After several trips to Disney World, Miami and Cancun, we got the chance to experience something very different when relatives brought us to Sanibel Island, a small island near the West Coast city of Fort Myers, Florida .
Sanibel andCaptiva are throwbacks to the old Florida, the days before high-rise hotels and chain restaurants replaced quirky (if corny) eateries and small (if a bit shabby) beach bungalows. The narrow island has one main road where the action takes place, and the rest is predominantly beach and jungle. And by action we mean, places to rent bicycles, get coffee or ice cream, or pick up some souvenirs.
A world away from those trendy South Beach hotels, this is the Florida vacation destination for people who want to kick back with a book, a bicycle and a hammock, or get active with a kayak, sailboat, scuba tank or fishing pole.
Here are some top picks:
The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge‘s 6,400 acres cover most of the island’s northern half. A highlight for guests who like to kayak or canoe is Tarpon Bay, a sheltered area of waters calm enough for a beginner with enough wildlife and mangroves to keep even the most reluctant naturalists and birdwatchers in ecstasy. Lucky visitors might even glimpse a manatee (I have yet to do so).
The park’s only concessionaire, Tarpon Bay Explorers, rents equipment or offers cruises or kayak/canoe tours like the popular Sunset Rookery and Breakfast Cruise. Kids will enjoy the Touch Tank Exploration, where they can learn about and hold local sea life, including crabs, sea urchins, oysters and seahorses.
The 25 miles of trails and utterly flat terrain make the island ideal for getting around by bike. Billy’s Rentals has almost any human-powered vehicle you can think of (and then some): bikes, jogging strollers, three-wheeled adult tricycles, recumbent bikes, tandems, and the family favorite: surreys with the canopy on top. Daily rentals start at $15, but rates go down sharply for multi-day or week rentals — with a month at only $150 for a typical bike. Segways and scooters are available, too.
Sanibel is known for its shells. The beach is narrow and filled with so many, it’s almost impossible to walk and not crush some. As an avid shell collector, I was disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to stop by the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museumwith its extensive collection of shells (150,000+) and exhibits about everything from endangered snails, the fossils that testify to Florida’s relatively recent existence as the ocean’s floor, native American shell people (the Calusa) and the children’s learning lab.
Sanibel has many restaurants focused on whimsy and character.
We ate at The Island Cow, an oversized house with a sand parking lot and an abundance of cow collectibles including Holsteins with orange legs and purple-cow mermaids (half cow, half fish). The four-foot frog on the ceiling, Adirondack deck chairs adorned with pineapples and palm trees and ring toss game make the wait for a table (15 minutes or less) go by faster — and keep kids amused during the meal. Given the quick pace, the food is best when it is ordered straight off the menu, people with special requests or requirements would do well to dine elsewhere.
Sanibel Bean is one of the cafes that make you glad indie coffee shops still exist. A nexus of activity for everyone on the island, it has coffee, sandwiches, ice cream and yes, the fancy caffeinated specialties as well. The walls are covered with evidence of visitors’ fierce loyalty: There are hundreds of photos of patrons holding up a Sanibel Bean bumper sticker at the world’s exotic, and not-so-exotic locales, including the Grand Canyon, Iraq, India, even Antarctica. Although we have not been there, some locals recommended Doc Ford’s (especially the hot sauce) which is probably the only restaurant in Florida that stars in a series of books (The Doc Ford Novels).
The shops on Sanibel are small boutiques where you can find souvenirs, books, sports gear and clothing. Just cruising down the main road will reveal most of the island’s shopping opportunities. Here are two I visited.
The Sanibel Island Bookshop has a small selection of candles, greeting cards, puzzles, t-shirts and other accessories as well as New York Times bestsellers and a small children’s section.
Bailey’s General Store is an upscale grocery store with a small gift shop and bakery.
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Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn’t been found.