Sanibel and Captiva Islands: barefoot paradise

by Sally.Dowling

With miles of soft sand beaches and warm shallow waters, a laid-back atmosphere and abundance of wildlife, you are sure to fall in love with Sanibel and Captiva Islands

As I drove along the spanking new three mile causeway (toll $6) that connects Fort Myers on Florida's Gulf Coast with the islands of Sanibel and Captiva, I was instantly aware that the pace of life had slowed down. Much of Sanibel and Captiva is a wildlife reserve and to preserve the environment, street lights are kept to a minimum. There are no traffic lights, neon signs, billboards or fast food joints and many roads are paved with shells. I felt I had stepped back in time to the America of the 1950s.

With 25 miles of cycle paths and a speed limit for cars of just 35 mph, the obvious thing to do is ditch the car as fast as you can and pick up a rental bike. Most hotels offer free bike rental but there are many outlets where you can hire bikes of shapes and sizes. Billy’s Bike Rentals on Periwinkle Way are one of the oldest and largest on the island (www.Billysrentals.com).

Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for cycle rides, before it gets too hot. You may be lucky and spot dolphins who often swim up into the canals that criss-cross the island, or a lumbering tortoise negotiating the sidewalk around the wildlife refuge.

Sanibel and Captiva boast the most beautiful beaches - miles of soft powdery sand and gentle warm water. Get up as the sun rises and stroll along the beach, you will see pelicans flying low in formation over the shallow waters, maybe a dolphin or two and like-minded people stopping down to pick up shells. Shelling is popular with islanders and visitors alike. The beaches are covered with new shells after every tide and no one will leave without some mementos to take home. To find out about the wide variety of shells to be found visit the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on the Sanibel-Captiva Road (www.shellmuseum.org) or take an early morning boat trip with Captain Mike Fuery, Sanibel’s resident shell expert. Mike knows them all and will take you to deserted beaches to find some real beauties (www.mikefuerystours.com). His trips can be combined with a stop for breakfast or lunch at the unique Cabbage Key, a private island only accessible by boat, helicopter or seaplane.

Sanibel is internationally known as the home of the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/dingdarling). It is one of the best spots for schmoozing with birds and nature, either by driving, walking or cycling the four mile Wildlife Drive or getting onto the water in a kayak. During the winter months flocks of migrating birds make the area a bird watcher's dream while resident alligators, raccoons and manatees are often spotted. On a guided kayak tour you can learn about the delicate ecosystem sustained by the mighty mangrove trees and wetlands.

Where to eat

You won’t find McDonald’s or Burger King here but you will experience locally run restaurants with individual menus using local produce. The stylish Sanibel Steak House on Periwinkle Drive (www.thesanibelsteakhouse.com) serves the best steaks and makes for an elegant and romantic evening while the wacky Island Cow (www.sanibelislandcow.com) often has live music and is always buzzing with atmosphere. Drive to Captiva and you will find The Mucky Duck (www.muckyduck.com) renowned for its English pub atmosphere, great seafood and located right on the beach. Grab a cold beer and watch the magnificent sunsets - unforgettable.

Breakfast is my favourite meal when I am in the USA and on Sanibel the choice is vast. Amy's Overeasy Café on the Tarpon Bay Road (http://www.overeasycafesanibel.com) is just the place for homemade pancakes and French Toast. At the other end of the island, the Lighthouse Café (www.lighthousecafe.com) boasts the best breakfast in the world – and it is pretty good!

Where to shop

There are no designer malls or outlet opportunities but an array of individual boutiques and galleries strung along the main street, Periwinkle Way. Yes, prices are more expensive so, if shopping is your bag, head over the causeway for a day of retail therapy. Just 15 minutes' drive will bring you to Tanger Outlets in Fort Myers (www.tangeroutlet.com), home of all the big designer names at factory prices. If you have longer to spare just an hour's drive out of town is Miromar Outlets (www.miromaroutlets.com) the size of a small town and a shopper’s paradise.

How to get there

Sanibel is reached by a causeway that links it with the city of Fort Myers. You can fly into Fort Myers Airport by connecting through any number of American ‘gateways’ such as New York, Washington or Atlanta. Or you can fly directly into the larger airports of Tampa, Miami or even Orlando if you don’t mind a drive on arrival. Typical drive time from Tampa is 2 ½ hours and it is nearly all freeway.

Hiring a car is a must in Florida in order to get around. Being the USA the road are fast and very good but distances can be longer than you think.

Where to stay

I try to always stay at the Sanibel Inn on East Gulf Drive. It is a friendly, attractive hotel made up of guest rooms and condos. Some rooms have been updated but some are still in a ‘80s time warp. However, all are clean and comfortable. The property is right on the beach so it's no hardship to get up early and go shelling or just watch the sunrise and the pelicans flying low over the water. The hotel has a pretty pool area set among well kept gardens and also offers bikes for rental.