Sanibel — a barrier island on the southwest Florida coast of Lee County — was first inhabitated by the Calusa Indians, followed by Spanish explorers in the 1600s. In 1832 it became a small colony with its own schoolhouse. A lighthouse, constructed on its east end in 1884, is still operated by the United States Coast Guard. During the 20th century, Sanibel was largely an agricultural community with avocado, citrus, and eggplant farms — a far cry from the tourist mecca it is today.
The barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva offer visitors to Southwest Florida a most unusual mix of Mother Nature and unparalleled resort relaxation.
Hospitable as the area is for wildlife, both are equally enticing to tourists, offering superb beaches, a wide variety of tempting restaurants and intriguing shops, some of the best shelling spots anywhere, along with a casual, relaxed lifestyle enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.
The barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva offer visitors to Florida’s Gulf Coast an eclectic mix of Mother Nature and resort relaxation.
Hospitable as the area is for wildlife, both are equally enticing to visitors, offering beautiful beaches, the best shelling in North America, a wide variety of tempting restaurants and intriguing shops, along with a casual, relaxed lifestyle enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.
Recognized as one of the best places to collect seashells in the world, other popular activities for visitors include fishing, bicycling, kayaking, tennis, golf and nature photography.
Among the most popular places to visit are the the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, CROW’s Healing Winds Visitor Education Center and The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (239-472-1100) draws thousands of visitors each year from around the world. Wildlife Drive — open daily except Fridays — gives visitors a chance to see some of the nearly 250 different bird species, including wood storks, bald eagles, roseate spoonbills and ospreys, that make their homes here. Travelers from around the world laud the refuge as one of the most splendid nature preserves anywhere. Be sure to visit the Calusa Shell Mound Trail, where you can stroll along a boardwalk and see remnants of an ancient civilization.
The official concessionaire for the refuge, Tarpon Bay Explorers (239-472-8900), invites visitors to experience a close-up look at the local environment, with a number of tram tours, guided kayak and canoe tours, deck talks and sea life cruises that will engage young and old alike.
The Healing Winds Visitor Education Center at CROW (239-472-3644) — open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — offers participants a fun and educational experience as they learn more about the organization’s mission to treat injured wildlife through video presentations, interactive displays, realistic animal models and informational kiosks. Check out their Gift Shop for terrific animal-friendly souvenirs for all ages.
The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (239-395-2233) — open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. — celebrates the area’s reputation as one of the world’s top shelling destinations. The museum offers an unusual assortment of local and international shells along with fossils in spectacular exhibits that combine science, art and history.
The Nature Center at SCCF (239-472-2329) also offers a wide variety of educational programs about wildlife on the islands, four miles of trails (with an observation tower), interactive exhibits, a touch tank, butterfly house and Nature Shop.
The Sanibel Lighthouse, on the eastern tip of the island, offers a lovely beach where San Carlos Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico. Bowman’s Beach, a beautiful gulfside location, is part of a nature preserve which also offers a playground area for children. For blissful serenity, Gulfside City Park (located off Algiers Lane) is usually less frequented than other beaches. The shelling is excellent at Turner Beach, located near the Blind Pass bridge that separates Sanibel from Captiva.
The islands are also home to more than 23 miles of paved shared use paths, perfect for walkers, runners and bicycling enthusiasts.
Known for its lavish estates, bustling village area and exquisite beaches, Captiva is perhaps best known for its nightly gatherings to watch the setting sun. If you’re lucky, and patient, you may even witness the rare “green flash” phenomenon.
Visitors here enjoy strolling along Andy Rosse Lane, perusing the many fine restaurants, art galleries and specialty shops offering one-of-a-kind fashions and finery.
For sea-faring folks, a day out on the water can be arranged by McCarthy’s Marina (239-472-5200) or Captiva Cruises (239-472-5300), which offer group tours for shelling or dolphin watching and trips to nearby intriguing islands like Cabbage Key, Cayo Costa, North Captiva or Useppa.
For one of the most luxurious accommodations in the region, try South Seas Island Resort and Yacht Harbor (866-565-5089) — a 330-acre resort — located on the northernmost point of the island. There you can find world-class shopping and dining all within a short stroll of your home-away-from-home.
Whatever you seek in a vacation, you’ll find right here on the tranquil, relaxed islands of Sanibel and Captiva on Florida’s Gulf coast.
Attractions: Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Historical Village and Museum, Sanibel Lighthouse and Schoolhouse Theatre
Captiva and Sanibel abound in fascinating places to shop and many of these wonderful and unusual stores can be found clustered in centers on Sanibel such as The Village Shops (featuring the Watson-MacRae Gallery, Sanibel Tropical Wines, Why Not? and Tribeca Salon & Nails), Tahitian Gardens, Periwinkle Place, Jerry’s, Heart of the Islands, Palm Ridge or Bailey’s Center.
On Captiva, visitors can explore the concentration of offerings on Andy Rosse Lane and at Chadwick Square (featuring Giggles, H2O Outfitters, 2 Islands Art Gallery and the Captiva Provision Company).
Shoppers will find everything from beachwear to sportswear to evening wear in the shops of Sanibel and Captiva, along with fine jewelry, crafts, furniture, knick-knacks... in fact, almost anything you can imagine.
Shells continue to play an important part of life in Southwest Florida and retail shops like She Sells Sea Shells reflect that, providing raw materials and instructions for crafts as well as finished products, which range from humorous to artistic to scientific.