Why Sanibel Island Is a Paradise in Florida Which Offers Much More Than Shelling

Caroline de Braganza

Shells to the sky on Sanibel Islandnikoretro/flickr

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This gem in southwest Florida is famous for beaches filled with shells.

Travel & Leisure Magazine considers Sanibel Island the best shelling spot in North America, and “Dr Beach” includes it among his picks for best Florida beach towns for its excellent shelling.

Sanibel Island twists out into the sea then curves back towards Florida’s coast. This acts as a shovel, scooping up the seashells the Gulf brings from the Caribbean. A wide underwater shelf protects the beaches—perfect for undamaged shells.

The island has strict building codes which limit structures to two stories, adding to the sense of being in paradise.

“I'm goin' to take a little trip, down paradise's endless shores. They say that travel broadens the mind, till you can't get your head out of doors.” - Elvis Costello.

With 27 miles of paved bike paths on Sanibel Island, renting a bike if you don’t have one, is the perfect way to get around as most activities are accessible by bike. Billy’s Bike Shop offers an enormous choice, including for the physically challenged.

The low season on Sanibel Island falls over the rest of America’s high season – during the peak summer months from June-August.  It's the cheapest time to visit - don't let the heat and afternoon thunderstorms put you off.

There's oceans more on offer than being caught in the Sanibel Stoop—a term derived from shell collectors hunched over during low tide staring at the sand.

Great Blue Heron strolling on the beach at SanibelPete Markham/wikimedia commons

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Galleries and Museums

Tower Gallery is an artists’ cooperative founded in 1982. In 1994, it moved to its present location inside a spacious Florida Cottage, originally built on the Gulf in 1915. The cottage travelled to its new site on a flatbed truck!

The Watson Magrae Gallery opened in 2008—view their current exhibit “Summer Salon ’21” here.

BIG Arts (Barrier Island Group for the Arts) was created by and for the community in 1979 with a vision to make artistic and educational experiences accessible to everyone.

Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the only accredited museum in the United States dedicated to solely to shells and molluscs.

Sanibel Historical Museum and Village features late 19th–and early 20th-century buildings dedicated to the pioneer families of Sanibel and Captiva, and includes “Uncle” Clarence Rutland’s home, Bailey’s General Store, Miss Charlotta’s Tea Room, and the 1926 Post Office. More info here.

Camping, Nature Parks and Trails

Periwinkle Park is popular with campers, from motorhomes to tents. The beach is only a half mile away. Here you’ll find many species of exotic and native birds, including toucans and macaws. (No dogs or credit cards.) More info here.

The J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge covers 6,300 acres and is home to 238 species of birds, over 50 types of reptiles, and 32 different mammals. They have an Education Center where you can pick up a booklet highlighting points of interest. The refuge is closed on Fridays.

Tarpon Bay Explorers is a licensed concessionaire of J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and offers a 90-minute guided Wildlife Refuge Tram Tour of the sanctuary. Booking is essential.

The Bailey Tract is a lesser-known trail at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The 100-acre tract was first owned by Frank P. Bailey, whose descendants own Bailey’s Store on Tarpon Bay Road.

CROW (Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife), established in 1968, is a teaching hospital, dedicated to restoring the health of Florida island’s wildlife, and treats over 3,000 injured and orphaned birds and animals each year.

Pelicans on SanibelDiane Gainforth/Pixabay

Eco Tours

Tarpon Bay Explorers offer guided tours that are educational and fun. Besides their Wildlife Refuge Tram Tour, you can explore Tarpon Bay on a nature and sea-life cruise, or book a kayak trail tour or fishing charter. You can rent kayaks, canoes, stand up paddleboards, pontoons, fishing equipment and bikes.

Sanibel Thriller takes you on a cruise of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound, and circumnavigates the shores of Sanibel and Captiva Islands. The boat carries up to 43 passengers and the catamaran hull ensures a smooth ride. Check here for details.

Adventures in Paradise, Inc. offers cruises and tours. You can enjoy dolphins, manatee, sea horses, osprey, and pristine beaches brimming with shells. Fun-filled adventures for the entire family.

Lighthouse decorated for ChristmasJody Davis/Pixabay

Beaches and waterfront

Lighthouse Beach and Fishing Pier covers 32 acres on the eastern tip of Sanibel and is the site of the historic functioning lighthouse. You’ll find the t-dock-fishing pier and a boardwalk nature trail winding through native wetlands. (Turn left on Periwinkle Way from Causeway Road. Large parking lot and restrooms.)

The Sanibel Lighthouse, first lit in August 1884, is closed to visitors. When the U.S. Coast Guard announced its intention in 1972 to extinguish the light, they abandoned the idea after a public outcry. The Coast Guard still maintains the lighthouse but the City of Sanibel manages the surrounding property.

The Sanibel Marina nestles near the lighthouse and offers boat rentals, charters and dining at the award-winning waterfront restaurant, Gramma Dot’s Seaside Saloon. There are 65 slips for boats up to 70′. More info here.

Sanibel MarinaKatie Bellaschi/Pixabay

Bowman’s Beach is the most popular, being secluded with picnic facilities and grills. (Off Sanibel-Captiva Rd., turn left on Bowman’s Beach Rd. Up Island.)

Gulfside City Park Beach (On Algiers Lane off Casa Ybel Rd. Mid Island.)

Tarpon Bay Beach (South end of Tarpon Bay Rd. at West Gulf Drive, Mid Island.)

Blind Pass Beach lies on both the Sanibel and Captiva sides of the Blind Pass Bridge - a prime spot for shells. No swimming allowed because of the swift currents. (On Sanibel-Captiva Rd. at Blind Pass Bridge.)

Other points of interest

Periwinkle Place is a shopping mall tucked away out of sight with 40 shops. The covered walkways will keep you dry if it rains.

While there, try the Sanibel Fish House Restaurant for fresh seafood. A casual environment enjoyable for the entire family.

As mentioned earlier, Bailey’s General Store is in the Sanibel Historical Village. Many locals buy their groceries here. For families on a budget, they have a great bakery and deli with pre-made meals and salads. Great coffee too!

Sweet Melissa’s Cafe is a top 10 restaurant in South Florida. Owner and executive chef, Melissa Donahue, supports local suppliers near Sanibel.

You’ll find bookworm heaven at Gene’s Bookstore with five separate cottages covering different themes.

Time to end this with a song

Denny Sarokin wrote "Sanibel" in 1981 which caught the attention of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It took 18 years before they recorded it in 1999 as part of their reunion album, Looking Forward.

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Published essayist. Follow me for local news that impacts our lives, plus stories on public and mental health. Through writing, I also share my passion for music, politics, our environment and social justice, and hope you find value in my words.


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