By Kai Rambow
For a small island, Sanibel has an impressive range of things to do and see. Those who’ve loved the island over the decades, have preserved its nature and prevented it from becoming a forest of high rises.
Long before air conditioning, mosquito control and a causeway, people regularly vacationed in Sanibel. The Island Inn has hosted visitors for 120 years. Historic, laid back and fully modernized, it has evolved because shareholders, some of whom are fifth generation, have worked to keep the original appeal.
Shelling is a major activity here, and one of the original owners of the Island Inn started the annual shell fair. Descendants donated the land for the National Shell Museum. This long time connection gives guests access to special shelling tours on the beach in front of the resort.
The Beach is Beaten Again
One third of the island is a sanctuary. The J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge showcases natural Florida.
Exploring the mangrove forest at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Refuge.
Tarpon Bay Explorers does a fabulous job of bringing all of this to life. There are several recommended options. For the adventurous, a guided kayak tour through the mangrove will let you get up closer than any other way. You need to be in good health with a good level of fitness.
There are two advantages: First, you’ll know what you’re looking at. Second, with a group, more eyes to spot wildlife. Someone spotted the osprey in the tree, and another person spotted a little blue heron almost invisible in the shade.
Another option is a guided tour on a large, covered pontoon boat. This goes out into Tarpon Bay with opportunities to spot dolphins, manatees and rays.
The final suggestion is a tram tour. The guide will point out aspects you would normally miss, with explanations on the importance of mangrove forests and how they work. Everything I did with them was worthwhile.
Other First-Class Activities
Sanibel has the Goldilocks gift. Everything I visited had displays that were beautifully designed with just the right amount of information.
The Education Center at Ding Darling has beautiful wildlife displays, as well as artwork, photography and children’s contributions.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum was a delightful surprise. There are shells from around the world, examples of shell Valentines from sailors and an astounding piece of artwork, a bouquet of flowers made entirely from shells.
Dr. Jose Leal, Curator of the Shell Museum, introducing us to shells.
CROW (Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife) has a wonderfully informative set up explaining how wild animals are rescued. Big Cat Rescue, here in Tampa, is currently helping CROW rehabilitate two bobcats.
A very popular activity is biking. There are over 24 miles of lovely, dedicated bike paths. Billy’s Bike Rentals offers 14 different types of bikes including recumbents and trikes. The rates are reasonable and even better the longer you rent.
It is rare to encounter this type of consistency from place to place. All are worth visiting.
Tips for a Great Trip
When to Go: Fall is a great time to go. Fewer visitors, better rates and ability to travel the island. It can take 90 minutes to cross the causeway during winter.
Driving: It’s an easy two-hour drive. If you’ve booked a place with a fridge, stop at the Publix (20321 Summerlin Rd., Ft. Myers) before crossing the causeway. There is a $6 toll charge or use Sunpass.
Upon reaching the island there is a Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center. Worth a stop to get a map of the island and activities.
Where to Stay: Opt for a place on a beach; public beach access is not easy. Two beaches had fewer than 12 parking spots. Bowman’s Beach has good parking, changing areas, restrooms and showers. However, the parking meters would not take credit cards, so take cash as a backup.
Getting Something to Eat: Locals shop for food off island. Take your cooler/cooler bags, especially if you’re staying at a place with a fridge and/or kitchen.
Local tip: Bailey’s General store has inexpensive hot lunches for about $7. It’s not great, but is quite good. Desserts are even better.
Doc Ford’s based on author Randy Wayne White’s character is a laid back atmosphere with a very good seafood menu.
The Bubble Room and Mucky Duck on neighboring Captiva were a bust. I drove around four times and could not find a parking spot – and this wasn’t even the busy season.
Chamber of Commerce Visitor Web Site:
Island Inn: (239) 472-1561
Tarpon Bay Explorers: (239) 472-8900
Special thanks: Jayne Kirse, Manager at Travelworld (across from Bank of America) provided invaluable research assistance.
Cover Photo: Watching the sunset from the deck at the Island Inn.
S3: An osprey silently watching us float by.
S4: A little blue heron hiding in the shade.
S5: A woodpecker not caring who hears it.
S6: Beautiful displays at the National Shell Museum.
S8: Better move quickly to get the pretty shell.
S9: The hospitality and fun begins at the visitor center.