Sanibel and Captiva islands, Florida: They conjure images of seashell-carpeted beaches, lazy gulf waves, skies and beaches full of birds and other wildlife, and palm tree silhouetted skies. Readers of Condé Nast Traveler name Sanibel Island among the top 10 U.S. islands year after year. Birding, paddling, and family magazines also sing its praises. Sister island Captiva wins kudos for its romantic sunset beaches and end-of-the-world quirky seclusion.
Besides suntans, the islands nurture their own brand of culture inspired by the beauty and rawness of their nature. Carefully developed to prevent condo-buildup and over-development, the islands boast their lack of traffic and street lights. They boast as well their rural, small-town nature where dining on local seafood and shopping at candy shops, fashion boutiques, and art galleries while away time off the beach.
More than two-thirds of the islands has been preserved by government and private stewardship for the enjoyment of bikers, hikers, kayakers, boaters, and other nature lovers. Refer to the Sanibel and Captiva Outdoors itinerary to best plan your days taking advantage of the islands’ protected wild spaces and open waters.
Natural gem J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge protects some 7,600 acres on Sanibel Island and islands offshore. It set the tone for Sanibel Island’s initiative to be governed by nature when it became a city in 1976 via a grassroots movement to stem development by incorporating.
Visitors to the “Ding,” as locals call it, can look for more than 270 species of birds, plus bobcats, river otters, manatees, alligators, smalltooth sawfish, and other rare creatures on the refuge’s hiking, biking, driving, and paddling trails.
Nearby Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation also has nature trails along freshwater habitat where alligators and birds hang out.
Along the same “conservation corridor” on Sanibel-Captiva Road, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum underscores Sanibel Island’s reputation as one of the world’s top shelling destinations.
Best shelling beaches include long, secluded Bowman’s Beach in the same neighborhood. The best time to find shells? Early morning low tides, especially after a storm.
The continuum of island beaches is lightly developed and natural – great also for wildlife watching, swimming, and boarding. (Winter storms bring the waves that surfers crave, but typically skim, body, wind, and kite boarding take precedence.)
The islands’ calm seas further encourage adventure in the great outdoors: fishing, sailing, water-skiing, wakeboarding, snorkeling, and island-hopping. The islands’ handful of marinas provide one-stop shopping for exploration of the Gulf of Mexico and Intracoastal Waterway.
When it is time to come in from the sun, the Sanibel Island Historical Museum and Village visits yesteryear. Captiva Island too boasts a small but sweet historical museum in the local library. Be sure to visit the Chapel By the Sea and pioneer cemetery next door, where visitors leave seashells rather than flowers.
Other favorite pastimes revolve around the islands’ vibrant shopping and dining scenes. They are known for their seashell shops, art galleries, resort wear boutiques, beachy gift shops, seafood houses, eclectic fine dining, and casual cafes.
Sanibel & Captiva islands are year-round destinations. They see their high season in the winter and early springs months when temps are cold up north but seductively balmy in Southwest Florida. The downside to high season visitations are high airfares, accommodation rates, and traffic.
Late spring and early fall are the best times to visit — before school lets out and after it reconvenes. Summer climate can be brutally hot and humid, plus there’s the threat of tropical storms. But either side of the June-through-September time frame, you will find more favorable climes, rates, and traffic. (Hurricane season runs until Nov. 1, but hits Southwest Florida hardest in August.)
Considering that snowbirds from the north spend the entire winter and that weekenders from Miami spend two nights, the length of your time to budget for the islands is dependent upon your goals. Many out-of-state visitors schedule a visit to the islands to decompress after a hectic stay in the Orlando area, and two to three days should suffice. Those who are avid nature-lovers and outdoor recreationists will want to stay longer at least five days. Sanibel & Captiva are good jumping off points for day trips to the Fort Myers and Naples areas. If that’s your plan, figure a week to get enough relaxation time with your exploration time.
The busiest times of the year on the islands coincide with the coldest months up north. High season generally runs Christmas through Easter and spring break. That, of course, is when lodging rates are highest and roads most jammed. Summer season sees a steady influx of drive market visitors, so weekends are typically busier, but rates overall lower. June through November is also hurricane season, but the islands have had only one major hurricane since the 20s, and that was Hurricane Charley in 2004 (knock on wood). Heat index, bugs, and summer storms should be taken into consideration when you plan your timing. Fall, September through mid-December, is the quietest and most affordable time of year. The weather begins to cool in October and crowds are light until the seasonal snowbirds start to arrive in flocks around early November or earlier.
You may want to plan your visit around annual festivals and other special events. Most happen during high season, when the theater and arts scene is also at its liveliest. Captiva Holiday Village and Luminary Nights on both islands kick off the holiday season in December. The Shell Festival is a huge three-day event in early March at the Sanibel Community House, which also hosts several art fairs throughout the winter. In the off-season “Ding” Darling Days eco-festival fills one week mid-October with a free Family Fun Day, birding tours, and discounts at the refuge.
National Holidays include:
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Day
February (third Monday): Washington’s Birthday
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day (aka Native American Day)
November (11th): Veteran’s Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
Sanibel & Captiva islands lie in the Eastern Standard Time Zone and observe the normal Daylight Savings Time season.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (early March, on a Sunday morning at 2AM). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (late October or early November on a Sunday morning at 2AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’
To check the local time in Sanibel & Captiva Islands, click here.
Think island attire — casual, flip-flops, and breezy. During the winter months, you may require sweatshirts and long pants, especially if you will be spending time boating. Bring a collared shirt if you plan to golf and hats to keep the sun from burning your face. Restaurants do not have dress codes, but you will feel comfortable in a sundress and khakis at some of the finer ones. Be sure to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and beach toys (or plan to buy them on-island).
Sanibel Island, in the scheme of Florida vacationing, reigns at the high end of the cost-of-living scale, and Captiva Island is higher yet. The most costly time to visit is in high season, Christmas through Easter/spring break. You will find the best prices in the spring (after Easter, before summer vacation) and fall (after summer vacation to late December) shoulder seasons.
The islands command some of the best beach views in all of Florida. That’s what you are paying the big bucks for. You’re also paying for the low-density development, the laid-back style, and an island atmosphere that practically guarantees relaxation. The local tourist development agency, furthermore, charges a 3 percent bed tax that pays for tourism’s impact on the infrastructure, beach renourishment projects, and other special tourism-related improvements.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality, and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => Up to $15 for average entree at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $16-22 for average entree at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => $23 for average entree at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include pennies (1 cent), nickels (5 cents), dimes (10 cents), quarters (25 cents). The 50 cent and dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so plan to have $20s or smaller bills in hand.
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
The closest airport to the island is Southwest Florida International (RSW) in Fort Myers, about an hour away from Sanibel. It costs $6 round-trip for toll fees every time you cross the causeway. Longtime visitors can save money with a Florida-wide SunPass.
You can possibly save money on flying if you are willing to fly into bigger cities such as Tampa, Miami, or Fort Lauderdale and drive to the islands. Rental cars are slightly cheaper at those airports, too. The drive from Tampa and Miami is about 3 hours, from Fort Lauderdale about 2.5. A few low-fare airlines fly into Fort Myers, including Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit. Allegiant flies into the airport in Punta Gorda, about 1.5 hours north of the islands.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Download the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8-10 per hour; gas and insurance are included.
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical — Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
If you get money from an ATM machine, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, U.S. banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of âcash backâ when paying for your goods â this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.
The following Sanibel banks offer cash advances against credit cards and have ATM machines:
Bank of America, 2450 Periwinkle Way; (239) 472-2800, (800) 432-1000;
Bank of the Islands, 1699 Periwinkle Way; (239) 472-7211, (800) 359-9034;
Sanibel Captiva Community Bank, 2475 Library Way, (239) 472-6100; branch at 1037 Periwinkle Way, (239) 472-6150. (ATMs at Baileyâs Shopping Center and the branch office).
SunTrust Bank, 2408 Periwinkle Way; (239) 312-3241, (800) 786-8787;
Wells Fargo, 2407 Palm Ridge Road; (239) 472-7100, (800) 869-3557
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.
Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card — which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that donât offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill.
Most bell staff receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5-$10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2-$3 per day and about $5 per day in higher end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Note: The local tourist development agency, charges a 3 percent bed tax that pays for tourism’s impact on the infrastructure, beach renourishment projects, and other special tourism-related improvements.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Room & Board
Subscribe to the email newsletters of various island properties to watch for news of off-season (and sometimes even in-season) packages and discounts based on occupancy. Keep in mind that when it comes to lodging, your biggest expense when vacationing on the islands, that many of the properties have condo set-ups, so kitchen facilities can save you on meals. That said, dining on the islands is generally more expensive than on the mainland, but you can find affordable spots if you shy away from the fine dining restaurants.
Most islanders do their major grocery shopping off island, but there are two supermarkets on Sanibel and a smaller market on Captiva. Consider stopping in Fort Myers for food and liquor on your way to the islands. Similarly, you will want to gas up your car before you cross the causeway.
You best bets for exploring Sanibel & Captiva islands are by car, bike, or foot. Its 25 miles of shared use path makes it convenient for the latter two modes — a good way to avoid tangled traffic in high season, although the path itself gets busy during the winter and early spring months. Remember to keep the right when using the path, and always warn when passing. Heed stop signs and be attentive.
The islands have no public transportation or Uber service to speak of, but there is a taxi service on Sanibel.
If you are flying, the closest airport to Sanibel and Captiva Islands is Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) in Fort Myers, about an hour’s drive from the islands, depending upon season and time of day. A number of major airlines service the medium-sized airport. Taxi service from the airport to the islands costs anywhere from $56 to $64.
If you rent a car, follow signs out of the airport to Interstate 75 and head north to exit on Daniels Parkway, exit 131. Follow Daniels to Summerlin Road. Turn left on Summerlin Road and follow to the Sanibel Causeway. You will pay a $6 toll to drive onto the island only. If you plan to spend some time on the island and will be making enough trips to warrant it, look into purchasing a SunPass or LeeWay transponder, which will lower your per-trip tolls and allow you faster passage at the toll booth.
Those driving to the islands should take exit 131 if approaching from the north or 128 (Alico Road) from the south. Follow the directions from the airport above if taking exit 131. Otherwise head west on Alico Road to Highway 41/Tamiami Trail. Turn north (right) and follow to Gladiolus Drive. Turn left and continue, staying in the left lane and taking the ramp to Summerlin Road, which you will then follow to the Sanibel Causeway.
Two-lane roads and multi-use (bike, etc.) paths make up the transportation system on Sanibel & Captiva. Which means traffic can move very slowly at peak travel times: in the winter months and on holiday weekends, especially during weekday rush hours from 8 to 10 in the morning coming on island and 3 to 6 in the afternoon leaving the island.
Periwinkle Way is the main thoroughfare in Sanibel proper, but ends at Tarpon Bay Road. To get to Captiva Island, take a right on Tarpon Bay Road (or before that at Palm Ridge Road) to reach Sanibel-Captiva Road, which crosses the Blind Pass Bridge onto Captiva.
Most of the islands’ stores lie along Periwinkle Way, Palm Ridge Road, and Captiva Drive. On Sanibel, the Gulf drives – East, West, and Middle – are where the majority of resorts reside.
During peak times, it sometimes makes more sense to ride a bike or walk along the shared-use path – a 25-mile paved path that parallels all the major roads, but stops short of Captiva Island. It too can become jammed, especially during family vacation periods.
Sanibel Taxi operates on and off island. Uber service is limited. The island has no mass transportation systems.
You will pay a $6 toll to drive onto the island only. If you plan to spend some time on the island and will be making enough trips to warrant it, look into purchasing a SunPass or LeeWay transponder, which will lower your per-trip tolls and allow you faster passage at the toll booth. Both are good for most toll roads throughout the state of Florida.
Largely a resort and snowbird retirement destination, the islands have their core year-round population of fewer than 6,000 combined, residents who work, own businesses, or use the islands as a home base for commuting or volunteering. With an average annual household income of nearly $200,000 on Sanibel, it’s plain to see that the islands attract a certain level of affluence, but below market rate housing initiatives assure a diversity of people whose families have lived here for decades or who have immigrated from all parts of the U.S. and beyond – largely the Midwest.
Settled in pioneer days by fishermen and farmers from Cuba and lands north, the islands remained little discovered until Southwest Florida’s bigwigs came for adventure. President Teddy Roosevelt came to fish from a barge he floated in the channel off Captiva Island that bears his name. Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Thomas Edison, Jay Norwood Darling, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and other well-heeled, well-known visitors came across on the ferry. Once the causeway opened in 1963, so did the floodgates. The city of Sanibel formed to slow development and keep the islands natural. And so it remains with growth in check and nature preserves protecting the land and its wildlife.
The islands support a vital arts scene, particularly in the winter months when BIG ARTS schedules entertainment from films to musicals and high-brow musical concerts at its performance arts hall and theater. The seasons cultural highlight is the Sanibel Music Festival, which brings classic performers throughout the month of March.
With no stoplights on the islands, drivers depend on common courtesy at four-way stops. Most other rules of etiquette have to do with preserving the natural environment. Do not feed or harass any wild animals, including birds and alligators (it’s against the law). Itâs also unlawful to take any live shells. In summer, make sure lights at the beach do not distract sea turtles at night. Fill in holes, level sandcastles, and remove beach chairs that may impede the progress of turtle hatchlings. Drive carefully on San-Cap Road at night, when low-flying owls and roadside raccoons and armadillos too often become roadkill.
Seafood, naturally, is the dining staple on these islands, yet an influx of Midwestern transplants in the late 1900s injected a meat-and-potatoes component that restaurants still try to break out of. That said, you will find everything from a marina-side fish house and a neighborhood doughnut joint to elevated, eclectic fine dining.
Some pre-island reading or books to bring along for the beach:
An absolute must: Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s A Gift from the Sea, written by the famed aviator’s wife in the mid-1950s. It takes a handful of shells and the life of a woman and makes them one.
Doc Ford’s series books by Randy Wayne White: With titles such as Sanibel Flats and The Heat Islands (his first), this bestselling book series is set on Sanibel Island and has two restaurants on Sanibel and Captiva named for it. White is part-owner in Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille and his books inspire the Caribbean Rim cuisine.
Explorer’s Guide: Sarasota, Sanibel Island & Naples by Chelle Koster Walton (yes, moi)
My 92 Years on Sanibel by late island historian Francis P. Bailey
Sanibel Scribbles an easy beach self-publish by Christine Lemmon
Sanybel Light a comparatively heavy historic treatise by Charles LeBuff