Florida's Hidden Treasure: Explore the Natural Wonders of Sanibel Island
"Pack your bags. I've just found our new home," said Craig Stewart to his wife, Evelyn, mere minutes after an impromptu detour on a business trip landed him on Sanibel Island. Taken by the beauty of the drive over the 3-mile bridge, with the sliver of verdant, turquoise-wrapped land laid out before him in all its glory, he stopped at the nearest convenience store, found a pay phone, and gave her the news. Deep in the trenches of a Maryland winter, Evelyn was more than happy to oblige. "He found us a home before the day was out," says Evelyn. "I moved down shortly after, and we've loved every minute of our 35 years here since."
As many locals will tell you, Sanibel can have a way of wooing without warning. The trip over the causeway that separates the island from reality paints an irresistible picture: 17,000 acres of lush landscape framed by the glittering Gulf on one side and the San Carlos Bay on the other. "It feels like you're driving straight into heaven," says Sanibel resident Joe Almeida. Compared to its city neighbors (Sanibel lies just two and a half hours southeast of Tampa and 45 minutes southwest of Fort Myers), the island does feel otherworldly. There are no stoplights or big-chain grocery stores, no high-rises or nightclubs. It's a brand of utopia built on the understanding that what Sanibel has to offer—in terms of community, town pride, and natural assets—is special.
Just grab a beach cruiser, and you'll understand why. Meandering through the island's 25 miles of bike paths will envelop you in breathtaking vistas. A wall of tropical mangroves to your right. A snowy egret soaring above. Gaze out toward the sunset, and a shoreline that's worthy of a screen saver stretches out in front of you.
Nearly 70% of this 12- by 3-mile paradise is protected—a rare feat for Florida waterfront real estate. But Sanibel isn't your average barrier island. A bird's-eye view will reveal land that curves in like a fishhook, cradling a shallow estuary that's equally enticing for finned and flapping residents. On the bay side, the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge offers a magically lush spot to witness nature's creatures in action, including manatees, alligators, and more than 245 species of birds.
Park your two wheels on the Gulf side, and you'll find more oceanic wonders. Widely regarded as America's shelling capital, Sanibel is uniquely positioned to beckon in many of the Gulf's rarest treasures, from whelks and lion's paws to (if you're lucky) prized junonias—many locals spend their whole lives searching for one. Miss seeing something on the sand? You can find it at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, a world-renowned showcase and research center devoted exclusively to seashells and (thanks to a $6 million renovation) living mollusks.
But Sanibel doesn't just lure with its natural riches. What brings loyalists back time and again is the sense of community. Throw a dart at a map of the island, and you'll likely hit a local business with deep roots. "People come here for vacation, fall in love, and end up staying and opening family businesses," says Richard Johnson, the third-generation owner of Bailey's General Store. "And that's what really makes the place tick."
It's a familiar story that helps bond everyone together: the pride of discovering this small slice of paradise that feels perennially laid-back and exclusive. Those who leave find themselves pulled back as if by a magnet. "I've been all over, and I've yet to find a place that's quite like it," says Josh Stewart, whose parents, Craig and Evelyn, raised him in Sanibel after realizing their own tropical dreams. Josh and his brother, Noah, now helm the family business, Adventures in Paradise, which offers tours for everything from shelling to wildlife viewing in addition to operating an outdoors-themed clothing shop.
Like many Sanibel establishments—including the seafood joint founded by a local fishing guide turned famous author and the ice-cream shop owned by an army vet who grew up here and just had to return—they're an island mainstay. "We've had people who used to come for vacation as kids now living here and leading our tours," says Josh. But that's the way of Sanibel. It can't help but charm in an instant and keep pulling you back for more—and, quite possibly, forever. "The nice thing about this town is that anyone can come here and feel completely at home," says Evelyn.
On this barrier island, fresh seafood is always on the menu. Grab the best Gulf pink shrimp at Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille, a local institution founded by author Randy Wayne White. The mood is equally casual at 400 Rabbits, one of Sanibel's newest outposts, which dishes up authentic Mexican fare. Date nights call for a local fillet at Sweet Melissa's Cafe, helmed by chef and James Beard Award semifinalist Melissa Donahue. Satisfy your sweet tooth at Joey's Custard, where the ice creams are adorably named after Sanibel seashells.
Grab a basket, and hit the shell-dotted sands. Bowman's Beach is world-famous for its bounty, but locals go to the quieter Algiers Beach on the southern side. Adventures in Paradise also offers a shelling trip to more remote shorelines. After beachcombing, rent a pair of wheels from Billy's Bike Shop to cruise the town. Drop off the children at the Sanibel Sea School for an afternoon of hands-on wildlife education.
You can venture down Periwinkle Way, the main drag, for your retail fix. Periwinkle Place is a one-stop shop for tons of Sanibel swag, from the tropical decor at Island Style Galleries to the quirky gifts at Trader Rick's. Afterward, browse the shelves at Gene's Books, a quaint shop known for its sizable mystery selection.
Gorgeous views and resort amenities—including multiple restaurants, a spa, complimentary bikes, and a kids' camp—abound at the Sundial Beach Resort & Spa. Looking for a quieter place to stay? There's no shortage of cottage rentals. 'Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa in sleepier Captiva (Sanibel's sister island) provides both beach- and bay-view options. The Periwinkle Cottages are a bit more affordable and filled with Old Florida charm.