Bowman Beach Sanibel

Sanibel and Captiva, Florida – Top 5 Things to Do

posted in: Florida Travel | 6

5 Things to Do

I have been going to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, just off the coast of Ft. Myers, Florida, since I was a young girl.  Now I am over 50 (did I just say that? -agh!), live just south of these islands and go quite often. The sheer beauty of the water and islands still takes my breath away whenever I cross over the three mile causeway to get onto the islands. 

Sanibel welcome sign

Visitors to these islands fall in love with it and come back year after year.  Besides the beauty and tranquility, visitors have so much to do – or not do.  Some people just hang out on the beach all day and eat good food, not wanting to do anything else.  Others take in every activity and stay busy their entire vacation.  This makes Sanibel and Captiva a perfect vacation destination for just about anyone and it has been for decades. 

Getting to Sanibel & Captiva

A little geography first – you will cross the causeway to Sanibel Island from the western end of Summerlin Road in Ft. Myers. Sanibel is about 12 miles long. At the end of that 12 miles you will cross over a small bridge onto Captiva Island at Blind Pass. Most first time visitors don’t even realize they are on Captiva as the bridge is small and unassuming.  Captiva is about 5 miles long. The causeway is the only way on and off Sanibel and Captiva, except by boat.  The causeway has a toll of $6 going onto the islands.

Sanibel Causeway

There is a ton of things to do on Sanibel and Captiva and this list is by no means comprehensive. This is just my list of 5 main things to do while visiting and my recommendations.

Bowman's Beach#1 Shell Beaches on Sanibel & Captiva

Sanibel and Captiva are first and foremost known for their premier beaches and world class shelling.  The beaches are on the west side of both islands and the bay is on the east side.  There are 15 miles of beaches on both islands and many are public. Almost all of them have bathrooms, showers and parking. I believe right now it is about $5/hour to park.

Sanibel lighthouse

Some of my favorite public beaches are:

Lighthouse Beach – southern end of Sanibel with a beautiful lighthouse to photograph

Bowman's Beach sign

Bowman’s Beach – on the far end of Sanibel almost to Captiva

Sanibel Bowman's Beach

Blind Pass Beaches – access from Sanibel & Captiva

Blind Pass

Causeway Beaches – popular for dog owners and if you don’t want to pay to park

Shells are what draws a lot of people to Sanibel and Captiva.  It has been a draw for me for most of my life.  My mother has collected shells for as long as I can remember and her collection is very impressive.  Her love of shells transcended to me and I can literally spend all day on the beach doing nothing but collecting shells.  My collection pales in comparison to hers, but I am proud of mine nonetheless.  

shells collected from FL beaches

There are certain things to keep in mind while shelling on Sanibel and Captiva beaches, or anywhere else for that matter.  The best time to shell is at first light.  Any shells that have rolled in with the tides at night lay in wait for the first person to find them. Also, after any big storms, shells are more prevalent on the beaches.  They get churned up from the bottom and pushed up onto the beaches. Low tide is also a great time because the water is not as far up on the beaches, thus making the area to search for shells, bigger.  You can check on the internet for tide tables.  

Captiva beach

One of the most important things to know though is it is illegal to take a live shell off the beach or from the water on Sanibel and Captiva Islands.  If there is a live animal inside the shell, simply put it back in the ocean. Sanibel alligator

If you have a love of shells, take the time to stop by the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Captiva Road.  You can also buy shells at the many shell stores on the islands, like She Sells Sea Shells. They have huge collections of shells from Sanibel and others from around the world.  

#2 Island Wildlife

Sanibel and Captiva Islands are stock full of all kinds of species of animals.  Just driving down the roads or hanging out on the beaches you are guaranteed to see something! Osprey are often flying overhead, as are pelicans and many other migratory birds. In the oceans are dolphins, sharks, manatees, stingrays and tons of varieties of fish.  Alligators are often spotted in the various waterways on the islands or wandering around the golf courses. Iguanas are also a regular sight on the golf courses and in trees. Sea turtles are also very common, especially during nesting season from May – October.  You will see their nests roped off along the beaches to protect them from prying eyes. As you can see wildlife is abundant here! 

Sanibel manatee

Sanibel is also home to J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge has over 6000 acres of mangrove forests, marshes and seagrass beds that help protect and feed the incredible number of species that live here. Ding Darling is also part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States and is world known for its migratory bird populations. This refuge should be high on your list the next time you visit the islands.  

You can visit its free visitors center and walk the many trails or drive the 4 mile Wildlife Drive, which is open every day except Friday. You can also rent canoes, kayaks and paddle boards to cruise around the many waterways at your leisure. If you have a boat you can fish in the backwaters of the refuge or in the waters besides Wildlife Drive.  For more information about the regulations and activities, check out Ding Darling’s website. 

Ding Darling#3 Outdoor Activities 

Besides going to the many beaches, shelling or visiting the National Wildlife Refuge, there are plenty of other activities and adventures to keep you busy while visiting Sanibel and Captiva Islands.

Bicycles on Sanibel  

  • Bicycling – Sanibel and Captiva Islands have about 25 miles of bike trails running throughout the islands and bicycling is very popular. There are several places to rent bikes, so you don’t have to have your own. Be cautious as bicycles have the right away on the islands and if you are crossing over one of the trails in your vehicle, make sure to look both ways.
  • Fishing/Boating – As I have already mentioned, visitors can fish and boat within the Refuge. But, you can also fish and boat in the Gulf of Mexico and San Carlos Bay, which is the waters separating Ft. Myers and Sanibel. You might snag yourself a shark, snook, redfish, spotted sea trout or a sheepshead. If you have your own boat, great! If not, hire a local fishing guide.                                                                                                                                              Sanibel beach
  • Sanibel Thriller – This is a speed boat tour around the islands that is very popular! If you are on the beach when it passes, you know it as it is pretty loud and fast! It departs daily from Sanibel Marina, weather permitting.

wildflowers on golf course Sanibel#4 Shopping

Most island destinations have plenty of shopping opportunities and Sanibel and Captiva Islands are no exception.  There are several small types of shopping centers with a handful of shops in each.  The biggest shopping center is Periwinkle Place, which I love. Periwinkle Place is a beautiful outdoor shopping center that sits on 7 lush acres with boardwalks connecting the different sections. There are over 20 shops selling everything from beach wear to olive oil to home decor and pretty much everything in between.  My favorite shops there are Classic Collections and FantaSea.

Another shopping center I frequent is Tahitian Gardens.  It is before Periwinkle Place on Periwinkle Way.  There are only a handful of shops but I go there when I am on the islands.  I like Shiny Objects for less expensive coastal necklaces, Pandora’s Box for their greeting card selection and Wilford & Lee for home decor and gifts. 

If you are off the island and looking for shopping nearby, the Sanibel Outlets are less than 3 miles down Summerlin Road from the causeway and have about 40 stores, plus a nail salon and a few places to get food.

You can find a comprehensive list of all shops on Sanibel and Captiva at https://sanibel-captiva.org/sanibel-island-shopping/. 

South Seas Resort#5 Eateries

Food is plentiful on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. One thing to know is that there really aren’t any chains on the islands except a DQ and a Subway, as the islands like to promote independent restaurants. There are also a few small grocery stores and 2 main ones, Bailey’s and Jerry’s. The 2 bigger ones pretty much have everything, so no need to go off island.  Bailey’s also has a hardware store attached, which is convenient.

Here is a list of the restaurants that I tend to frequent…

Captiva Restaurants:

  • Mucky Duck – on the beach and fun, parking is an issue but worth it!
  • Bubble Room – Captiva tradition – every inch covered in memorabilia – known for huge desserts
  • Green Flash – go to for nice dining on the water – also has boat dock

Green Flash Restaurant

Sanibel Restaurants:

  • Island Cow – a Sanibel tradition – if you’re looking for gator bites, this is your place
  • Gramma Dots – at the Sanibel Marina and is great for fried shrimp baskets
  • OverEasy Cafe – great for breakfast/brunch – next to some cute shops to browse
  • Matzaluna – great for pizza and Italian dishes
  • Island Pizza – quick pizza
  • Lazy Flamingo – great for burgers
  • Sanibel Cafe – at Tahitian Gardens – I get the shrimp quesadilla – lunch place
  • Trader’s – great all around and has an attached gift store
  • Sanibel Bean – my go to coffee place and they have great chai
  • Pinocchio’s Ice Cream – big servings – always busy!

Lighthouse Restaurant

Close Off-Island Restaurants:

Lighthouse Waterfront Restaurant – nice dining on water – great for holiday brunch

Bimini Bait Shack – across from the causeway entrance – super fun and great views

These lists just barely touch the surface of all the restaurants available on both islands. But, this gives you a good idea of what you can find to eat.

Sanibel beachIn Summary

Whew… this is a lot of information! I feel like I know Sanibel and Captiva pretty well since I have almost had a lifetime of visiting, plus I have lived close by for almost 5 years. These islands aren’t known the world over for nothing though.  There is something there for everyone and I will guess that if you visit, you will fall in love and come back often.  If you’ve been before, I bet you want to visit again. 

If you need more information about Sanibel and Captiva that isn’t listed within this blog, the most comprehensive website is the Sanibel & Captiva Chamber of Commerce. 

Since you are here, check out my posts on other Florida towns: Daytona, Key Largo and Naples.

Drop me a comment if you’ve visited either island and let me know your favorite restaurant or favorite thing to do.

Happy Wandering!

6 Responses

  1. Louise Rahmann

    Thank you – very interesting but now I know I just have seen a very little bit of Sanibel – each time I visited was always very nice & fun. Next time I visit I will know there are many other places to visit & enjoy. Love, Louise

    • Ordinary Wanderer

      Yes, these islands offer a lot and most people probably don’t see everything in their initial visits. Hopefully you will get to visit again and see even more of the islands. Glad that you found this helpful!

  2. GREG GOODWIN

    Hey look—a mermaid trying to get up the boat ladder!!! 🙂

Share your thoughts?