It’s no secret that Sanibel and Captiva Island on Florida’s west coast are two of the best spots in the United States, if not the world to hunt for seashells. However, we found tons of things to do on Sanibel Island beyond the laid back beaches.
There are no buildings taller than a palm tree on these natural islands, so it is easy to miss the plethora of fun snuggled in between the tropical forests – but don’t worry, we got you. In addition to our experiences on the island, we enlisted the help of veteran vacationers to put together this amazing list of everything you need to know for a spectacular vacation.
For the First Timer to Sanibel Island
J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Anyone who has visited Sanibel Island will tell you the JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is tops on a Sanibel Island Things to do list.
What you need to know is there are several ways to explore the refuge. By foot or bike would be my preference, but you can also take a 90-minute tram tour with Tarpon Bay Explorers, or drive through. If you drive, download the refuge app prior to your visit so you can play Wildlife Drive trivia along the way.
TIP: Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is closed on Fridays, so plan ahead so you don’t miss this gem.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. This museum reopens in July 2019, so we missed this. However, we did participate in a beach walk at the Island Inn that was lead by a scientist from the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum. The beach walk is free for Island Inn guests, but non-guests can pay a modest fee to join in and discover more about the beautiful seashells you find on the beach, as well as the marine life that once used them as their home.
Sanibel Island Lighthouse. Although you can’t go up into the Sanibel Island lighthouse, it’s still a destination worth visiting. On the grounds are a fishing pier, and beach access where you can find great shelling. There is a large parking lot and rest room facilities here too, so bring a picnic and spend the afternoon.
Billy’s Bike Shop. There are 22 miles of paved bike paths on Sanibel Island, so renting a bike is a perfect way to get around, plus most of the things to do on Sanibel Island are accessible by bike. During our trip we stayed at the Island Inn on Sanibel and could rent bikes on-site. If you don’t have bikes included in your rental, Billy’s Bike Shop is the place to go according to our sources.
CROW. Also called the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, this is a teaching hospital, as well as an education center. Kids will love the hands-on veterinarian play area, complete with pint-sized lab coats.
Interested in veterinarian medicine? Book the Wildlife Walk, a behind-the-scenes tour of the hospital. We saw an operation on a bird’s leg, plus triage on a group of newly arrived animals ranging from a tiny rabbit to a huge raptor. So cool.
TIP: What’s the best time to visit Sanibel Island? January – April is in-season. For better rates (and fun festivals), visit September – December.
Crow’s Nest Bar & Grille at Tween Waters Island Resort. Nothing says beach like a good hermit crab race. The family shows start at 6 pm on select nights. At 9 pm, the event goes to 18 and over.
Beaches. You will totally understand the ‘Sanibel Stoop’ after hitting any of the marvelous beaches. Every beach has amazing shelling, but Blind Pass Beach is known as a premier spot. If you want to make a day of it, Bowman Beach has picnic facilities that include grills.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers. Not in Sanibel, but worth the short drive to Fort Myers. In addition to touring the Edison & Ford Winter Estate homes, there is a traditional museum, as well as The Smithsonian Spark Lab, with super cool hands-on STEM activities for kids (and adult kids), tour the 20 acres of gardens, then pick up something for your own. Be sure to leave time to visit Edison’s lab.
TIP: In Fort Myers stop for lunch on the tree-shaded patio at local favorite McGregor Café. Your order: Lobster cake salad with an ice tea in a mason jar, and Key lime pie for dessert.
Get Out on the Water
Tarpon Bay Outfitters. Tarpon Bay is one of the top ten places in the nation to paddle according to Canoe and Kayak Magazine. Rent a kayak through Tarpon Bay Explorers and head out on your own, or go on a guided tour through the tangled red mangrove forest. Either way, you’ll have a front row seat to one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the world.
TIP: Tarpon Bay Explorers lets you keep your kayak and explore on your own after any tour.
Captiva Cruises. In a place like Sanibel Island (or Captiva Island), you simply must get out on the water to truly experience the destination. Sadly, our sunset cruise aboard a double hull catamaran was canceled due to weather, but the sheer number of people who mentioned Captiva Cruises when we were planning our trip gives me confidence that had we gone, it would have been a night to remember.
As it was, the two manatees swimming around the marina as we waited was a pretty cool site. My next visit, I’m booking Captiva Cruises for a day-time island hopping adventure to places only accessible by boat.
Charter Fishing. The west coast of Florida is known for it’s fishing. Whether you are a pro or just looking to go out for a day of fun, Whitney’s Bait & Tackle is the place to go. They offer several different adventures to fit your interest and your budget. If you’d rather go it alone, Whitney will dish on the best fishing spots around if you are nice.
TIP: Want to learn how to fly fish? Or maybe just filet the fish you’ve caught? Whitney’s offers free lessons – just ask.
Hidden Gems on Sanibel Island
Sanibel Historical Museum and Village. Once you’ve totally fallen in love with the island like we did, you’ll want to find out a bit more about it. Walk through historic buildings to get a feel for what life was like in the early days.
Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens. Explore six acres of a diverse selection of tropical plants. Public tours are on Wednesdays at 9 am.
Sanibel Farmer’s Market. A visit to Sanibel anytime between October and May must include a visit to the Farmer’s Market according to our hostess. Visit every Sunday from 8 am – 1 pm for local goodies.
TIP: The major airport to Sanibel is Southwest Florida International. From Atlanta fly Delta, Southwest, American, JetBlue, Spirit, Frontier or United.
Shop Local at these Fun Stores
Bailey’s General Store. Whatever you need, and whatever you didn’t know you needed, Bailey’s General Store has it. Like the old fashion family-owned general store, Bailey’s is a blast from the past, but with gluten-free foods, a coffee shop and customer service that would give Disney a run for the money.
Jerry’s Foods. Say hello to the macaws on the porch as you head in to pick up some essentials at Jerry’s Foods. Jerry’s started as a butcher shop, so this is probably the best place to pick up some items for your grill out night at the condo.
Also on your menu should be the key lime pie, reported to be the best in the world, but I think there are several other destinations on Sanibel that might dispute that claim. Best to try them all and make your own decision.
TIP: In addition to Jerry’s key lime pie, our sources swear by the key lime pie at Gramma Dots, and Keylime Bistro (on Captiva). The Bubble Room also sells key lime pie. Get one of each and do a taste test.
Periwinkle Place is Sanibel Island’s answer to the upscale shopping mall. This busy thoroughfare includes 26 unique shops including the original Chicos (I had no idea Chico’s started on Sanibel!) and Gene’s Bookstore (see below).
Gene’s Bookstore. As soon as my son walked through the door he said, “I have found my people.” Apparently, his people have so many books they are tumbling off the shelves onto the floor and cascading into the walkways.
Gene’s Bookstore consists of three separate buildings, and they are moving into a fourth. I’m quite certain there is some sort of secret tunnel to a magical world under all those books.
Giant Desserts You Won’t Want to Share
Pinocchio’s. The best part about Pinocchio’s Italian ice cream, which is made fresh on site, is the Sue sized portions – by that I mean the helpings are huge, just the way I like them. Your order: The Dirty Sand Dollar – vanilla based ice-cream with caramel, malted milk balls, and chocolate chunks.
Bubble Room. It seems the folks on Sanibel Island like their desserts just like I do – huge. The Bubble Room, which is technically on Captiva Island, is known for their kitschy décor and A.MAZ.ING cakes.
While pondering aloud if I needed more dessert and if the orange crunch cake was truly worth it, a random woman passing by stopped and almost shouted at me “OMG, yes. YES, it is totally worth it.” And she was right.
Key Lime Bistro. After a pint of ice cream and a quarter of a three-layer cake all in the same day, I did not have the stomach to try the key lime pie at Key Lime Bistro on Captiva Island, but it came highly recommended by locals. Enjoy it on the open air patio listening to live music. Adding to my return itinerary right now.
Our Sampling of Good Eats
So much good food. So little time.
Lighthouse Cafe. We had a packed schedule so grabbed a quick bite at the Island Inn continental buffet, but according to 365 Atlanta Traveler Facebook fan Virginia Kyle, who has been visiting Sanibel for 20+ years, the Lighthouse Café is THE place for breakfast. To keep your wait down, call ahead for seating.
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille is uniquely Sanibel. The name is from a character in a series of mystery novels by Randy Wayne White, a local resident who you just might find sitting at the bar at any of the Doc Ford locations.
Doc Ford’s is known for the Yucatan shrimp, which are peel and eat. Enjoy the Yucatan shrimp flavor without the work by ordering the shrimp tacos. Get the black beans and rice too – it has a nice spicy kick.
Old Captiva House. After a multi-million dollar renovation, the Old Captiva House at Tween Waters Inn has a bright beachy decor and a stellar menu. Get the blackened snapper with roasted corn polenta, and a citrus butter sauce. My mouth is watering just typing this.
Fun Fact: Cartoons on the wall at Old Captiva House are by cartoonist and Sanibel naturalist J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling, the namesake of the Ding Darling Nature Preserve. Darling was the daily cartoonist for the Des Moines Register at the turn of the century.
Expert Tips from Uber Fans
We asked the 365 Atlanta Traveler community to give us their favorite things to do on Sanibel Island and Captiva, as well as over San Carlos Bay in Fort Myers. Here are some of the enthusiastic responses. Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments.
Sanibel Island and Captiva Island
Cindy Barrett Cardoso had a lot of suggestions. Gramma Dots at the Yacht Club has the best group on the island and a laid back feel. However, they close at 8 pm, so go around 6-7.
If you are too late for Gramma Dots, George and Wendy’s in the Baileys shopping place at the corner of Periwinkle and Tarpon Road. Each night has a special and the Tuesday prime rib is awesome and affordable. Bonus if you can get Torry as your waiter. Grab a 10% off coupon from Sunny Days magazine, which you can find at the visitors center.
Matzaluna is good Italian and prices are reasonable.
Blue Giraffe is also excellent. If you want to venture to Captiva, the Green Flash is excellent and pretty waterfront view.
Check out the marine wildlife excursion with Adventures in Paradise. It’s great for kids and adults. Night shark fishing with Captain Noah is very cool.
Venture to Fort Myers for a minor league baseball game. Great stadium and lots of fun. (Editors Note: Fort Myers is the spring break home of the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins)
Stacie Stermole Kershner recommends the Island Cow for great food. Her tip – plan to share or take home leftovers, portions are huge. And if there is a wait, there are outdoor games to play.
Allison Berry Phelts recommends the Mucky Duck for great sunset views and cool t-shirts.
Lori Hund Jones says to go to Lazy Flamingos where they will cook the fish you catch on your fishing trip.
Ana Finks says the locals eat at the Sanibel Grill.
Sterling Wood suggests a visit to Periwinkle Park, a popular campground on Sanibel Island where you’ll find many species of exotic and native birds, including toucans and macaws. Keep an eye out for ring-tailed lemurs too.
Things to do in Fort Myers
Stacie Stermole Kershner recommends families with small children check out Ft. Myers while you are in the area (and we definitely recommend a day at the Edison & Ford Winter Estate). The Lakes Park in Ft. Myers has a great playground, peddle cart bike, boat rentals and spray grounds. Kershner’s favorite though is the small train ride around the lake. Make sure you go when the train is running. During the holidays they have themed rides.
The nature preserve off Six Mile Cypress is a long stretch of boardwalk with is really cool.
Ft. Myers beaches don’t have the shelling of Sanibel, but are great for swimming and playing in the sand.
At Bowditch Park you’ll find giant gopher tortoises who like to eat lettuce.
The Shell Factory in North Ft Myers is a not to be missed experience and they have the ultimate souvenir store.
If you are in the area on Friday or Saturday, be sure to stop in at the giant Fort Myers Flea Market.
In nearby Naples, Kershner recommends the Naples Zoo where you can get really close to the animals, as well as the Naples Children’s Museum, which is fantastic and geared toward children under 8 years-old.
April Ashlock raved about the cheesy bread appetizer served at several Sanibel restaurants. This is a brushchetta-pizza-ish concoction that is one-of-a-kind and impossible to make at home. Although you can get this at several area restaurants, April swears the best cheesy bread is at the Pierside Grill on the beach in Ft. Myers.
Ana Finks shared the best seafood in Ft. Myers is Pier One (although there isn’t much ambience.)
Tammi Marhefky and Charles McCool recommend Smokin Oyster Brewery in Fort Myers advising to get the grouper (I’m assuming in addition to oysters)
Michelle Lea Smith says her favorite attractions near Fort Myers Beach Florida include Lovers Key State Park. Before you go – nosh at Tiki Hut BBQ or Yo Taco!
Jane Wilgus also recommends lunch at Parrot Key Caribbean Grill before heading to Matanza Pass Preserve on Fort Myers Beach.