A barrier island sanctuary, just west of Fort Myers, Florida, Sanibel Island is blessed with long stretches of white sand beaches, picture-perfect shells, swaying palm trees, and turquoise water reaching out as far as the eye can see. Find everything you need to know here in our Sanibel Island Visitors Guide.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands were devastated by Hurricane Ian in September, 2022. The lighthouse in the photo below is still standing, but all of the surrounding buildings are gone. The causeway that links Sanibel Island to the mainland was completely destroyed. If you can help, please consider a donation to the Red Cross.
Sanibel is the ideal spot for a vacation, honeymoon, destination wedding, or just for some rest and relaxation. It’s a dreamy place where the subtropical climate brings year round sunshine, dolphins leap gracefully just off the shore, and pelicans swoop in formation against a vivid blue sky.
Visitors flock to Sanibel from all over the world to collect some of these treasures from the sea. The north-south orientation of the island allows it to catch more shells than those with east-west orientations.
Strolling along the beach is next to impossible to do in an upright position. Beachcombers are known for the bent-over position they almost inevitably assume when an attractive shell catches their eye—otherwise known as the “Sanibel Stoop.” Sand dollars are also abundant and may be collected, as long as they are not alive.
Properly cleaning shells that are collected from the beach can be accomplished by soaking them in a solution of equal parts water and bleach for eight hours, or while you sleep. Any debris can be scrubbed off with a toothbrush. Shells really shine when polished with a tiny bit of oil.
If you want to learn more, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum has more than two million shells on display, including some fossil shells that serve as a reminder that Sanibel Island was once part of the sea floor. At the museum, you can compare the shells you have collected with those on display, or learn about the animals that once called these shells home. Find out how to classify shells, and more about Sanibel’s habitat and ecosystem.
Sanibel Island has more than 20 miles of winding, paved bike paths. Since it may be difficult to bring your bike on vacation, there are many vendors that offer bike rentals. Some even rent out tandem bikes, “trikes,” and four-wheelers. Several resorts also offer complimentary bike rentals during your stay.
A Golfer’s Paradise
There are more than 70 golf courses on this small island, and each one provides its own challenge; there are more than a dozen par three courses on the island if you’re not into spending an entire day golfing. Many of the golf clubs also offer tennis, so you can round out your day with whatever sport you excel at the most.
You might want to keep a pair of binoculars with you while you play—and it’s not to find a lost ball. The wildlife on Sanibel Island tends to appear on the golf course—birds fly overhead, dolphins swim out at sea—so you never know when you might catch a glimpse of something unique.
An Eco-Lover’s Delight
If you really want to commune with nature, rent a kayak and take a nature tour through the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. You’ll learn about the coastal environment and get up close and personal with the wildlife. You may even see a dolphin or a manatee. If you paddle to the Rookery Islands, you can witness the impressive arrival of thousands of birds coming to roost for the evening. Watching the sun set over the water is a nice luxury too.
Sanibel Island is one of those places where you won’t have to spend a lot of money to bring home a coveted souvenir. The shells you can find along the beach are free, as are the memories you will make. The main question you’ll have to ask yourself is how you’re going to fit all those marvelous shells in your suitcase for the return trip.
In my opinion, the lighthouse on Sanibel is one of the prettiest “open” lighthouses in Florida. By that, I mean that it’s not enclose by brick or stone walls; you can see right through it. The lighthouse isn’t open to climb, but you can see it from the beautiful white sand beaches that surround the property.
The beach is a popular destination on Sanibel, as it takes up the entire east end of the island, so get there early in order to find parking. Or you can bicycle from your hotel or accommodation and avoid having to park at all!
Accommodations on Sanibel
Since Sanibel Island is such a popular vacation destination, there are a variety of options to choose from when it comes to accommodations. You can rent a cottage just off the beach or stay in a condo overlooking the ocean. Many locations have small canals where you can kayak, canoe, or just relax by the water.
Tips for Visiting Sanibel Island
Make sure to pack plenty of sunblock for the Florida sun, as you should for any trip to our beautiful state, even if you’re coming to Florida in the winter. But for Sanibel, and truly any location in the southwest part of the state, you’ll also want to pack bug spray. The biting insects can be really bad during certain parts of the year, especially around sunset and into the evening.
Be prepared to pay tolls to cross the bridge from Fort Myers into Sanibel, especially if you plan to do a lot of going back and forth.
Regardless of how you spend your vacation, rest assured that Sanibel Island is one of the best Florida travel destinations! Thanks for checking out this Sanibel Island Visitor’s Guide!