I grew up visiting and exploring Sanibel Island, Florida, with my best friend’s family during summer vacations. I’ve always remembered how much fun we had on these trips and I couldn’t wait to take John here as part of our road trip adventure. We only spent two days in Sanibel, but there is enough to see and do on Sanibel and Captiva Islands to easily spend a week.
Here is my Weekender’s Guide to Visiting Sanibel Island!
Periwinkle Park Campground
If you are planning on camping while exploring Sanibel Island, make sure to plan ahead. There is only one campground and it fills up quickly. They also do things very “old school.” You can’t make reservations online and they don’t have multiple phone lines, so be prepared to hear a busy signal when you call (hopefully you remember what that sounds like and you don’t think the world is coming to an end). They also don’t accept credit cards, so after you temporarily reserve a spot by phone, you have to mail in a check in order to finalize your reservation. The park workers may then forget to email you confirming they received your check and reservation sending you into a small panic attack. Or maybe that’s just me…
The campground itself is okay; we’ve stayed at better and we’ve stayed at worse. John and I really prefer less-developed campgrounds that offer more privacy (if this is what you’re looking for, Periwinkle is not the campground for you). However, with it being the only campground on the island, unless you want to rent a house or stay at a resort, that’s what you get.
Exploring Sanibel Island on Bike
After you get settled in, stroll on over to Billy’s Bike Rentals and grab yourself a bicycle. I’ve heard you can also call and have your bikes delivered, but it was just a short walk from our campground and we thought we could both use the exercise.
The guys at the shop are super laid back and friendly and they will probably cut you a really good deal on your bicycle rental (they let us keep our bikes for two days but only charged us for one!) This is definitely the best way to explore the island and avoid all the traffic.
Sanibel has a beautiful (and flat!) bike path that spans the whole island. It’s paved and separate from the road. In Sanibel, cyclists rule. We rode our bikes everywhere while we were there. We even decided to ride the 15 miles to Captiva island—which I wouldn’t recommend unless you are an avid cyclist, not two out-of-shape adventurers like us. John nearly died.
A Visit to Captiva Island
Now, I would recommend going to Captiva Island even if it’s just for a half day. It’s an easy and short (car) ride unless the traffic is heavy. The beaches are prettier and less crowded on Captiva compared to Sanibel (or at least they were when we visited).
Most of the beach entry points are private though, so make sure you stick to the public access points, which are well marked. The water during our visit to Captiva was a beautiful turquoise color. There are also some fun/funky shops and restaurants on Captiva like the Bubble Room. A visit to this island makes for a great afternoon of relaxing and exploring.
(A note from John: the Bubble Room is super creepy. All the servers wear some sort of scouting uniform and there’s an abundance of scary-looking dolls hanging from the walls. Worth a stop, but be prepared for nightmares.)
Seashell Capital of the World
Spend a morning looking for seashells. Sanibel has some of the best shelling in the world. The curved shape of the island along with the strong currents in the Gulf of Mexico make it perfect for receiving tons of seashells. You don’t even have to try very hard to find loads of beautiful intact shells. If you want to shell from the beach, low tide is the best time…just remember, leave those live shells be!
Exploring Sanibel Island: The Wildlife
Visit J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve. It’s one of the country’s largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems. It’s also a great place for bird watching. Roughly 245 different bird species call this place home. My favorite bird to spot is the Roseate Spoonbill, which you can see here at the right time of year.
You’ll also probably see turtles, snakes, and alligators on a good day. When we visited Sanibel, it was towards the end of the island’s super-busy season but the Ding Darling Preserve was empty! John and I felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. We were able to ride our bikes all along their trail system without seeing many other people.
There’s also a 90 minute tram tour you can take that is guided by a naturalist. Just make sure you plan accordingly because the wildlife drive is closed on Fridays. You can check out their website for more details on trip planning. It will let you know when the best times of year to visit are depending on the birds you’d like to see.
Lastly, spend lots of time relaxing on the beach! After all that’s why we visit islands right? Pro-tip: ride your bike to the beach. Every public beach charges a lot of money to park. If you ride your bike, you get to park it for free. Bowman’s Beach and Lighthouse Beach are great choices and great for shelling too!
Have you visited Sanibel Island? What is your favorite thing to do there? If you are planning a trip and have any questions let us know! We are happy to help if we can.