Hopefully, you have more than one day to spend on blissful Sanibel Island, where stoplights and streetlights are taboo and no buildings rise higher than a palm tree. The island is all about glorifying the nature that islanders have worked hard to preserve since the 1930s, through incorporation in the 1970s, until today, when the Sanibel Plan still dictates that nature rules.
If you have only one day, however, to devote to really getting to know the island’s treasures and a few secrets, this itinerary takes you to all the iconic places you do not want to miss as well as to some of my favorite hidden spots that only the locals know about. Note: You will want to book excursions with Tarpon Bay Explorers in advance.
What’s more perfect than a day that starts on the beach?
Rise early to walk along the 12-mile-long beach, looking for seashells in a stance known hereabouts as the Sanibel Stoop. On your way to the beach, stop for breakfast to go at Sanibel Deli & Coffee Factory.
The island has a number of public beach accesses, but for the most seclusion and shells, head to Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel-Captiva Road. It is not only gorgeous, it is a great place to see birds and lies close to many of the island’s best attractions. Enjoy your breakfast on the beach, then walk it off as you watch the birds, ghost crabs, and other beach creatures come to life.
On your way back south, don’t miss J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge – the island’s crowning gem. You could spend all day at the refuge – touring, kayaking, hiking, and biking. But with a short window of opportunity, I suggest at least visiting the free Visitor & Education Center exhibits and following Indigo Trail, which starts below the center, to the Wildlife Education Boardwalk. This newest boardwalk is inscribed with the tracks of different refuge animals you can try to identify. It also features replicated scat samples that teach about their diet and lifestyles. (Kids love the poop scoop!) If you have a little more time, motor around 4-mile Wildlife Drive.
Stop at Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille for lunch. It’s famous for its Yucatan shrimp and fish sandwich. Then proceed to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum to identify your morning’s collection and learn about the role of shells in history, art, religion, and more.
Sanibel boasts 25 miles of shared-use path for biking and walking. Enjoy an afternoon ride off the beaten path by following the path along Casa Ybel to Middle Gulf Drive. Keep right and follow the signs past the hidden Pioneer Cemetery to the trail and beach at Gulfside City Park.
You cannot leave the island without getting out on the water. Tarpon Bay Explorers leads sunset boating and kayaking excursions just in time to watch flocks of birds come to roost for the night. You will want to look for someplace casual to eat after that, and either of the Lazy Flamingo restaurants on the island fit the bill.