Sanibel and Captiva Island Family Travel Guide

Secluded, shell-strewn Sanibel and Captiva Islands offer the optimal uncluttered, sophisticated beach retreat. These subtropical isles, connected to the mainland by a scenic three-mile causeway, are the southernmost in a chain of barrier islands stretching along the southwest coast.

In this minimally developed paradise, you will find no traffic lights, skyscrapers, neon signs, or chain restaurants. Zoning ordinances mandate that all human-made structures blend naturally into the wilderness environment. A national wildlife refuge takes up a major portion of Sanibel Island. Home to roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons, alligators, and otters, the J.N. “Ding” National Wildlife Refuge offers guests open-air tram rides with a naturalist on board. Visitors can also drive, bike, walk, or canoe the winding water and land routes.

World-renown as a spectacular shelling destination, Sanibel’s beaches run for 12 miles along the south. With more than 275 shell types washing ashore, this island is considered the best site in the nation for collecting shells, and third-best in the world.

At the other end of the pleasure spectrum, Sanibel also has plenty of chic shops, galleries, restaurants, and resorts. All are artfully sheltered from the roadway by lush canopies of majestic palms, Australian pines, and bright floral blooms.

Sanibel Island

Sanibel is a paradise. There are no stoplights, no neon signs, no billboards, no high-rise buildings, no fast-food restaurants. Over 50% of the land area is protected in national wildlife refuges. See alligators, dolphins, manatees, playful otters, ospreys, pelicans, roseate spoonbills and endangered species of wildlife that make Sanibel their home.

The agenda is relaxation pure and the island philosophy is to live in harmony with nature. Just being there, wandering around the beaches and shelling, fulfills the desires of many but if you want to be more active, you will never run out of fun things to do. There are miles of peaceful bike paths, unique mangrove-lined bayous for kayaking and Florida’s finest backwaters and deep-water recreational fishing, just to name a few.

Gulf Beach

Neatly nestled on Sanibel’s desirable East End directly on the gorgeous Gulf shore you’ll find the lovely community of Gulf Beach. This low density, 14 unit complex offers privacy, tranquility and a truly tropical atmosphere. Close proximity to the historic Sanibel Lighthouse, shopping, dining and easy on/off island access makes this location hard to beat. Unlike most communities, the pool and social areas are thoughtfully tucked to the side of the building allowing Gulf Beach to offer a totally unobstructed Gulf of Mexico view.

Attractions: Sanibel Lighthouse, Sanibel’s Fishing Pier, Bailey Matthews Shell Museum, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, C.R.O.W. Clinic for the Care and Rehabilitation of Wildlife, SCCF Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Sanibel’s Historical Museum, Sanibel Public Library, Tarpon Bay Kayaking and Fishing, Big Arts (Barrier Island Group for the Arts), Periwinkle Playhouse, Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Everglades Day Safari, Everglades National Park

Captiva Island

Captiva Island ranked as one of the country’s most romantic beaches, is located toward Sanibel’s northern tip, connected by a short, picturesque bridge. According to legend, Captiva Island got its name when pirate Jose Gaspar kept beautiful women captive here in the late 1700s. Today Captiva’s white beaches are legendary.

More remote than Sanibel, Captiva Island abounds with outdoor beauty. It was in this peaceful haven that Anne Morrow Lindberg, wife of the well-known aviator, penned “A Gift from the Sea,” her best-selling memoir. The contemplative volume includes chapters such as, “The Beach,” “Moon Shell,” and “Oyster Bed,” reflecting the treasures to be discovered here. This tiny sliver of land contains four miles of sandy beaches.

Off the coast of Captiva and Sanibel, part of Florida’s Tropical Island Getaway, are more than 100 islands. Many are uninhabited mangrove clusters, while others boast spectacular beaches.

A major attraction on Captiva is the South Seas Resort, a huge luxury resort with a busy marina at the northern tip of the isle. From the marina, Captiva Cruises launches boat rides to many of the outer islands, including Cabbage Key, where Jimmy Buffet is said to have written the words to the popular song “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Other cruise destinations are Useppa Island, Boca Grande, and Cayo Costa Island. On almost every trip, cruisers spot dolphins jumping playfully in the wake of the vessel.

For dining, a fun place to enjoy a hearty meal and a quirky environment is at Captiva’s Bubble Room, which features memorabilia from the 1930s-1950s. The unique decor captures the anything-goes-attitude of this tropical island hideaway. Another favorite is Mucky Duck, on the Captiva waterfront, specializing in tantalizingly fresh seafood.

Sanibel Island offers a wider array of dining and lodging options. For award-winning gourmet dining, try Chez Le Bear at the Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa. They also offer a dinner cruise aboard a custom-made yacht.

To reach this Gulf of Mexico getaway, 17 miles southwest of Fort Myers, take Interstate 75 to Exit 21 (Daniels Parkway) west to Summerlin Road. Get on the Sanibel Causeway, pay the $3 round-trip toll, and cross into the coast of seashells.

Periwinkle Drive is Sanibel Island’s main thoroughfare. It leads to Gulf Drive, which is lined with lodging to fit the needs of any type of visitor. In Captiva Island, Captiva Road is the major passageway. A friendly Visitor’s Center is posted on the causeway on the way to the island.

Sanibel Captiva Family Travel

Families will find friendly accommodations in both Sanibel Island and Captiva Island. Most resorts and inns are geared toward one-week family vacation stays. Many have specially designed kids’ programs and plenty of planned outdoor activities.  On Gulf Boulevard in Sanibel, Casa Ybel has a children’s program and a recreation program, as well as a playground, game room, and babysitting. Sundial Beach Resort also a children’s program, game room, and babysitting.

In Captiva Island, South Seas Resort and ‘Tween Waters Inn have organized programs for kids, as well as nature guides available on the property.

Budget Travel to Sanibel

Best prices for visitors on a shoestring are found from June through the end of November. During the winter months, most rooms go for more than a pretty penny. Periwinkle Way and Gulf Drive are good sources for reasonably priced lodging during the low season. Many have whirlpools, bicycles, and grills. Some throw in a free continental breakfast, including Best Western Sanibel Island Beach Resort and Brennan’s Tarpon Tale Inn. Because both islands are so small, you’re only steps from the water wherever you rest your bones.


Sanibel Captiva Fishing – A professional and experienced fishing guide for the waters surrounding Sanibel and Captiva Island.

Shelling Along Florida’s Coast
One hundred barrier islands hugging more than 50 miles of Southwest Florida beach shelter one of the world’s top shelling areas. If avid shellers cannot journey to such spots as India, South Africa, the Philippines or Australia, then the much closer Sanibel and Captiva islands provide just as many shelling opportunities.

To B&B or Not to B&B — You Decide
From chintz to hot chocolate, from mountain retreat to an urban oasis, where do you want to B&B? Long the mainstay of European travelers, the bed and breakfast options stateside have expanded to include hostelries with hospitality for folks from their honeymoon through their golden wedding anniversary.

Snorkeling with Manatees: An Encounter with the Endangered
We eased into the 72-degree water of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge for a close-up swim with a few of the 2,600 manatees surviving in Florida.

West Coast Florida: In Search of Natural Florida Preserved
Mesmerized by an anhinga bird spearing small fish with its beak, we let our kayaks drift down the headwaters of the Hillsborough River, near Tampa.

Best Time to Go

Definitely, a year-round destination for fishermen — grouper, cobia, flounder, and other fish are hauled in 12 months out of the year. The Boston Red Soxs are islanders during the month of March; spring training takes place at the City of Palms Park. March also hosts the annual Fort Myers Shrimp Festival.

From April through October you’ll usually find perfect beach weather. During November, you can catch the annual Ft. Myers Sand Sculpting Contest — this event is almost 20 years old. Party animals please note that alcoholic beverages are prohibited on the beaches from November through May.

Average Weather

January is the “coldest” month, with average daytime highs of 72 degrees. From April through October the average daytime highs are in the 80s or 90s, with average lows ranging from the 60s to the 70s.

Day Trips

Sanibel Island Adventures, accessible at (941) 826-7566, offers day trips and overnights around the Southwest Florida waters, as does Captiva Cruises, who can be reached at (941) 472-5300.

In nearby Fort Myers you can tour the Edison-Ford Winter Home and Laboratory, Burroughs House, a turn-of-the-century dwelling on the National Register of Historic Places or the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium. Eden Vineyard Winery in Alva, Florida is the vineyard in the USA that is farthest south. Many area options for eco-tours are available.


Southwest Florida International Airport in nearby Lee County is served by almost all major airlines — it’s an easy 45-minute drive to Sanibel and Captiva Islands. From the airport, Apple Transportation and San/Cap Airport Shuttle – both at 800-852-7027 – provide service to all area hotels.

Sanibel Taxi, (941) 472-4160, also serves the area. Taxi and limousine service are available on both islands – there is no other public transport. Sanibel Island has 26 miles of bike paths; speak to your hotel about area bike rental.