What sleepy, seductive Sanibel provides by the bucketload is that rare gift: peace and quiet. There’s nothing fast-paced or in your face about it. Much of the island is protected, so all sorts of flora and fauna thrive there and its impossibly beautiful beaches shimmer as if looked at through a luminescent kaleidoscope – a mass of bright, shiny sea shells that glint in the hot sun.
Captiva Island sits to the north of Sanibel, linked by a bridge and is a smaller, less populated destination with a real desert island vibe. A place of sunseekers and lazy picnics, there’s little to do, but that’s the point – but for a few good seafood restaurants, it’s a pocket of paradise wrapped in soft, white sand beaches and scattered with pretty, pastel-coloured seashells.
Named after Jay Norwood Darling, the 20th century Pulitzer prizewinner who campaigned to protect Sanibel from developers, this is a whopping 7,600-acre wildlife refuge that’s home to more than 245 bird species, 60 types of reptile, 35 mammal species and miles of paddling, hiking and biking trails. Open year round, you can organise recreational experience tours there lasting up to half a day.
There are 37km of easily navigable, mostly flat biking trails connecting the far east of Sanibel Island to Bowman’s Beach in the west via a fantastic 6.4km ‘Wildlife Drive’ stretch that runs right through the JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. There are some shorter, very scenic sections that run for only a couple of kilometres, or you can pre-plan your route and go for miles exploring the whole island.
It would be reasonable to assume that Captiva and North Captiva Island are the same; they’re not. Severed from its parent island by an angry hurricane and only accessible by boat, North Captiva is tucked away among the mangrove islands. There are no cars and no crowds, just a couple of social clubs to keep the locals lubricated. All you need do is sit, grab a drink and watch the sunset. Bliss.
The beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel deserve their own spotlight here, they really are that good. The sensational seashells in every colour of shining pearl that wash up, as if painting a divine but different picture daily, do add an extra level of ‘wow’, but the sand on which they sit is gloriously soft and the sea that brings them in is aquamarine, warm and clear enough to see your feet in.
Committed to the coastal habitat and aquatic resources in and around the waters of Sanibel and Captiva, this foundation manages over 1,300 acres of land on the islands and provides a wide choice of educational and very interesting programs for people of all ages from beach and trail walks to boat tours, wading trips and kayaking. There’s a Nature Centre with trails and a butterfly house too.
Running half day and full day course for both adults and children alongside longer summer and winter camps, the Sanibel Sea School will teach you everything about marine ecosystems and conservation, all taught in a vibrant and very captivating way. Programs include courses for kids aged 6-13 as well as those for adults, families and groups, and involve lots of fun outdoor activity.
Shells are undeniably one of the earth’s most beautiful natural gifts, but rarely do shells taken out of their natural habitat look as lovely as those left sitting where they washed up. It’s not a great idea to hoard them – especially on the scale encouraged here – so, look at them, learn about them and marvel at their shiny coats, but then leave them in their sandy beds where they belong.
Of course Fort Myers and Sanibel couldn’t remain a ‘paradise lost’ forever and while the region is popular with visitors anyway, it’s getting more popular year on year and so traffic is getting heavier too causing pollution, noise disturbance and a danger to wandering animals. It’s ridiculously easy to hire alternative transport in the area – be it bike, boat, or Segway – so go for something greener.