracts an abundance of birds and it’s a thrill to silently glide up to them as they perch in the mangroves or wade in the shallows. It’s also a good way to have an up-close experience with dolphin, who hunt for fish in the bay. Here’s a guide to kayaking on Sanibel.
- I don’t need to tell you to collect seashells! But some of my favorite memories of Sanibel involve showing my children how to feel the sandy bottom with their feet while in the water to feel for living shells.
We would often find living sand dollars, hermit crabs, whelks and other creatures. After spending a few moments in a kid-made lagoon “zoo” scooped out at beach’s edge, we’d return the creatures to their watery freedom. Can’t get enough of those seashells? There’s a museum on Sanibel devoted to nothing but: The shell-shaped Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum.
There’s also a shell show that has been happening for 85 years, making it the world’s longest running shell show! The 2023 show will be March 2-4.
- Have Whole Wheat Granola or Whole Wheat Blueberry pancakes at the Lighthouse Café. Located in a little plaza two blocks from the lighthouse for the last 35 years, the Lighthouse Café always has a line for weekend breakfasts – and it’s worth waiting. Put your name in, and then walk down the adjacent street one block to gaze for a few minutes at the spectacular waterfront view.
The rustic Lighthouse Cafe looks like it has been here forever; it is decorated with photos of lighthouses from around the world sent by fans. The owner grew up on Sanibel and is a member of the family that opened the cafe in 1987. The place has a distinct small-town hometown feel and prices are reasonable.
Don’t miss the east end of the island. The side streets at the east end are sand, not pavement, and the island has a village feel. The 1884 lighthouse is here too. It’s not open to the public, but is a lovely sight next to the beach where the tea-colored bay water meets the greener gulf waters.
Nearby is the free fishing pier, where it’s fun to watch folks pull in all sorts of fish as pelicans, herons and egrets hang around hoping to catch a few bites when the fish are cleaned.
- Explore J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the best place on the island to see some of the spectacular wildlife. Start at the interactive education center. Roseate spoonbills frequent the preserve and are often seen feeding there at low tide.
One of the great ways to see Ding Darling is to pedal the four-mile Wildlife Drive on a bike. (It’s an eight-mile round trip, returning on the bike path along Sanibel-Captiva Road.) There is no dedicated bike path, however, so bikes share the paved road in the preserve.
Map of Sanibel Island
- Stroll through the Sanibel Historical Village, where seven pioneer buildings were moved from their original island and restored. I’ve never been here when the village is open. (It’s only staffed in the winter season, but, like a lot of Floridians, I visit beach locations during the off-season, when rates are low and water is perfect for swimming.)
Even when the interiors are closed, I like to stop here by bike and admire the buildings, each with a little story to tell, such as the one-room “1896 Sanibel School House for White Children.”
- Of course, Sanibel is a prime beach destination, so much of your time should be spent with surf and sand. But don’t just limit yourself to the beach behind your lodging. Check out the island’s most undeveloped beach — Bowman’s Beach on the western end of Sanibel. Reaching it takes you over Old Blind Pass, where you may see wading birds in the mangrove lagoons.
The beach extends for miles and up to Blind Pass, the division between Sanibel and Captiva. There is a parking lot with 220 spaces plus picnic tables, a playground, bathrooms and showers.
Note: A little more than two miles from Bowman’s Beach is the division between Sanibel and Captiva, Blind Pass. The parking lot and beach at Blind Pass are closed as of June 2022 because of erosion that has caused 5 to 6 foot cliffing. If you park and walk north from Bowman’s Beach, however, it’s OK to stroll along the sandbars that have formed.
Planning your Sanibel Island trip
There are plenty of lovely beachfront places to stay on Sanibel, but accommodations are a bit expensive, even during the off season.
A few places not on the beach are moderately priced during winter season, and by that I mean $175 a night. If you’re not prepared to spend that much, consider staying on the Fort Myers side of the causeway and visiting Sanibel for the day.
Sanibel Island hotels: Sanibel has motels, hotels and condos, but we love the Old Florida feel of several complexes of old-fashioned beach cottages. (Places like these, once common in Florida, are getting rare.) They’re not cheap, but take a look at: Shalimar Cottages, Tropical Winds, Waterside Inn or Castaways if that appeals to you. (And be prepared for room rates upwards of $250 a night.)
Campers have only one choice, but it’s a gem — an attractive park with a good location, unusual amenities and a real Florida feel: Periwinkle Trailer Park, 1119 Periwinkle Way.
Sanibel Island restaurants: There are many choices you’ll find rated on Yelp and Tripadvisor.
My family has always visited two other long-time restaurants on our Sanibel trips. Both are located on Captiva Island: The Bubble Room is filled with kitsch and collectibles crammed into every space and gets good ratings on its food, especially desserts. It’s a place that gets lots of points for novelty. The Mucky Duck is a pub right on the sand on Captiva Island with sunset views.
Things to do on and near Sanibel Island
- Sanibel Island is kayak paradise. Here’s a guide to where and how to explore by kayak.
- Sanibel bike trails take you to all the best spots.
- On your way to Sanibel: Six Mile Slough is a wild boardwalk minutes off I-75
- Lovers Key: Great beach, paddling and manatees
- Take Calusa Blueway trail to archeological island
- Fort Myers Beach: Old school beach town, on the cusp of change
- Bunche Beach: Heaven for birders, kayakers
- Manatee Park & the Orange River: Fort Myers kayak trail
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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.