Off the West coast of Florida, many magical spots line up for best beach, best shells, best wildlife, best kitschy feeling, and best quiet times. Sanibel Island wins all those prizes. It's a secret-no-longer-a-secret, as a lot of tourists already found the pretty island, but it is still very discreet and often quiet, as access to the small place is out of the way and far off highways.
Paired with tiny Captiva Island at its top part, the barrier island is not really on your way to anywhere, you must want to visit and take the time to digest the laid-back environment. Call it slow time. Shaped as a jumping sailfish, the island stretches off Fort Myers Beach, located south of the city of Fort Myers. The only way to get there is a three-mile causeway costing $6 each car one way, no charges to come back -- get the hint? They want you out.
Coming from Miami, you need to cross the Floridian peninsula to go to the other side, leaving the Atlantic behind to find the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It's 163 miles on Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) between the two locations, across the Everglades swamps, where you can take an air ride boat trip to witness some wildlife, or stop at the Florida Panther National Wildlife refuge. Yes, we have panthers in Florida, an endangered subspecies of yellow cougar (puma concolor coryi) that lives in tropical environment. About 150 of the big cat survive today. The Florida panther is the Florida state animal.
Less than 6,500 people live permanently on Sanibel, the 12-mile long sliver of sand on the Gulf of Mexico. Only three roads run along the island and the speed limit anywhere is 35-mile per hour. Nobody wants to run over a crossing turtle, or any other wildlife that the inhabitants wish to keep wild. Bicycling is a must here. There are zero traffic lights; a few stop signs are enough to keep priorities in order.
The air temperature range is an amazing 55 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit all-year long, and the water stays between 71 and 84. A few hurricanes have unsettled this ideal balance along the years, but this is Florida after all. The nights can get very dark here, especially during turtle nesting season, as newborn sea turtles hatching at night during full moons always find their bearings by following the light of the moon into the water -- and any electric light source coming from a beach house or a garden path can disorient them and lead to their death.
Here you will see dolphins by the dozens, manatees, sharks, otters, tortoises, alligators, pelicans, herons, bobcats, raccoons, thousands of birds, and many other animals, really giving a loud soundtrack to the quiet of the nights. Over half of the island consists of wildlife refuges, with the largest one named J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife refuge, a roughly 6,000-acre portion part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States.
It's impossible to mention Sanibel without talking about the shells. The most incredible shelling in the world is here. No, I am not being partial. The beaches are often covered with the most unusual and rare shells, such as the Junonia or the Fighting Conch. The Florida State official shell, the Horse Conch can be seen lying around here too. The absurd quantity of shells (some 250 different kinds) on some stretch of sand makes it impossible to even get back up to a vertical position, as Homo sapiens like us are meant to be. You can spend an entire day bend down to pick up incredibly pink, orange and brown shells of all sizes, some of them quite large. The best collection of shells I have even seen in my life, after having visited beaches on every continent of the Earth.
There are about a half dozen hotels-motels-resorts-bungalows on the island, with either a beach location, a beach view, or a beach path. Never far from the water, as the skinny island's roads will take you nowhere but to the beach. Old Town is a quaint historical part at the eastern end of the island. The Sanibel Historical Society has a walking/biking tour of two and a half miles showing off 19 points of interest.
There are no constructions on Sanibel Island taller than a palm tree! The city intends to keep the island's wild beauty, and has even banned any fast food restaurants, for obvious reasons. Still plenty of eating spots are lining whimsical Periwinkle Way, the main drag. Paddling, canoeing, kayaking, bicycling, hiking, and walking are the main entertainment of the island. For some destination, such as the Sanibel Bayous, where you can explore secretive mangrove tunnels, do carry a compass or a GPS, to avoid getting lost.