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Visitors to Sanibel Island, and its northern sister Captiva Island, usually arrive with a plan to get away from the crowds and noise of the usual beach destinations in Florida. Sanibel is geared to outdoor activity with miles of bike trails, kayaking, fishing, canoeing, conservation lands, walks and hiking paths and miles of the best shelling beaches in North America. No high rises, no chain restaurants - except a Dairy Queen that's been there forever - no fast food places and no stop lights.
J. N. 'Ding' Darling Wildlife Refuge takes up about 40% of the island on the bayside, stretching from Tarpon Bay Road on north to Wulfret Rd. This refuge is one of a very few in the USopen to the public and is best seen for the first time by taking a tour with a naturalist through Tarpon Bay Explorers. You’ll learn about mangrove estuaries and they spot and identify birds as fast as they see them. On the North American Flyway and winter home and breeding grounds for a number of birds, Ding Darling is a birders paradise. It is also home to about 300 alligators and usually one very endangered North American crocodile, two species that rarely live in the same area. You can take guided kayak tours or rent kayaks and do it yourself on the marked trail trough the mangroves of the refuge. Kayaking also takes you into San Carlos Bay, home to a very large dolphin population. Additional conservation lands are under Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation and have boardwalks into environments that represent Sanibel as it used to be.
Even the best vacation spot gets bad weather and those rainy days – or really hot summer afternoons – can be spent at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (fee). The late Dr. R. Tucker Abbott, formerly of the Smithsonian, helped setup the museum. It takes in the whole world of shells and the unique place that Sanibel is for the shell collector. It is entertaining and educational – and there are even Sailor’s Valentines to demonstrate how long shell art has been a part of common culture.
For shopping, the main centers are off Periwinkle Way starting with the largest, Periwinkle Place, a collection of small shops selling clothing, art, crafts, jewelry and food and Tahitian Gardens a smaller group of shops, Evergreen shops, Jerry’s, Treetops, The Village and others. Stop at the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, second building on the right as you enter Sanibel from the causeway, and get all the free guides and coupons. Most shops close early, so check the hours, especially in summer months. On Captiva, Andy Rosse Lane and Captiva Village hosts a number of shops and art galleries.
Fishing is popular. Snook and tarpon are main sport fish. A big tarpon tournament is held every July, so the guides book out early then at premium rates. Local Sanibel fishing guide, Captain Noah, grew up on Sanibel and is available for private fishing year round. If you are looking for easy, family -style fishing in the backwaters there are daily trips that provide affordable fishing with everything you need to fish. See www.sanibel-captiva.org for links to guides or call for contact information. Jensen’s, McCarthy’s and Tween Waters on Captiva and Sanibel Marina on Sanibel are home to quite a few local fishing and shelling guides. The Bait Box is the local clearing house for what’s biting where and on what kind of bait. The pier is really popular for fishing as are the little islands along the causeway, and surf fishing near the Sanibel Lighthouse and Blind Pass. By the way, Florida Sportsman magazine has designated Pine Island Sound, the body of water on Sanibel & Captiva's bay side, as one of the finest fishing grounds in the State.
Sanibel Sea School is located at 414 Lagoon Drive 230.472.8585 and is dedicated to teaching children (ages 6 to13) and adults about marine ecosystems in a unique day-class setting. Classes per day are limited to just 12 students, a lead educator guide, plus one or more assistants.Everyday is divided into two sessions, with each session focused on a specific subject and highlighted by a trip into the field. After arriving for the morning session students are introduced to the day's first subject and then transported to the field to do some serious poking around. Then it's back to the school on the Sanibel Sea School bus for a look at the specimens, followed by an arts and crafts session centered on the subject. Different curricula tailored for Adults and children, over 25 different sessions dealing with specific areas of interest. The school promotes marine conservation and the importance to understand and protect the planet's oceans and ecosystems through education.
The Sealife Encounter Excursion has taught children visiting Sanibel and Captiva the wonders below the water for the past 20 years. The trip is an exploration of the waters and sealife surrounding Sanibel and Captiva. The interactive trip is a learning experience with hands on netting, aquariums on board a comfortable 40 foot powered catamaran. Trips depart daily. The trolley will transport guests from their hotel or condo to the boat.
There is a live theater playhouse on Sanibel, the Sanibel Schoolhouse Theatre, across from the Sanibel Community Association building and shortly before Palm Ridge branches off to San-Cap Road. Lately, they have tended to specialize in light fare such as musical reviews, as is suitable for a get-away destination.
Another center for entertainment, some of it world-class, is BIG Arts. BIG stands for Barrier island Group. This is a local art support group that imports speakers, musicians and other entertainers - some BIG names - for one-night stands. They also stage a film festival featuring older or foreign films that are not generally available for viewing elsewhere. Note: They are most active in season and usually dormant in the summer/fall.
The commercial movie theater is in Bailey’s shopping plaza on Tarpon Bay Road. Live entertainment is available most often in the winter, but some locations are year round on weekends. Ellington’s at the Sanibel Inn, does jazz, you’ll get island sounds at Key Lime Bistro, RC Otter’s and The Mucky Duck on Captiva. Mostly you should bring a good book for your evening entertainment. Folks go to bed early and get up early to get out and start shelling often before dawn.
Another major opportunity, if you are celestially inclined, is star-gazing. The City of Sanibel has a dark skies policy so that there is minimal ambient light. Being off shore, with a beach that is oriented to the Gulf, the island has heavenly night sky views. You may well wonder where all those stars came from, or where they were hiding when you were home.
If you are a golfer, there are three-and-half golf courses on Sanibel and Captiva. Two are public. Beachview, with an entrance off of Middle Gulf Drive, and the Dunes, accessed from Bailey Road and via a residential street into that community. Beachview is interesting but not terribly challenging. Dunes is a very watery course. While greens fees are on the high side, you'll probably spend more on lost balls. BTW, watch for alligators when on the course. They like golf balls. They like golfers even more. The other Sanibel course is the Sanctuary. It is super-exclusive and swank. You will not be able to play without an invitation from a member. If you get one, jump at it. It is a very unique golf experience. The half course referred to above is a nine-holer at South Seas. You must be a guest at South Seas, having booked through the resort, to play this course.
The Out Islands
From Sanibel or Captiva you can get to Useppa and Cabbage Key, Cayo Costa – a state park, North Captiva and Boca Grande. Water taxies will take you up for lunch or dinner at Barnacle Phil’s, The Coiller Inn, Dollar Bar – where legend has it Jimmy Buffett, a dedicated yachtie, wrote about their cheeseburgers. Cayo Costa, a protected barrier island, has pristine beaches with terrific shelling, especially after storms. No facilities. The water along here is clear enough for snorkeling, but there’s little to see besides bait fish, the occasional ray and buried shells. Adventures in Paradise has a Shelling the Outer Islands cruise that stops at Barnacle Phil's for lunch.