Each year Darren and I are lucky enough to visit Sanibel and Captiva Islands located in Southwest Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. His parents are snow birds, living on Sanibel for 6 months out of the year. What a dream, right?
The first time I went to Sanibel, Darren was excited to show me all of his favorite spots around the island. This included a resort hot tub that we would have to sneak into since his family were no longer residents. After years of sneaking in, we eventually got thrown out... resort will not be named.
After visiting this Sanibel Island over the past 7 years, I can truly say that it never gets old. Maybe it’s the constant sunshine, lush tropical plants, beautiful beaches or winding bike paths that line every road. I’ve included some of my favorite things to do on Sanibel and Captiva to inspire you to take a trip of your own.
Biking, Fishing + Kayaking
Biking is at the top of my list when it comes to favorite things to do on Sanibel island. This is the absolute best way to do some sight seeing, from visiting beaches without public parking spaces to biking through the various nature trails and preserves. Bike paths are well established alongside nearly every road on Sanibel, so it’s easy to get around. There are many paths to explore, including a few “off road” trails within nature preserves.
Tarpon Bay Explorers is a great place to start if you’re looking for a kayaking or fishing experience. Darren and I have rented kayaks to explore Tarpon Bay on our own, but there are guided tours as well.
Fishing charters are a great option for those who would like to fish in the bay but don’t have a boat or any gear. We once went on a charter with Tarpon Bay Explorers and I caught fish after fish during the short time we were out there! At the end of your charter, they will clean and filet your catch to take home and cook for dinner.
The charter really piqued my interest in fishing. This year, we attempted to fish again from the dock of Darren’s parents house and all we caught were some feisty blue crabs!
Kayaking around in the canals is another option, as it’s a great way to see dolphins. Sometimes we head into the ocean via the canals, although we aren’t super skilled in dealing with a strong current!
What to Eat
After you’ve worked up an appetite kayaking or biking around, it’s time to check out the local fare. There are so many options when it comes to restaurants, so I’ve only named a few of our long time (and new!) favorites.
Our go to spot for lunch is Gramma Dot's, where we always get the fresh Grouper salad or sandwich. I love the beautiful setting, a seaside saloon on the marina.
At The Paper Fig, everything is made in house. You can order at the counter and take your lunch to go, or eat at the high top tables right outside. Their salads are simple, yet tasty. Darren always gets the D.Y. Sandwich, which is a must try- it’s ridiculously delicious. You can also purchase ready to bake or heat items from their freezer section. The cheese puffs are like heaven in your mouth, but probably do nothing good for your waistline. For a sweet treat, I picked up a no-bake monster cookie, made with peanut butter, oats, dark chocolate chips and chocolate candies. It was so good I went back and got a second a few days later.
Our go to healthy spot is the Sanibel Sprout. The Sprout is a vegan cafe with gluten free options. I love their salads, black bean burger, fresh squeezed juices and truffles made from wholesome ingredients such as nuts and dates. If you’re feeling under the weather, pick up a ginger lemon honey turmeric shot!
My favorite fine dining restaurant is The Mad Hatter. The goat cheese pillows are fantastic, as well as the watermelon and feta salad, crab cakes and the Gulf Snapper with stewed potatoes, cherry tomatoes, littleneck clams and marinated artichokes.
Everyone seems to love Pinocchio’s Ice Cream. I never eat that much ice cream but their Cookies and Cream ice cream is so so so good!
A few other favorites are The Lazy Flamingo, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar, Bleu Rendez-vous Bistro, Il Cielo, Traders or T2 Traders. On Captiva Island, Darren and I enjoyed late night fare at Key Lime Bistro. The Bubble Room is a long standing restaurant on Captiva with lots of quirky decor.
Farmer’s Market + Grocery
Although there are many delicious places to eat on the island, we love to make use of the widely accessible fresh produce and seafood. We love shopping at the farmers markets on the Islands where you can always get the freshest fruit, vegetables, even fish at a great price. Catch the Sanibel Farmer’s Market on Sundays and the Captiva Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays.
The local grocery stores we frequent are Bailey’s and Jerry’s, head to Traders Restaurant and fish market for fish caught that day.
We love cooking so we typically end up mostly preparing our own meals and going out just a few times!
Birds are big on Sanibel. If you are a birder, check out the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. There are over 245 species of birds that call the refuge home. Countless mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians and more can be sighted at the refuge. Take an informational tour by tram, drive your own vehicle or ride through the refuge on a bike (my preference!). Many other activities can be viewed here.
Sanibel Island has been named “the shell capital of the world”. The unique shape of the island acts as a scoop to catch the 250 species of shells on the shore. If you’re looking to find the best preserved shells, head out at low tide when the shells have been churned up onto the beach. If you want to further your knowledge base and learn more about the history of shells, visit the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.
There are occasionally shell exhibitions on the island. Here you can view intact specimens, some almost perfectly preserved. Also, works of art made mostly or completely of shells are on display- you wouldn’t believe the detail and creativity in these works!
The Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife, or C.R.O.W., is a hospital and visitor education center dedicated to saving wildlife. This is a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but haven’t yet had a chance! They care for a variety of wildlife including turtles, birds, otters, raccoons, snakes and more. You can current and past patients through their website.
Simply walking along the beach is one of the best ways to experience the wildlife on island!
Sunrise and Sunsets
This is a given just about anywhere I go. I love watching the sun bathe a landscape in beautiful light, welcoming a new day. One visit during February may have been the most magical. We stayed a night on Captiva Island and had convenient access to either side of the island within a few minute walk, so you can imagine I was there to catch the sunrise and sunset.
I know a lot of people say that sunsets and sunrises are cheesy, but I’ll never tire of them. There is something calming about waking early to the sun slowly coming up or going down. The sky is ever changing and will never look the same, which is a reason to see as many as you can.
As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, the hoards of sunset watchers retreat for the evening. It is quite a bewilderment to me that most people don’t get to see the best part of the sunset (I think it can happen long after the sun has disappeared), and more so that they never come back out to witness the amazing night time views!
Last August, I saw star trails that stretched the length of the horizon. I yelled out "Darren look, a shooting star!" and he had time to watch the same star for 3 more seconds.
I recommend visiting the islands during peak meteor showers and when there is a new moon. You’ll have a greater chance to see the milky way and lots of shooting stars.
When to go?
Winter vs Summer
We typically end up visiting Sanibel twice a year, once to visit Darren's parents in the winter and once in August to celebrate our August birthdays. Flights are very affordable to Fort Myers from Cincinnati through Frontier Airlines or Allegiant, ranging from $150 to under $100 for a roundtrip ticket. A short drive from the airport and you're on the island.
Winter is the best time for cooler temps, less insects and fewer rainstorms- but you’ll be dealing with lots of crowds. Summer is always a risk with hurricane season, but the trade off is much less traffic and crowds. Some summers the island felt like a ghost town, and for good reason. During hurricane season, you never know what could blow in.
The bugs are much more prominent in the summer and of course there is red tide. Red Tide is a harmful algal bloom, documented since the 1800s, which produces a potent neurotoxin that can kill fish and other marine organisms. The beautiful blue green ocean turns a murky shade of reddish brown, hence the name. It can also affect humans by inducing cold or allergy symptoms. I've noticed a cough, itchy eyes and nose while on a red tide affected beach, but the symptoms seem to disappear when away from the beach. The severity of the symptoms can vary depending how concentrated the neurotoxin is or the sensitivity of the individual.
Red tide was in full effect summer of 2018. Tickets had been purchased for August a few months prior and there was consideration in canceling our flights, but we knew that we would still be able to bike, eat delicious seafood and at least get to experience for ourselves how bad it really was. Thoughts are that the red tide of summer 2018 was exacerbated by release of Lake Okeechobee, which is full of blue-green toxic algae potentially formed from pollution and runoff. Sadly the result was a massive fish kill of almost every variety, 250 pound tarpon and grouper, sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, a 21 foot whale shark and many more.
You can read more about red tide here.
We still made the most of our trip and per usual caught the sunset almost every evening!
I’m always finding something new to do on the island each time I visit. I hope to keep building on this post with many new adventures.
I hope I’ve inspired you to visit the islands! If you have any comments, questions or input, please leave a comment below!
A Side Note For the Camera Enthusiast
Just before the trip in 2018, I picked up a new camera, the Fujifilm X-T2. I had only shot with it for about a week, but had great first impressions of the camera especially for its color rendering. The 18-55mm kit lens is also much better than any kit lens I've used in the past. The 2.8 aperture is beautiful, although I wish it were a fixed 2.8 vs 2.8-4, but the ability to zoom is a much needed upgrade. I had been casually shooting with the Fujifilm x100t which I love dearly but wanted to experiment more with a variety of zoom, depth and wide angle options. I also picked up the 10-24mm wide angle lens for landscape shooting, very happy with that lens so far as well.