It’s not much of a secret, one of our favorite places in the United States is Southwest Florida. We’ve been visiting the Fort Myers area since late 2015 and with each trip, we find new places to enjoy. This year we traveled back to the beautiful beaches of Sanibel Island, which we consider our own little paradise.
When we booked our trip, international travel still required a negative COVID test to return to the US, so we decided that this was the year to finally try out something we’ve been wanting to do for ages – two weeks at the beach. You know how it is when you take a beach vacation – you pack for a week, you spend a day unloading and shopping for groceries once you arrive, and then you blink – and it’s all over. A week at the ocean just flies by!
We’re now back in Ohio with sun-kissed skin and I’m ready to share everything that we did on Sanibel Island in two weeks. Not going to lie, we spent a ton of time at the beach and the pool and made sure to enjoy the balmy May sunshine, but we also visited some new-to-us-destinations and some old favorites. Sanibel Island, Florida is a nature lovers’ paradise and there is something to do for just about anyone. Here are a few of our favorite things, compiled from more than just this past trip.
Facts about Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island is a barrier island off the coast of Fort Myers, Florida. Located on the crystal clear Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel is 12 miles long and 3 miles wide in the widest spot. The island is accessed via a 3-mile causeway bridge. If you’re considering visiting Sanibel Island for the first time, make sure you check out my first-timers guide to visiting Sanibel. To reach Sanibel by air, the most convenient airport is RSW, but the airport at Punta Gorda is also an option.
Things to do on Sanibel Island
Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
I can’t think of a better place for a National Shell Museum than Sanibel Island – known for its “Sanibel Stoop” because of the abundance of seashells. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum has two floors full of educational exhibits. The downstairs of the museum is dedicated to living shells. There is even a touch tank with different snails and a large tank with a giant Pacific octopus (no touching Mr. Octopus though).
The upstairs is devoted to the history of seashells, how they grow, and how they’ve been used throughout the world. We enjoyed the sections on the shells in SW Florida that we have found on the beaches!
The National Shell Museum is located at 3075 Sanibel Captiva Rd, Sanibel, FL 33957.
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is one of the most popular things to do on Sanibel Island, and for reason. This area is known for its migratory bird population, but visitors to the park may also spot alligators, lizards, crabs, snakes, and manatees.
The wildlife refuge was created on Sanibel Island in 1945 by President Harry Truman, and two years later was named J.N. “Ding” Darling after Prize-winning political cartoonist Jay Norwood Darling, who signed his name, “Ding.” Ding was a pioneering conservationist.
The J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge offers a visitor center and a driving tour. The Visitor Center is a great way to learn more about the mangrove ecosystem and wildlife that enjoy that habitat before heading out on the driving tour. And, oddly enough, make sure you visit the bathrooms before you leave – they were voted “America’s Best Restrooms” in 2018.
The J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is located at 1 Wildlife Dr, Sanibel.
For more places to view wildlife in SW Florida- check out this post.
Rent a jetski
One of the best things about visiting Southwest Florida is getting out on the water. Renting a jet ski is a fun way to experience the gorgeous Sanibel-Captiva coastline. My husband rented a kayak from Captiva Watersports, which is located at the Tween Waters Resort. He was happy with the service and experience!
If you’re looking for more of a slow experience, Tarpon Bay Explorers is the outfitter for the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge and they offer kayak rentals as well as pontoons.
Get a famous key lime pie from Jerry’s Foods of Sanibel
Jerry’s is a local grocery store that greets you with a tropical bird collection! It’s a popular spot for locals and tourists to purchase their favorite baked goods and craft beers. We adore Jerry’s famous key lime pie and may have eaten 3 of them during our two weeks on Sanibel Island (ooopss). Make sure you stop in and try one for yourself! Jerry’s is located at 1700 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel.
Find dolphins on a sail with Adventures in Paradise
While the boys chose the adrenaline-pumping ride on a jetski, C and I decided that a sunset sail looking for dolphins was probably more our jam. We chose a sunset sail with Adventures in Paradise because of the price and the location just across the causeway bridge.
Our sail included 90-minutes of gawking at luxury homes, watching pods of dolphins, and learning more about the native marine life. It was nice to have a naturalist on board to tell us more about the dolphins and very educational for our daughter (and myself)!
Visit the Sanibel Island Farmer’s Market
Sanibel’s Farmer’s Market is the place to find everything from fresh produce to beautiful flowers to seafood and key lime pie. My mom and I even had our first experience drinking coconut milk from the coconut! My absolute favorite stops were the French bakeries – yes, my love language is carbs.
The Sanibel Farmer’s Market only happens on Sundays from October to May from 8 am- 1 pm. The address for the market is 800 Dunlop Rd, Sanibel, but there are plenty of signs on Periwinkle Way with directions.
Take a beach walk at Bowman’s Beach
Bowman’s Beach was voted one of the best beaches in the world and it’s not hard to see why! This public beach has plenty of amenities, too -plentiful parking, clean restrooms, and a nice playground for kids. The only negative to visiting Bowman’s Beach is the $5/hour parking fee.
Bowman’s Beach has powdery white sand and on most clear days – emerald green water. It is a swimmer’s paradise. Bowman’s Beach is located towards the west end of the island, approximately 8.5 miles from the Causeway Bridge.
Drive over to Captiva Island
Captiva Island has a different feel to it than Sanibel, you have to visit to see what I mean. Make the short drive to swoon at the unbelievable mansions, watch beach-goers while dining at the Mucky Duck, or have lunch at the Instagram-worthy Bubble Room. Captiva Island has a different vibe than Sanibel, it seems Bohemium, but refined. If you’re already visiting JN Ding Darling or staying at that end of the island, it’s an easy drive.
Turner Beach is also a popular spot for fishermen, sunbathers, and sunset pictures. Turner Beach is a public beach located right next to the bridge that separates Sanibel and Captiva.
Explore the Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park
The Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park encompasses the entire east end of Sanibel Island. The idyllic area is not only home to Sanibel’s historic lighthouse, it is the place to park for public beach access, walking trails, and fishing pier access. The Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park charges $5/hour for parking.
Visitors to the lighthouse can not climb or access it in any way. It is now fully electronic and no longer has an innkeeper. Nevertheless, it’s a nice stop.
Unfortunately, we didn’t find any great shells on this visit, but we did see one manatee! This is a nice place to bring kids for a swim as it’s fairly shallow.
Watch a beautiful Sanibel Sunset
Sanibel Island and Florida’s Gulf Coast are known for their beautiful sunsets. Incredibly, there’s even a song about the Sanibel Sunset!
One of the best places to watch a sunset on Sanibel Island is Turner Beach, but we had a great view from our resort on Bowman’s Beach. The beach culture really revolves around the sunset. There may be no one on the beach an hour or so before sunset, but as the time ticks closer, couples, families, and teens make their way to the beach to enjoy the official end to another beach day!
Try the Key Lime custard at Joey’s Custard
Have a mentioned that I have a slight obsession with key lime? Joey’s Ice Cream is one of the best places for ice cream on Sanibel Island! This cozy ice cream shop, located in Bailey’s shopping center, is the perfect place to spend an hour with your crew! Find a new ice cream flavor (yes, they have more than key lime), play a game of chess, and take a few photos for Instagram with their ice-cream-themed props. I appreciated the Christian music that was playing in the store – it’s rare to find these days!
We used a Groupon for Joey’s Custard – check Groupon for deals!
Look for seashells at one of Sanibel’s public beaches
There’s a reason why Sanibel is known for its Sanibel Stoop! Yes, before we all had a kink in our neck from looking at smartphones, travelers to Sanibel came home with a sore neck from looking down at the shells.
There are numerous types of shells to find on Sanibel, including sand dollars and whelk. Our favorites are the Florida Fighting Conchs. Make sure you take a Sanibel shell guide along with you, as it’s really fun to see all the different species on the island.
Try a Key Lime Colada at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar is synonymous with Sanibel and Captiva. You must stop in for dinner or a drink. On this trip, I visited specifically to try their Key Lime Colada because it looked soooo good. I was not disappointed! I couldn’t drink more than one because it’s like drinking a piece of key lime pie, but the taste was worth the calories! Ha!
Have a picnic on the Causeway
The Causeway is one of my favorite spots on Sanibel Island. The views just never get old. There are a few picnic tables that make the most idyllic spot for lunch or dinner. It’s also FREE to park at the Causeway, and it doesn’t cost a bridge toll if you’re already on the island because you won’t go past the toll station.
Where to stay on Sanibel Island
On this trip, we stayed at the Blind Pass Condo – A102 (see listing on VRBO) on the west end of the island. In the past, we stayed at the Loggerhead Cay condos, which are much closer to the bridge. Both were 2-bedroom condos. We liked the Blind Pass Condo for its affordability, large pool, and layout of the condo. We liked Loggerhead Cay for its location and a shorter walk to the beach! I think in the future we will probably return to Blind Pass condos, but I would definitely recommend getting a ground-floor condo. The layout of Blind Pass Condos makes having a second-floor condo inconvenient because of the walk from the parking areas.
Blind Pass condos also offer tennis courts & pickleball, a designated parking spot, and a large grilling area. Renters who book directly with Blind Pass are able to use kayaks on the bayou for free! Another feature of the Blind Pass Condos is the ability to walk to the Bowman’s Beach access, which was nice. One morning I took the girls over to play on the playground at Bowman’s Beach.
Before visiting Sanibel Island
Before you go, you’ll want to get acclimated to Sanibel by reading my first-timers guide to Sanibel Island. Don’t forget also to check out my ultimate Florida packing list, for tips on things you’ll want to remember to have with you in the Sunshine State.
Spending more time in the area? I also have guides to the best places to view wildlife in SW Florida (yes, you can make a day trip of the Everglades from Sanibel). And beyond the best things to do on Sanibel Island, check out my family vacation guide to Fort Myers, Florida. Want to check out some more beaches in southwest Florida? Here is my guide to the best SW Florida beaches for families.
The best thing to do on Sanibel Island – family time
I’ve given you plenty of Sanibel Island attractions to consider when visiting the island. I tried to give you some of the Sanibel Island things to do that we enjoyed the most! What I didn’t include is leaving plenty of time to just relax and enjoy the island as a family.
Honestly, one of my favorite memories was snorkeling with my kids. We purchased a cheap snorkel at the grocery store (I wish I would have purchased this one) and spent time with our kids looking for shells and fish! We saw live clams and conchs as well as sheepshead and snook. It was so relaxing and I think just having that time together in the water was such a bonding experience for everyone!
Please don’t ever think that a list of attractions is more important than quality time! That is why we will probably keep returning to Sanibel Island and Southwest Florida – the amazing weather and miles of sandy beaches make it the happiest place for the entire family. (Ends sermon, steps off the podium ;)).
Have you been to Sanibel? What things do you like to do on the island? Leave me a note in the comments.
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