12 Best Things to Do on Sanibel and Captiva Islands, Florida

— SANIBEL & CAPTIVA ISLANDS, FLORIDA — The history of Sanibel and Captiva Islands can be traced back 2500-years to the Calusa Indians, considered to be the first residents. The abundant seafood provided sustenance, and the numerous shells left by the oysters, clams, and conchs were shaped into tools. Fast forward to today, and shells and seafood are still prominent features comprising the identity of these amazing islands.

Famous people have gravitated to the atmosphere and beauty of Sanibel and Captiva for visits or for extended periods. Among them were President Teddy Roosevelt and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Charles Lindburgh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindburgh visited frequently.

It was on Captiva that Anne wrote Gifts from the Sea, no doubt inspired by the variety of specimens continually rolling onto the shore. Birds and many forms of wildlife have also been drawn to the islands. The vegetation is lush and colorful.

Sanibel and Captiva are connected to the mainland of Florida by a 3-mile-long causeway that was opened for traffic in 1963. Until then, the islands were accessible only by a ferry boat that started making runs in 1912. It is now estimated that more than 3-million vehicles use the bridge each year.

This piece of paradise, its wonders, and attractions are discovered and enjoyed by first-timers, frequent visitors, snowbirds escaping winter, and year-round residents.


On a recent extended visit, I found 12 things that I believe are the best to do when you are on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. –Connie Pearson

1. Do the Sanibel Stoop

Seashells Sanibel & Captiva Islands
©Connie Pearson

Bending to retrieve seashells is such a common posture that it has a very appropriate nickname, “Sanibel Stoop.” Sanibel and Captiva can always be found at the top of lists naming the best shelling beaches in the world. There are two main reasons. While most island coastlines run north to south, Sanibel’s coast is uniquely positioned to run east to west.

Sanibel Island is part of a large plateau that functions as a giant shelf where mollusks like to rest. The tide and the winds stir things up on that shelf, causing the shells to be deposited on the shore by the thousands.

There are more than 400 species of shells to be found in this location. It is easy to find several dozen types during a week of vacation. Some can be picked up by the bagful, while others, such as the Junonia, are rare.

When you head to the beach, be sure to take a shell bag (made of mesh so the sand can be rinsed off easily) and a long-handled scoop in case your Sanibel Stoop is a little stiff.

2. Wildlife Photo Ops

Ding Darling Refuge Sanibel & Captiva Islands
©Connie Pearson

One of the most influential visitors to Sanibel was Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, an award-winning cartoonist. He started vacationing there in 1935 and quickly became an activist for Federal help to protect the valuable ecosystem of the island. Those efforts were successful, and in 1945, 6400-acres were set aside to create the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Over 200 species of birds and many reptiles, amphibians, and mammals make their home on these acres, and the photography opportunities are endless. The Visitors Center is free.

Narrated tram tours are offered, but you may also pay $10 per car and drive the four-mile stretch at your own pace, getting out to take photos, hike the trails, or launch a kayak for a much closer vantage point. Birdwatchers love bringing their binoculars to the refuge where roseate spoonbills are especially popular.

3. Bike the Trails

Billy's Bike Shop - Sanibel & Captiva Islands
©Connie Pearson

Promoting physical health and encouraging outdoor exercise, the Sanibel planners established almost 25-miles of paved trails for residents and visitors to use.

Bike rental shops make the activity very easy for all ages. Go by Billy’s Bike Shop or Finnamore’s Cycle Shop to try out the various types of cycles they have available. Multi-speed bikes, adult trikes, recumbent bikes and trikes, tandem bicycles, surreys, kids’ bikes, and attachments to adult bikes, plus helmets and all types of extra equipment can be rented by the day, week, or month. The shops will deliver to your accommodations within a couple of hours and pick the cycles up when you’re finished. It’s a very simple process.

4. Sample Island Dishes

Grouper sandwich at Gramma Dot's
©Connie Pearson

Very few chain restaurants can be found on the islands. Instead, an impressive number of locally owned eateries make use of the constant source of seafood, fruits, and vegetables, serving islanders dishes uniquely suited for the atmosphere and environment.

Seafood dominates many menus, but non-seafood lovers can also find plenty of options. Most restaurants offer large outdoor dining areas, and some have regular musical entertainment. The majority are family-friendly and casual. Exceptions would be Thistle Lodge Beachfront Restaurant and Cielo, offering an elevated menu in an elegant setting.

My favorite places include Gramma Dot’s at the Sanibel Marina, RC Otter’s Island Eats on Captiva, Island Cow, George & Wendy’s Seafood Grille, Mudbugs for Cajun preparations, and Matzaluna for wonderful Italian cuisine to provide a break from seafood.

The Bubble Room on Captiva combines Christmas, toys, and Hollywood in its decor to create a fun atmosphere with a wide menu and huge desserts. Over Easy Café serves a wonderful breakfast in a location easily accessible on the bicycle trails.

5. Deep Dive Sanibel and Captiva Islands History

Sanibel Historical Museum & Village
©Connie Pearson

For a deep dive into the background of Sanibel’s past, visit the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village. There you’ll hear more about the Calusa Indians, the effect that explorers such as Ponce de Leon had on the islands, the years when notorious pirates menaced the coastline, and the obstacles early settlers were forced to overcome.

Ten original buildings, dating from 1898 to 1927, have been brought to the village on Dunlop Road. The museum and gift shop are open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

6. Appreciate Artists & Performers

BIG Arts Center
©Connie Pearson

A dedicated group of year-round residents with a passion for the arts has worked tirelessly since 1979. They have created a space where like-minded people can come together and share through performing arts, visual arts, and educational events. The result is a modern facility with gallery space and a performance venue that seats 400 people.

The gallery and box office is open several days a week throughout the year. Exhibits change often, so you’ll want to check the website for current offerings. BIG Arts (Barrier Island Group for the Arts) is located next to the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village on Dunlop Road.

7. Early-Bird Farmers Markets

Sanibel Farmers Market
©Connie Pearson

From October through May each year, islanders flock to farmers’ markets for produce, plants, bread, seafood, cheese, salsa, soap, guacamole (made on the spot), jewelry, accessories, home décor items, and more, brought in by area vendors.

  • Sanibel’s market is held on Sundays from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. next to City Hall.
  • Captiva’s market is held on Tuesdays from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at South Seas Island Resort entrance.

My advice is to arrive early to secure a good parking spot. If you are hungry when you show up, several food trucks will be ready to satisfy your appetite before or after making your selections from the market. If your vacation days include a Sunday or Tuesday, take advantage of these markets for special items to enjoy in your condo or beach house.

8. Browse Shops & Boutiques

Shops of Periwinkle Place
©Connie Pearson

For shopaholics who believe vacations include shopping, never fear. Sanibel has you covered. The shops at Periwinkle Place have beautiful merchandise in an island paradise setting. Other clusters of shops can be found at Tahitian Gardens, Olde Sanibel Shoppes, or Town Center. If you’re looking for merchants who know a lot about seashells and how to use them, head to She Sells Sea Shells or Sanibel Shells. Both will have some great ideas.

If you are a bargain shopper, it might be worth the $6 toll charge to drive back over the causeway to Fort Myers. A couple of miles past the toll booths, you’ll find Sanibel Outlets. Name brands such as Crocs, Polo, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein are there, plus several good restaurants. The toll, by the way, is only charged when you travel from Ft. Myers to Sanibel and not when you are driving away from the island.


9. Read a Randy Wayne White Novel in the Place Where He Wrote It

Randy Wayne White’s first published novel was “Sanibel Flats.” That book and the intriguing character of Doc Ford led to a 26-book series, the 4th of which is called “Captiva.”

White is a resident of Sanibel, and many places woven into his plots are exactly what you’re looking at when you visit. He obviously knows the area, its wildlife, and vegetation, and those facts are a large part of each novel’s authenticity. You will read about red mangrove and gumbo limbo trees and recognize the expertise he gained from the years he spent as a fishing guide at the Tarpon Bay Marina.

The success of the Doc Ford books sparked a restaurant idea, and Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on Sanibel was the result. The restaurant proved very popular. There are three more locations: Ft. Myers Beach, St. Pete Pier, and Captiva. So don’t be surprised to see White sitting at the bar in Sanibel or Captiva when you visit.

10. Find the Lighthouse

Sanibel Lighthouse
©Connie Pearson

The Sanibel Lighthouse is not particularly beautiful, but it is a significant landmark. It has played an important role in the island’s history since it was first lit using kerosene on August 20, 1884. It was one of the first lighthouses on the Gulf Coast and is still in use today, although it is now owned by the city of Sanibel rather than the Coast Guard.

One of the best reasons to find the lighthouse is the Lighthouse Beach Park nearby. That portion of the beach is said to have some of the best shelling, the parking lot is large, and the restrooms are nice.

The Lighthouse Café is also in the vicinity. It claims to serve the “world’s best breakfast.” I didn’t sample all the dishes, but I can personally vouch for the French toast and the fresh-squeezed orange juice. Both were exceptional.

11. Day Cruise to a Neighboring Island

Cayo Costa State Park
©Connie Pearson

One of the best ways to appreciate the islands’ beauty is to see them from the water. Captiva Cruises offers excursions such as dolphin and wildlife cruises, sailing cruises, and sunset cruises.

In addition, you can spend a few hours on Useppa Island, Gasparilla Island, Cabbage Key, or Cayo Costa State Park, all of which are only accessible by boat. I took advantage of the opportunity to visit Cayo Costa State Park, which departed from McCarthy Marina on Captiva.

The perspective of being on an undeveloped, almost primitive island (with the boat’s restroom nearby, if necessary) was an experience I recommend. The boat was safe and fully equipped with life jackets. The crew was personable and courteous. The activity was well-organized and prompt.

12. Watch Sunset with Someone You Love

Sanibel & Captiva Islands Sunset
©Connie Pearson

It appears to be an irresistible ritual on the islands. The sun begins its descent into the western horizon, and the people head to the beach to watch. Some take blankets or chairs and sit in awestruck silence. Others enjoy windsurfers who appear to practice their skills under the brilliantly colored skies.

When the clouds cooperate, the show is quite spectacular. Something so powerful begs to be shared with someone you love. It’s a romantic time. A few minutes when words are unnecessary. I know that the sun sets all over the world, but there’s just something special about sunsets on Sanibel and Captiva. I urge you to experience it for yourself.

Conclusion

Sanibel and Captiva Islands are my very favorite beaches. Three times I’ve flown into Fort Meyers Airport (RSW) in Ft. Myers and rented a car. On my most recent trip, my husband and I drove from our home in North Alabama. Either way, the effort is well worth the cost. If you’re a shell seeker, a photographer, or a birdwatcher, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re a foodie, you’ll be a mighty happy diner. If you’re merely wanting a place that feels far away and exotic, look no further. Sanibel and Captiva will indeed captivate you, and once you visit, you’ll be eager to return.

To learn more, go to Visit Sanibel & Captiva Islands.

*Opening photo ©Flickr

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