Sanibel Island is a beautiful barrier island off the western coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.
The island is 12 miles long with approximately 15 miles of beaches and 22 miles of bike paths. It is surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the San Carlos Bay on the other as well as the Sanibel River and Tarpon Bay.
Being one of Florida’s few barrier islands boasting a freshwater river, it is a premiere oasis where travelers worldwide come to bask in the sun and enjoy the abundant wildlife, luscious plants and some of the best shelling anywhere.
Let’s see what makes Sanibel Island so special.
The original inhabitants of the island were the Calusa Indians. They were a dominant Indian nation in the southwest region of Florida.
There is more than one theory regarding the origin of the name. The most prominent one states the island was named by Ponce de Leon for Queen Isabella (who was named after ‘Saint Yble’).
The Sanibel Island Lighthouse was built in 1884 and the island community remained quite small for a very long time.
In 1963 a causeway was constructed to connect the island to the mainland. This created a burst of excitement and growth on the island. The locals were worried about it becoming overrun with strangers, so the city passed development restrictions in 1974 to keep it quaint and comfortable.
No building is over two stories tall and the only fast food restaurants on the island is a Dairy Queen and a Subway. These were already established prior to the restrictions.
A new, larger causeway was built in 2007 to handle more tourist traffic and larger vehicles bringing in supplies. There is a $6 round trip toll to drive the causeway, but visitors planning an extended stay can purchase a transponder to save money.
Over half of the island is wildlife nature preserve including rare subtropical plants, along with tidal and freshwater wetlands.
In 2010 it was named as one of the 10 Best Places for Second Homes by The Wall Street Journal.
One of the most popular attractions when visiting Sanibel Island is the seashells. It ranks #1 on the continent for their variety and abundance.
The island boasts the only museum in the world dedicated solely to studying shells; the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum.
There is even a phrase to describe those who spend a great amount of time looking for shells along the beach. It is called the “Sanibel Stoop”.
Sanibel Island is situated in an east-to-west layout versus the north-to-south of most islands. This, along with the plateau underwater that goes out for miles into the gulf creates the perfect smorgasbord of shells.
Sanibel Island is the native home to over 200 species of birds, including several bald eagles. It is very common to see egrets, pelicans, herons, sandpipers, and terns all on the beaches, flying over the causeway and in the reserve.
The bird population is so vast because the mix of salt and fresh water make an excellent breeding ground.
Bird watchers from all over the world come to the island to enjoy and photograph their grace and beauty. Rare species such as the black-whiskered vireo and mangrove cuckoo delight even seasoned bird watchers.
There are also unusual birds like the pretty-in-pink roseate spoonbills, white pelicans, and wood storks. The island is noted as a top spot for bird education and watching.
Over half of the island is dedicated to wildlife refuges that are protected through government and private funding.
Sanibel is home to a large population of American alligators, loggerhead turtles, and iguanas.
The largest refuge is the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It is over 5000 acres and provides a safe home for native and migratory wildlife and they also protect threatened and endangered species.
While visiting the refuge, you can bike, walk, drive, or even kayak throughout the area. In addition to the alligators and turtles, you will also run across bobcats and river otters.
Please be respectful of the animals in their natural habitat. Do not approach a wild animal and always clean up after yourself to leave the area clean and safe for the wildlife and the birds.
It is nearly impossible to stay anywhere on the island without an amazing view and everywhere is within walking distance to the beach.
No building is over two stories tall so there is nothing to obstruct the beautiful views from all sides.
Whether you want to stay at an all-star resort, a quaint cottage or beachfront hotel, there is something for everyone.
Check out this guide for some of the best places to stay on the island.
What To Do On Sanibel Island
The possibilities are almost endless when it comes to both relaxing and adventurous activities.
For a day on the water, you can rent a paddleboard or kayak. You can explore by yourself, or get a guide who can show you hidden gems and little known spots of beauty. Be prepared for dolphin companions and ospreys who announce your arrival.
If you just want to relax on the beach, the white, sparkling sand awaits.
Please be aware that preserving the natural beauty of the landscape is very important to the people of the island. Picnic tables and restrooms are available, but not at every turn. The parks are open 24/7, but there is no overnight parking allowed.
If you brought or rented a bike, there are 23 miles of paths for exploring. Take a cycling trip and enjoy up close the pristine island landscape with breathtaking views.
You can use those same paths for a unique shopping experience and mouth-watering dining at many fine restaurants.
Take a guided tour of the island. Knowledgeable tour guides can take you to places off the beaten path to get up close and personal with the wildlife. They also provide valuable information on the history and legends of the island.
Many tour guides will stop on request for picture taking opportunities or to witness unusual sights in nature. No one gets in a hurry on this island paradise.
Part of planning a trip is calculating the expenses involved. You definitely want to get the most vacation for your money and have more left for the fun stuff. Here are a few travel hacks to help you save money.
If you want a day on the water without all the hassle, then a charter boat is the way to go. You can relax while touring around the islands in the crystal clear waters.
The charter boat captains will take you bird-watching, water-skiing, or snorkeling. If you are in a romantic mood, take a sunset cruise for breathtaking views with your love. You can also do a little bar-hopping-by-boat if that thought intrigues you.
You can charter a boat as a family or small group and make your own plan for a full day or just a half day on the water.
There are also fishing charters if you want to try your luck. Anglers of all skill levels will have a blast casting a line and enjoying the peaceful surroundings.
The Sanibel Lighthouse
The Sanibel Island Lighthouse is probably the most popular place to visit on the island. It sits at the east end of the island and takes up the entire tip.
There are restroom facilities along with spacious parking for visitors. There is a fishing pier and boasts some of the best spots for seashell hunting.
The lighthouse was completed in August of 1884 and the keeper at that time had to use kerosene oil. The stairs to the top of the lighthouse were on the outside exterior of the frame.
The light was renovated in 2013 and attracts visitors of all ages.
For more information on the lighthouse read on.
For a day trip and to explore more of the area, Captiva Island is just north of Sanibel Island and its closest neighbor. It is accessible by bridge, or of course, by boat.
The island is rich in color with bountiful blooming tropical flowers and even a few giant cactus thrown in. The whimsical town village is rich in culture and history.
All of this charm is still surrounded by some of the most beautiful gulf waters imaginable. You can’t go wrong with a visit to this island paradise.
Are You Ready
Sanibel Island is the ultimate beach experience. With her warm climate, seashells for miles, breathtaking views and abundant wildlife, there is something for everyone.
A vacation on Sanibel Island is a treat to the eyes, mind, and heart. You will leave with a greater appreciation for the exquisite beauty of the land and rare glimpses into the wilder side of its inhabitants.
Nothing says relaxing vacation like kicking back in the sand and watching the waves roll in.
After your island getaway, you may now be ready for some bright lights and non-stop excitement. For a peek at how enticing a trip to Las Vegas could be, check this out.