Sensational Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island is a premier destination in Southwest Florida. Only 14 miles from Ft. Myers, it sits off the coast in the blue/green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This tiny little island oasis has gained quite a reputation for itself. Experts in the travel industry have been bragging on sensational Sanibel Island for decades! Authorities within the travel industry say Sanibel is an extraordinary travel experience. But what makes Sanibel so special, and so different from any other island in the Sunshine State?
Well, Travel & Leisure says it’s one of the 10 Best Shelling Beaches in the United States! And USAToday ranked the seashells of Sanibel in the Top 10 Attractions in Florida! So then… seashells and Sanibel are synonymous! But what if beach-combing isn’t your thing? If shell collecting isn’t on your tropical vacation to-do list, is Sanibel still worth a trip? The answer is unequivocally, yes! I’ve put together a list of my favorite things to do every time I visit (in no particular order). You’re welcome to add your favorites as well. Simply reply in the comment box at the end of this article.
- BOOK A WATERFRONT PROPERTY: The beaches of Sanibel are so relaxing. Even in the busy season they’re not crowded. Do yourself a favor and book waterfront accommodations. The few extra dollars a night will more than pay for itself with a million-dollar view. Don’t be surprised if you decide to do nothing at all during your stay, except to immerse your senses in the simplistic serenity of nature. Put your cell phone on mute, kick up your bare feet on that lanai lounger, grab a spoon and enjoy a pint of Queenie’s ice cream (no sharing allowed) — homemade, right across the Pine Island Sound in Ft. Myers. Cinnamon is the bomb! We like to stay at Tortuga Beach Club, a Vacation Ownership property managed by Hilton. Even if you’re not a timeshare owner, rentals are available. It’s only a few steps to the sandy beach via a small boardwalk. It truly felt as if we were vacationing in the Caribbean. Here’s the view from our balcony…
- VISIT JERRY’S FOODS: We started a tradition while on Sanibel. The first thing we do right after check-in and unpacking is make our customary run to Jerry’s Foods. It’s a combination grocery store/restaurant right on the island, at 1700 Periwinkle Way. It has the coolest entrance to a grocery store that I’ve ever seen. It feels like you’re walking through the jungle to get there. Strategically placed throughout the dense tropical palms and foliage are colorful parrots and birds. As you stroll the peaceful pathways, stop and say hello… they do talk… but only when my video is turned off! How do they know that? These gorgeous guys and gals will have you in a relaxed state of mind in no time. When Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” starts running through your head, “island time” has officially found you! Jerry’s isn’t cheap, so we don’t do a large grocery order here, but their pastries and breads are excellent for breakfast on the balcony, and this is where I get my Queenie’s! Also, for a casual lunch or dinner, you’ll never go wrong with Jerry’s Restaurant. The daily specials are always a good value. We’ve had fish tacos, grouper fingers, oriental chicken salad, prime rib, and that coconut pie… oh my! Everything we’ve tried has been excellent!
- TOUR BAILEY MATTHEWS NATIONAL SHELL MUSEUM: You don’t have to be a shell-lover or collector to appreciate this place. There’s no other museum like it in the United States. It’s the only museum devoted entirely to shells and the mollusks that create them. There’s over 30 permanent displays and some temporary ones that often change. The Museum is home to at least 4 different world-record-sized shells. (Wait till you see the size of those things!) But, Bailey-Mattthews is far more than just colorful shells, it’s incredibly educational. The Marine Biologists that research and study here are internationally known as the foremost authorities in their field. Take advantage of the interesting and interactive “Tank Talk” lectures; and in the Arts & Crafts Room you can make a shell souvenir to take home (far more memorable than anything you could purchase in a tacky shell-shop!). Both things are free with a paid admission. FloridaFunAndFork did an in-depth article and photo tour of Bailey Matthews Shell Museum here.
- HISTORICAL SANIBEL LIGHTHOUSE: The Sanibel Lighthouse (originally called Point Ybel Light) is worth a visit for anyone who loves historical points of interest. It’s located on the eastern end of the 12-mile long island and was one of the first lighthouses on Florida’s Gulf coast; first lit in August 1884. The Sanibel Lighthouse is currently maintained by the Florida Coast Guard. Although the lighthouse is not open to visitors, you can walk the surrounding property that includes the keeper’s quarters. There’s also a fishing pier and public beach access. Have your camera or cell phone nearby, it’s a great area for photography!
- J. N. “DING” DARLING NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE: With an address like “One Wildlife Drive” you know you’ve gone somewhat off-the-beaten-path. The Refuge is named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Jay Norwood Darling. Many are familiar with his cartooning in the New York Herald Tribune, but few people realize Mr. Darling was a passionate environmentalist. In fact, he was a pioneer in the conservation movement, and an advocate for wildlife management. At The Education Center you’ll learn his story and the connection he had with President Franklin Roosevelt and ultimately Sanibel Island. The “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is quite large; 6,300 acres. It’s accessible via car, interpretative tram tours, biking, walking trails, or by canoe. We chose the 4-mile scenic drive but also walked a few of the shorter trails. I’ve seen stunning photography of various birds, reptiles, and mammals spotted at the Refuge, but unfortunately we didn’t see too many. Know before you go: Timing is everything! Birds typically feed during low tide, so that’s the ideal time to be there. We visited in the afternoon, in the heat of the day, when movement is minimal. Next time, I’ll tour the sanctuary according to the tide tables.
- CHAPEL BY THE SEA: Just north of Sanibel, via a small bridge, is a tiny sliver of land called Captiva Island. I love the scenic drive to Sanibel’s sister island. As you’re driving perfectly parallel to the sea and sand you’ll be amazed at the colorful bougainvilleas, giant cactus, and other tropical flora. Chapel by the Sea was originally built as a schoolhouse in 1901. On Sundays it would double as a church. Nowadays, it’s an interdenominational church that holds services seasonally, November through April. When you see the setting of this seaside sanctuary you’ll know why it’s also a popular wedding spot. Take a walk through the very old cemetery right next door to the church, many of Captiva’s original 19th century settlers are buried there. TIP: Time your visit to Captiva so you can have dinner while watching the setting sun!
- PLAN A DAY TRIP TO MATLACHA: OMG… I smile just thinking about this place. We discovered Matlacha (pronounced MAT-la-shay) on our way to a romantic anniversary lunch at the historical Tarpon Lodge Restaurant, a 4-Star waterfront restaurant on Pine Island. Matlacha is a teeny-tiny little town the size of my walk-in closet (well, at 99 acres, that’s almost true!) that you have to drive through to get to Bokeelia, our restaurant destination. Turns out, this pee-wee sized place with a population around 735 is a bright, funky artist enclave — it’s so colorful you’ll be tempted to wear your Ray Ban’s at night! The color is what captured my attention, but the incredible talent is what really impressed me. Matlacha is home to a multitude of authors, musicians, and artists. (You know… birds of a feather…) You’ll definitely want to check out Matlacha’s Art Galleries, amongst the most eclectic I have seen!
- MURDER MYSTERY DINNER TRAIN, FT. MYERS: Another outstanding day trip is to one of the best attractions in all of Florida. A short 40-minute drive will have you in Ft. Myers, — a popular Southwest Florida destination. Here’s an itinerary idea: Tour the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Have Lunch at The Veranda (one of my favorite upscale restaurants in Florida!), Stroll the Fort Myers Newly Expanded River District, then experience Dinner and A Show on the Murder Mystery Dinner Train. (Perhaps you’ll be like my sleuth friend, Ron, who received an award for correctly solving the “who done it” mystery!) It’s a full schedule, but you can chill at your beach-front Sanibel villa the next day! Fort Myers is a day trip you’ll be talking about for a long time after you return home, I promise!
- BIRD WATCHING ON THE BEACH: If you’re not into shelling, no problem. There’s another popular pastime on the beaches of Sanibel. Here’s how it works: Perfectly position your beach chair at one of the birding hotspots and spend a lazy afternoon doing a little bird watching. Simple as that! Simple, but oh so satisfying to the soul!
- THE SANIBEL STOOP: Okay… I must confess. After a few days of watching everyone else doing it, I decided to try it myself. The Sanibel Stoop, that is. It’s difficult watching the sense of satisfaction and jubilation people get when finding one of those “prized” shells, and not being a participant. After all, it’s kinda like the “official” pastime of Sanibel. And, you know what they say… when in Sanibel, do as the Islanders do! But I have to warn you, the Sanibel Stoop can become seriously addicting, with spontaneous bouts of stooping over with little or no warning. Don’t fight it. There’s some spectacular spoils waiting to be discovered on the sparkling shores of sensational Sanibel!
The Sanibel Stoop Sets A Guinness World Record!
In March 2012, over 800 hovering hineys of Sanibel broke the world record for “largest treasure hunt game!”