Sanibel is not at all a stereotypical "Spring Break" type of destination. Its primary attractions are its birds, seashells, and sunsets, and many families travel here for a quiet getaway.
Sanibel is flat, long (12 miles), and narrow (3 miles at its widest). On the west, its beaches face the Gulf of Mexico. To the east, Sanibel borders Pine Island Sound and San Carlos Bay. The majority of the waterfront on the Sound is part of J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, including the calm waters of Tarpon Bay.
People looking for well-groomed white-sand beaches on Sanibel may be disappointed. The beaches are less maintained and more natural than in many locations. Seashell collectors will be pleasantly surprised by the density of seashells.
The peak travel season in Sanibel is January through April. Southwest Florida has some of the nation's mildest weather during this time, making this particular area appealing to winter-weary travelers. September and October are the island's quietest months, with some businesses shutting down for several weeks of the year.
Summers in southwest Florida can be oppressively hot and humid, but during the other months of the year Sanibel is a mild and pleasant environment. Even in the summers Sanibel's ocean breezes can eliminate some of the stifling heat.
Most travelers arrive by automobile, crossing the Sanibel Causeway (a one-way toll of $6). There are no airports on the island and no ferry service from the mainland.
Sanibel Island is less than 25 miles from Southwest Florida International Airport. Follow Daniels Parkway west to Summerlin Road, then Summerlin Road south and west to McGregor Boulevard, which leads to the Sanibel Causeway.
Posted speed limits are enforced by local police, who will remind you why you have come to Florida's islands. Most roads will have limits of 35 mph (56 km/h) or less, through both residential areas and protected wildlife zones. Beware of the infamous double stop signs of Sanibel. They are posted like that because they are often missed. Be particularly careful to mind the speed limit at night. There are not many roads on the Island and at night there is virtually always someone watching them. Watch for pedestrians and cyclists.
On the eastern half of the island, the main road through the city is Periwinkle Way. A variety of side streets connect this road with the beaches, shops, restaurants, and lodging on the island.
On the western half of the island, the main road is Sanibel-Captiva Road, or "San-Cap". Fewer roads connect to this one, which is bordered by protected lands on both sides for much of its length. At the end of San-Cap where the two islands meet at Blind Pass, this area is called "Santiva", a portmanteau of Sanibel and Captiva.
Running parallel to both these roads, along the southern shore of the island, is Gulf Drive.
There are 22 miles of cycling paths on Sanibel. With no hills to speak of, cycling can be a rewarding way to see the island. However, shops are more than two miles from most lodging locations. It is recommended to rent a vehicle, since riding past sunset is impossible as there are no street lights on Sanibel. Numerous local businesses rent bicycles, and some hotels and inns have bikes for their guests to use without charge. When setting off on a bicycle, remember to bring along water and sunscreen, and to obey all traffic laws.
You will see that the gorgeous natural beaches are sometimes ankle-deep in beautiful shells, sponges, driftwood, sand dollars, and so on. Shells can sometimes cover a lot of the sand. Beach oats and other "wild looking" plants grow between the homes and the water's edge. Washed up you will find seaweed and other interesting marine life. Those plants are not "weeds," and this is not a "dirty" beach. These are all signs of a wild unspoiled beach, and Sanibel and Captiva Islands are making every attempt to keep these beautiful islands in their natural state.
The island is lush with bougainvillea and other brilliantly colored flowers and shrubs nearly all year long. This is definitely a sub-tropical climate. Tiny lizards scurry about (even in and out of restaurants) and you might see lots of cute, tiny tree frogs stuck to your condo door when you come home at night!
Have insect repellant with DEET on hand; you will probably need it for a couple of hours around dawn and dusk because of the sand flies (also called midges or "no-see-ums") that come out then, if there is no wind blowing. You literally cannot see the "no-see-ums" and they are so small that they go right through the fly screens on balconies and lanais. Some folks feel the biting, but their skin does not react badly, whereas a few people will show little red marks after a couple of hours and these sometimes can itch and remain for a week. Some fortunate people not only do not react to the no-see-um bites but don't even feel the biting.
- Birds. At the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The sanctuary is on a large estate on the island. If you are a bird watcher, try to plan your visits during the arrival of the Roseate Spoonbill and other rare species protected there.
- Historic lighthouse at the eastern tip of the island.
Sanibel is mostly known as an ecological destination. Bird watchers and shell collectors make up the majority of the island's visitors each year.
- Rent full-size and mini bikes and/or motorized scooters to see the island more slowly and take everything in at a more leisurely pace.
- Rent your own sightseeing boats. There is a large public beach which features the Sanibel Lighthouse at one end of the island and large, quiet covered fishing pier as well. You'll be entertained by and enjoy the company of lots of pelicans patiently waiting for someone to toss some fish scraps their way on the pier. A very peaceful, delightful place.
- Fish (license required) from shore, or hire a charter. You can catch delicious whiting right in the surf on the beach in front of your condo, cook them just minutes or hours later and savor the best, freshest fish you have eaten in a long time.
- Collect shells at any of the public beaches (any shell that has a live inhabitant and any other kinds of live sea life, such as live sand dollars etc, may not be taken)
- Rent a kayak and explore the calm waters of Tarpon Bay
- Play golf or tennis
Shells, sharp fashions, beautiful jewelry, decorative "beachy items" and all kinds of quality merchandise. A full size grocery store ("Jerry's") holds court in one of the malls. Lavish decor outside includes macaws, parrots, Mynahs, cockatoos. This shopping "complex" consists of a combination large grocery and quality yet affordable souvenir store, as well as a specialty liquor store and a few other shops and boutiques.
The oldest and largest grocery store and hardware outlet is in Bailey's Plaza. The Baileys are one of the original island families and the store is still managed by family members. You also can pre-order groceries for pick up or delivery to your rental unit through Bailey's General Store. There are other stores in the plaza worth investigating. Bailey's also features a great Coffee Bar and a Movie Kiosk, where you can rent a movie for the night. Also located in Bailey's Plaza is The Grog Shop Liquor Store, they offer a huge selection of fine wines, beer, liqueurs, and cigars. The only walk in humidor on Sanibel is located in The Grog Shop.
There are no fast-food chain restaurants on Sanibel, other than a single Dairy Queen which has been there so long that it received an exemption to the strict laws passed to preserve the island's special charm.
- Cheeburger, Cheeburger, 1975 Periwinkle Way, ☏ . Burgers, shakes, and fries. Eat the 20-ounce monster and get your picture on the wall. Busy, fun atmosphere.
- The Bean of Sanibel, ☏ . 2240-B Periwinkle Way. From 7 AM to 9 PM, fresh roasted coffee and light food.
- [dead link] The Lazy Flamingo, ☏ . 6520-C Pine Ave. Cold beer and a small but high-quality menu. Very casual, very affordable. Try the Teri-Hot wings or pork ribs. Even if you don't like wings you will love these.
- [dead link] The Mad Hatter, 6467 Sanibel Captiva Rd, ☏ . M-Sa 5-10PM. Fine dining in a romantic atmosphere. Understated exterior hides a real gem. Sunset view over the Gulf of Mexico.
- R.C. Otter's, 11508 Andy Rosse Lane, ☏ . Friendly service, a great atmosphere, and live music nightly. Try the key lime pie and grouper sandwich.
- The Island Cow, 2163 Periwinkle Way, ☏ . Serving breakfast, lunch and diner 7 days a week. Snacks in-between. Live music everyday. Outdoor seating.
- The Sanibel Sprout, 2463 Periwinkle Way, ☏ . 10AM-7PM. Vegan restaurant and bakery
See The Grog Shop Sanibel Island Liquor Store in Buy section.
There are a large number of different places to stay on Sanibel including a lot of small hotels and inns. There is one "chain" of hotels on the island. There are also a lot of small-to-medium townhome or condo complexes, each one prettier than the next. Many have outdoor, (or indoor/outdoor covered) pools, patios and grills, and some of the largest have tennis courts, clubhouses, putting greens, etc. If you want a constant ocean view, be clear about it when making reservations. Lots of townhome and condo complexes are across from the beach. Still just a hop, skip and jump from the water, but unless you spend a lot of time on the beach itself all day, you'll miss the view! Most private rental homes are across the street from the beach or on the inner parts of the island.
Dogs and cats are allowed in some (but not many) of the condo/townhome complexes. Dogs may be on the beach if on leash. All condos and townhomes are family-friendly.
A few of the many available options are:
- Casa Ybel Resort, 2255 West Gulf Drive. Epitomizes the sanctuary, old-island spirit.
- Sanibel Arms West Vacation Condos, 827 E. Gulf Drive, ☏ , toll-free: , fax: .
- Sanibel Vacation Rentals, toll-free: , ✉ email@example.com. 2230 Camino Del Mar, 64 - 1 or 2 bedroom condos, each of which has a lanai that faces the Gulf and provides views. Less than 25 steps to the beach, heated swimming pool, modern appointments and numerous amenities with full kitchens and complete guest services.
- [formerly dead link] Seaside Inn, 541 East Gulf Drive, ☏ .
- Shalimar Cottages and Hotel, 2823 West Gulf Drive, ☏ , toll-free: , fax: . 33 rooms (cottages and motel efficiencies) directly on the beach, swimming pool, full kitchens. Off-season specials and AAA discount available.
- West Wind Inn, 3345 West Gulf Drive, ☏ , toll-free: , fax: . On quiet end of island near Rabbit Rd bike path. Several two-story buildings with kitchenettes available. Go for the newer Driftwood building; the oceanfront rooms are nice for nighttime surf noise. Nice pool area with bar, food and Normandie restaurant on site. Billy's Rentals on site for bikes and beach equipment. AAA discount available.