A Local's Guide to Sanibel Island, Florida
I grew up in Fort Myers, Florida on the Southwestern coast of the state. One of my favorite day trips to take from the city is a visit to Sanibel Island for hours of combing soft, white sandy beaches for colorful shells and just generally enjoying the island's small-town charm.
An important item to note before I dive in and tell you what's what on Sanibel: there is a toll when driving onto the island from Fort Myers. $6 for cars and $2 for motorcycles.
Things to Do on Sanibel
Look for Seashells
Sanibel Island is the self-pronounced shelling capital of the world - and with good reason. There are more seashells to be found on Sanibel and other Gulf Coast beaches than anywhere else in the world. However, as Sanibel continues to bring tourists in just for shelling, the number of seashells on the beach are less and less every year. In spite of that, they are still prolific - particularly after a storm. The best beach for shelling is probably Blind Pass (see title picture) which is a beach in between Sanibel and Captiva islands. If at Blind Pass, do go under the bridge to the shell piles lining the water, frequently there are some great finds hidden in there.
If you're heading to Florida in search of seashells and other treasures, check out my Local's Guide to the Best Beachcombing Beaches in Southwest Florida.
Rent a Bike
Cycling the island's many bike paths is a fun way to check out Sanibel's charming neighborhoods. Also, you might stumble upon little resident-only public access beaches that you wouldn't otherwise see in a car. The island is flat, so cycling is a workout without the stress of hills. I recommend riding your bike all the way up West Gulf Drive which is almost entirely residential. The most beautiful and secluded beach areas are here. Also, gopher tortoises like secluded roadsides so it's highly likely that you'd see one peeking out of it's sandy abode.
Visit the Popular Beaches
If you want to visit a more "social beach" where you could encounter more people, I'd try Lighthouse Beach (paying to go in the lighthouse is not really worth it, in my opinion) and/or Gulfside Beach. They both have decent shelling as well. Click here for beach info/locations.
Side note: you have to pay to park at every public beach, that's when having a bike really comes in handy.
Take a Day Trip to Cayo Costa
A great morning or afternoon trip while you're on the island is a paid boatride to Cayo Costa State Park. It's incredibly serene and peaceful there. You can sunbathe and/or find loads of sand dollars or wade in tidal pools or look at ospreys... Boats can be rented from Captiva marinas, I'd google potential offers OR even better, if you have access to a boat/ someone with a boater's license, that would be an even cooler way to visit. It's a little pricey to pay for a boat tour but Cayo Costa is quite secluded and offers a glimpse of what the Gulf Coast used to be like without development.
Kayak in Ding Darling
Kayaking in Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge will probably get you close to a decent amount of wildlife. Dolphins, gators (that pretty much keep to themselves), possibly manatees, and tons of beautiful birds. The interactive exhibits at the refuge's Visitor Center are pretty interesting as well and definitely worth a look.
Visit the Shell Museum!
Go to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum! It's really neat. It's a small museum but there are so many surprisingly unique shell-things to look at. If you're feeling sunburnt and want an hour+ break from the outdoors, definitely make a stop in the museum. It's also a great place to take kids if you happen to be traveling with any lil guys.
Eating on Sanibel
For meat-eaters: Sanibel is the perfect location for excellent, fresh seafood. A true local gem on the island seafood-wise is Gramma Dot's, which is at a marina closer to Lighthouse Beach. My family and I used to go to Gramma Dot's nearly every time we visited Sanibel. Even though I no longer eat seafood, I still dream about their fried grouper.
For coffee-lovers: Sanibel Bean is the best. They also apparently have lots of vegan baked goods if that applies to you.
Where to Stay on Sanibel
For those on a budget: AirBnB, all the way. I've seen listings for private rooms through AirBnb on Sanibel for $50 or less, which is honestly an incredible deal for the island. If you're feeling adventurous or traveling by campervan or RV, there's always Periwinkle Park Campgrounds. ($55 a day in-season, $40 a day June-October).
For those with more money to spend: rent a condo through one of Sanibel's many rental companies or check out VRBO to rent directly from the owner. If you're willing to spend around $300 a night, some of my family and I have stayed at Beachview Cottages which is made up of old-Florida style cottages and condos. It's an older establishment which means it was built before regulations and thus is way closer to the beach than most modern places.
Shopping & Entertainment on Sanibel
There are a lot of cute, bohemian "island-style" boutiques on Sanibel since they shun almost every commercial chain. That being said, you will find the Chico's chain because it actually started on Sanibel. Prices in local boutiques will probably be on the high end, though. Periwinkle Place has the most popular shops.
Sanibel Seasonal Activities
Summer: Rates for places to stay on Sanibel are quite a bit lower in the summertime, as most "snowbirds" (tourists) have flown back up North. If you're there in July, be sure to check out the Fourth of July parade.
Winter: In December, there's a Luminary Holiday Stroll where you can see the town lit up for the holidays. (Winter on Sanibel side note: one Christmas season, my family and I stayed on Sanibel for a few days and my brother and I made a "sandman" instead of a snowman and it made for great festive holiday pictures). In January, snag some fresh Florida strawberries from the supermarket. You should also be able to find starfruit & famous Florida citrus at markets during this time of year.
Spring: The annual International Shell Show & Festival is held every March on Sanibel. It is a real treat and must-do if you find yourself there at the right time of year.
Sidenote to all the other beachcombers/seashell fans out there:
Check out Pam Rambo's I Love Shelling website and blog. Her blog is a fun, goofy read about beachcombing life and often includes updates about where the shelling is good on the island. She also has a Sanibel seashell guide as well as information about international shelling trips she's taken. Lastly, you can apparently also take beachcombing tours with her to Cayo Costa.