Sanibel Island, Fla.: Sand, Shells and Surprises

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Florida is filled with fun, bright, beachy places—but there is nowhere quite like Sanibel Island on the state’s Gulf Coast.

Sanibel Island might be small, but it packs a lot into its 17 square miles. With 15 miles of beaches teeming with seashells, a rich history involving pirates, and lanais on every dwelling, it’s as “Florida” as Florida gets.

Thousands of years ago, Sanibel Island was a single island with neighboring Captiva. It was settled by the Calusa, Native Americans whose territory included the southwest coast of Florida. 

The city of Sanibel was established in 1974, a full 10 years after the Sanibel Causeway linked the island to the mainland. Before 1963, travel to Sanibel and Captiva was typically by ferry; most of the commerce on Sanibel is on the eastern side of the island. 

The city of Sanibel was established in 1974 after the Sanibel Causeway (faintly visible at top right of this image) linked the island to the mainland.

Despite the amazing amount of development, there are no airstrips on Sanibel or Captiva Islands. There are two private fields on nearby Pine Island; in addition, Southwest Florida International (KRSW) in Fort Myers offers all major services, but only 10 percent of the flights are transient GA.

The ‘Tween Waters Inn resort on Captiva straddles the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound.

So how is a pilot going to get here? I asked someone in the know. 

Southwestern Florida’s GA scene

The “real GA airport in the area,” according to Floridian David Hipschman —who some readers will recall used to write regularly for this magazine—is Page Field (KFMY) just to the northwest of KRSW’s Class C airspace. 

Located on the mainland between the Caloosahatchee River and I-75, just a few miles south of Fort Myers proper, KFMY has been in operation since 1940. It has acted as the GA reliever airport since the early 1980s when KRSW was certified for operation.

Base Ops, the FBO on Page Field, has an excellent reputation online at sources like Airnav.com. The terminal is practically brand-new (finished in 2011) and the list of amenities offered by Base Ops is long. Normal business hours are 7 am to 11 pm.

Ramp fees are modest: just $10/night—and they’ll even waive a few nights if you make a fuel purchase. Prices as of Dec. 8, 2016 were 3.87/gal for 100LL, with $3.37/gal listed for the self-serve pump off Runway 31. 

If you happen to fly in on a Friday, you’ll find that Base Ops offers a free hot dog and soda lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for “Hot Dog Friday.” 

Hipschman also mentioned these nearby alternates: La Belle Municipal (X14) 19 nm east; Punta Gorda (KPGD) 19 nm northwest; and Immokalee Regional (KIMM) 24 nm southeast.
Ground transportation

After landing at KFMY in Fort Myers, it’s a quick trip over to Sanibel in a rental car. Vehicles can easily hop on the causeway and be on Sanibel from the mainland of Florida in a matter of minutes—if traffic is light. Round-trip fee from the Florida mainland to Sanibel and/or Captiva Islands via the causeway is six dollars.

Anyone who has ever been on Florida’s sometimes very slow-moving streets during peak times already knows to be prepared for backups; and they can occur on the three-mile long causeway—and on the island, too.

Many travelers park their vehicles at their earliest opportunity and use other modes of transportation on Sanibel; scooters and bicycles, mainly. Be alert for lots of “wanderers”—in cars, in carts, on foot and on two wheels—as well as four-legged wildlife “wanderers.”

With more than 2,000 acres of freshwater wetlands, an alligator sighting is likely. If you’re not familiar with alligator safety, make sure you review Florida state laws—feeding or harassing alligators is prohibited—and obey all posted signs.

Things to do on and around Sanibel

Bicycling

A bike, scooter or Segway rental from Billy’s is the way to go (unless you brought your bike with you!) for traversing Sanibel’s 17 miles of bike paths. At $20 a day for a multi-speed bike, and nine bucks for a boogie board, you can be having fun on the beach all day on the cheap.

Street-legal golf carts from Cart Rentals is another great way to tour the island in the open air, but this mode of transport is considerably more spendy at $150 a day. 

Shelling 

Sanibel has more than 10 miles of beach frontage on the Gulf of Mexico and shellers can expect to find cockle shells, various conch, lightning whelks, tulip shells and bivalves like coquinas shells. The white-with-brown polka dots Junonia is rare enough that finders will get their photo in The Islander, the community newspaper.

Serious shellers head to the beach in the early morning for the best selection, but in my experience, any time of day can yield some wonderful shells. 

Live shells—those that contain any inhabitant, whether it appears to be living or not—are not allowed to be collected by mandate of the State of Florida.

Fishing

Fishers of all abilities get excited about the prospect of year-round fishing in Florida. 

Fishing from the beach or pier in state waters commonly yields tarpon, snook, redfish, tarpon and sea trout. If you don’t already have your salt water and/or fresh water license, you can acquire one from one of numerous outlets on the island. Fly fishing, charter boats for offshore waters and other guided trips are also available if you’re on the hunt for that big grouper.

Before you hit the beach with your pail and scoop, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum asks you to stop in. The staff can offer you guidance on where and when to look for shells, and there is lots of programming going on at this museum.

Beaches

The Causeway Beaches are excellent for fishing. Parking is free, dogs are allowed (on leashes) and there are restrooms and picnic tables. However, no open fires or alcoholic beverages are permitted. 

On the east side of Sanibel is the Lighthouse Beach. It, too, is a popular fishing spot, with a T-shaped fishing pier. Parking fees are good for 24 hours, with no fees for bikes.

Mid-island parks include Tarpon Beach and Gulfside City Park, both excellent for swimming and picnicking. 

Our family’s favorite was Bowman’s Beach, on the “up island” segment just off Sanibel-Captiva Road. It’s less busy, breezy and just plain relaxing there.

Attractions

Sanibel and Captiva Island Visitor’s Center

Sure, you can drop by and see them on the Causeway Road, but you can likely get all of your “work” done online and by phone before your voyage. The website for the Sanibel and Captiva Island Visitor’s Center is easy to navigate and stuffed—to the gills, if I may—with useful information for incoming visitors.

Many travelers park their vehicles at their earliest opportunity and use other modes of transportation on Sanibel and Captiva Islands.

Dolphin watching

Eco tours, like the one offered by Sanibel Dolphin Tours, can be a great way for a family to experience the marine wildlife. A two-hour private tour for six passengers costs $250, and can allow for lots of great “photo ops” in addition to unforgettable memories for kids—and their parents, too.

Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge 

More than 6,000 acres of mangroves, swamps, flats and marshes—and, of course beaches—comprise the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Almost half of the refuge is a national Wilderness Area. Visitors can drive, but may also walk, bike or kayak through the refuge. Admission is a dollar each for bikers and walkers, and five dollars per vehicle.

Something to take note of is that the popular five-mile driving route, Wildlife Drive, is closed on Fridays to allow the native species—over 245 species of birds call the Refuge home—much-needed solace.  

Kayaking through the mangroves is incredible, and I highly recommend it, even if paddling isn’t your thing. (It’s not mine, either.) I was a bit hesitant to be out in the big wide open Gulf of Mexico (okay, really the Tarpon Bay, but it’s still the great sea!) until we settled into the smaller waters of the Commodore Creek. 

Then, instead of feeling miniscule and adrift out in the bay, you’re kayaking underneath a canopy of mangroves along a gorgeous dappled route, with shore birds above and all around, with their piercing eyes, spindly legs and grand wings; jumbled roots lining both sides of the water and Spanish moss close enough to brush you on the shoulders. 

Snowy egrets (below) and manatees (right) are two common sights in and around southwestern Florida.
Other noteworthy spots

The lighthouse

On the far eastern edge of Sanibel sits the Sanibel Lighthouse. Its real name, Hipschman explained to me, is Point Ybel Light, and it was named for the sandy point of dangerous shoal water it marks. 

The lighthouse is the island’s oldest structure and was first lit in 1885. Point Ybel Light was restored in 2013, and is not open to the public—but the beach is.

Grocery stores (yes, really!)

Jerry’s Foods has a few locations: Edina, Eden Prairie and Woodbury, Minn.—and Sanibel, Fla. (I think I know which location I’d prefer to be stationed at in January.) Prices at Jerry’s may be higher than average, but the convenience of not having to go the mainland when you’re on Island Time cannot be quantified. Plus, Jerry’s is the only grocery store I’ve ever been that has a live parrot as its greeter.

Meanwhile, Bailey’s General Store is a tourist attraction in its own right that regularly gets top marks in visitors’ reviews on the web. With a bakery, deli, coffee shop, hot prepared foods, books, a hardware store, and a full supermarket as well, Hipschman told me that Bailey’s is reason enough for him to visit Sanibel.

National Shell Museum 

Before you hit the beach with your pail and scoop, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum asks you to stop in; they’re open every day from 10 am to 5 pm. 

Its collections rival the Smithsonian, and the staff can offer guidance on where and when to look for shells. There is lots of programming going on, including beach walks guided by the marine biologists who work at the museum. 

Fees are modest at $13 for adults, $9 for kids ages 12 to 17; $6 for kids ages five to 11; and free for those ages four and younger.

Shopping

Shopping is abundant on Sanibel, with gift shops, galleries, boutiques and more tucked in between the greenspaces. You’ll be able to get any souvenirs and mementos you need. But the real treasures are to be found in the sights and sounds on the beaches and shoreline.

After I returned home I discovered that Anne Morrow Lindbergh was so inspired by Sanibel and Captiva that she wrote a series of essays that became “Gift from the Sea.” The book was published in 1955.

Restaurants

You’ll find some good variety for dining choices. The Sanibel Café is a popular family restaurant that offers American fare and seafood, and The Island Cow has a similar family-casual ambiance along with outdoor dining. 

The Green Flash Restaurant has gourmet food and waterfront seating, and is located on Captiva. The Bubble Room Restaurant, also on Captiva, offers diners a fun atmosphere with eclectic décor and cleverly named entrees (“Anything Grows,” “Errol Fin”).

Newer restaurants on Sanibel include Sweet Melissa’s, which has dishes made from locally-sourced items, and Sanibel Sprout offers visitors an organic and vegan menu. 

In addition to many other restaurants, you will find ethnic restaurants here, too: Shima Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar, Bleu Rendez-Vous French Bistro, Cantina Captiva (Mexican and Southwestern) and Matzaluna (Italian).

Lodging

Whatever you might seek for accommodations, Sanibel has it ready for you. From larger resorts and hotel complexes, to condo rentals, to smaller inns, to campgrounds, you have options. 

During our stay we found a nice, clean two-bed, two-bath condo on short notice without too much difficulty. 

And of the dozens of options for lodging on Sanibel and Captiva, many (23, by my search) show they are pet-friendly.

Tied to the sea 

Elevation on Sanibel averages just four feet above sea level, and you’ll feel that everywhere you go you’re only a step away from the water’s edge. Everything here is tied to the sea, and marine wildlife of all kinds are embedded with the local human population. For a Midwesterner, it was like stepping into an alternate universe.

Despite a touristy feel on first blush, there are many things to like about Sanibel Island. Give it a chance; I think you’ll find more than one thing on this island that makes it well worth the flight.

Heather Skumatz is managing editor for Cessna Flyer. Send questions or comments to .

Sources: Wikipedia.org, Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, Gopher Enterprises of Sanibel and Captiva Corp.

Resources

Pilot and visitor information
Base Operations at Page Field
 
Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce
 
Sanibel and Captiva Islands Visitor’s Center
 
Vacation rentals
Billy’s Rentals
 
Cart Rentals
 
Gopher Enterprises 

Activities and attractions

Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
 
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
 
Sanibel Dolphin Tours
 
Sanibel Lighthouse
 
Tarpon Bay Explorers