Update: we have a more recent article on Sanibel and Captiva, here.
As I see it, the best cruising destinations fall into one of three categories: the ones we frequent by convenience, the ones we happen upon by mistake, and the ones that become so endeared to our hearts that we take the greatest strides to revisit—no matter how much deviation from the layline may be required. With its open stretches of navigable waters, subtropical islands and a warm, (typically) sunny climate, Florida’s Lower Gulf Coast is a magical region for cruisers who wish to set sail and put life’s daily grind on hold for a while. Within this locale, the islands of Sanibel and Captiva are particularly rewarding and are considered a favorite vacation spot by Florida residents and visitors alike who appreciate all that the outdoors has to offer. The area is ripe for gunkholing with top-rated beaches, lush nature sanctuaries, seashells galore, and a style all its own—as evidenced by the quirky theme décor found in many local shops and dining hotspots.
Sanibel and Captiva are sister islands formed by shifting sands eons ago, with Sanibel—the larger of the two—connected to the mainland of Fort Myers via the Sanibel Causeway Bridge. Both islands share a laid-back “Old Florida” ambiance, yet each offers its own distinct allure. This is not your typical urban sprawl resort destination. There are no traffic signals, chain restaurants or franchises—save for a handful that was grandfathered in. Sanibel was once slated to become the next big thing in commercial resort mania before residents fought to preserve the island’s natural elegance so that today it might still be enjoyed for its raw beauty—perhaps the most compelling reason to add this island gem to your cruising plans. What you will find here is an eclectic mix of nature, inns and B&Bs, vibrant island homes, quaint shops, peculiar restaurants, and of course limitless seashells. The famed beach of Sanibel/Captiva is a continuous stretch of white, shell-strewn sand extending from Lighthouse Point at the southeast tip of Sanibel to the very northern point of Captiva. As would be expected on an island that’s only 15 miles long, the preferred modes of transportation are walking or bicycling. If you didn’t arrive with your own bike, a number of shops rent bikes for daily or weekly use—Billy’s Bike Shop and Finnimore’s Cycle Shop are the two largest on the island. The bike path system is extensive and flat terrain makes the riding easy.
The center of town is located at the eastern end of the island where you’ll find the Sanibel Lighthouse adjacent to the town fishing pier. Sanibel Marina is a nice dockage option here for cruisers traveling along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW), with 65 slips accommodating boats up to 70′ and direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. Amenities include ship’s store, fuel dock, Wi-Fi, and more. Enjoy fresh local seafood at Gramma Dot’s Seaside Saloon—hugely popular with the locals and one of Sanibel’s few true waterfront restaurants. For brunch, our family favorite is the chicken-and-rooster-inspired Over Easy Café, with scrumptious pancakes, inventive omelets, designer salads, and classic southern fare. It’s up the island road a bit, but well worth the 15-minute bike ride. (Sanibel shrimp benedict… enough said.) Sanibel is noticeably family oriented, so there’s not much nightlife in the metropolitan sense, although after-dark reveling can often be found at the Lazy Flamingo (there are two on the island), Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, and the Jacaranda. For shoppers, Sanibel boasts more than 10 outdoor plazas along Periwinkle Way—the island’s main street. Among others, Periwinkle Place shopping center offers more than two dozen shops and galleries built in and around a native tree grove.
Bowman’s Beach is one of the few truly west-facing beaches of Sanibel, hence a perfect spot for postcard sunsets. Just inland from Bowman’s, natural bayous may offer additional photo ops to the tune of stoic egrets, a manatee, or a gator if you’re lucky—or unlucky, depending on how you feel about large sharp-toothed reptiles. Over half of Sanibel consists of wildlife refuges, the largest being J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/dingdarling). World famous for its spectacular migratory bird populations, the refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. Situated along the North American Flyway, common sightings include herons, egrets, anhingas, terns, sandpipers, and you might even catch a glimpse of a roseate spoonbill or bald eagle.
Shelling on Sanibel is second to none with new shells washing up every day, earning this island the well-deserved moniker “Shelling Capital of the World.” A typical daily haul may include colorful coquinas, scallops, whelks, sand dollars, and many other species of mollusks, gastropods, and bivalves. You’ll commonly see folks inspecting these trove treasures in the functional yet mildly unflattering bent-over posture that’s become known as the “Sanibel Stoop.” (Keep your eyes out for the elusive junonia—find one and you might get your picture in the local papers.) Shelling is best in the winter months, especially after a cold front. Word to the wise: Shelling can be hard on the feet. Bring beach shoes or water socks to protect your feet, especially for the little ones. Enthusiasts will enjoy the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum’s impressive collection of shells and educational exhibits. (shellmuseum.org)
By car, one can travel the length of Sanibel in about 20 minutes before reaching a narrow waterway called Blind Pass, where a small bridge connects Sanibel to Captiva. As if it was even possible, Captiva manages to be more laid back than her sister. While life certainly exists on the island, if you’re looking for starry-eyed sunsets and a more secluded island escape feel, Captiva is the spot.
Narrow enough in places that you can see both the Gulf and bay at the same time, Captiva adds remote island mystique to the equation. The quaint village in Captiva offers an assortment of shops and restaurants, a post office, bank, small library, and not much else—but in a good way. On the bay side, Jensen’s Marina offers fun day trip excursions to the out islands of Cabbage Key and Useppa. The Old Captiva House at ‘Tween Waters Inn, the Mucky Duck Neighborhood Pub, and the Green Flash Waterfront Restaurant are a few traditional dinner favorites, each with Gulf views and great seafood. The cute and kitschy Bubble Room Restaurant, another popular foodie choice, makes for a unique experience with quirky décor and the motto, “It’s always Christmas at the Bubble Room.” You’ll see why. Note: It gets dark fast after the sun sets on Captiva, so be sure to carry a flashlight when walking at night.
Captiva’s South Seas Island Resort at the northernmost point of Captiva—located at the end of a private channel at Marker 39 on the GIWW, or via the 6-foot controlling depths through Redfish Pass—offers 3,600 feet of dock space accommodating vessels up to 120 feet with all the modern conveniences. This upscale family-friendly resort offers a wealth of amenities including fuel, electricity, water, pump-out facilities, cable TV, deluxe accommodations and dining options, ship’s store, an oceanfront nine-hole championship golf course, 19 tennis courts, a fitness center, and an inviting selection of swimming pools.
While Sanibel and Captiva can be enjoyed year-round, March/April and October/November are ideal weather months and therefore see the most visitors. Afternoon thunderstorms are typical in the summer and September is usually the quietest month, but be advised—many of the island’s businesses operate on reduced hours or shut down completely in late summer for renovations and vacation. Regardless of when or where you tie up in this secluded neck of the woods, you’re in for a rare treat. Sanibel/Captiva isn’t a destination you land on by mistake. It’s a special excursion to be premeditated for sure, but once you’ve arrived, odds are you’ll make the same effort to return over and over again, each time turning over a new leaf—or seashell, as it were.
By Andrew Parkinson, Southern Boating October 2013