On Florida’s west coast, just west of Fort Myers, lie the beautiful islands of Sanibel and Captiva. Long known for their magnificent shelling, white sand beaches and spectacular sunsets, these sister islands are more than just another pretty Florida destination. With miles of wildlife refuge conservation, beach shack bungalows and no high rises to speak of, the overall feel is laid-back and low-key. If you want to get away from it all, this is the place.
As with any island destination, Sanibel and Captiva are a great romantic get-away, but they are also extremely family-friendly. Whether it be shelling the scenic beaches, biking around the islands, going for nature walks and looking for wildlife, water sports, or grabbing a slice of cake from the famous Bubble Room, there are plenty of activities beyond beach life. But we do love the beaches here and spend most of our time on them; they are some of Florida’s finest.
To get to the islands, there is the Sanibel Causeway, the bridge that connects the islands to the mainland. Be forewarned it can take a while to cross the bridge, depending on what time of day you go. So go early, early early to avoid the notorious traffic! But the bridge is a good thing, as you can make what you want out of the islands. If you want to go for a 1 or 2 week stay, you can, and if you want to plan a simple day trip, you can do that as well. Note, there is a $6 toll to cross the bridge. But once you are there, you are in your own oasis of island life.
So what are the main differences between Sanibel and Captiva? Sanibel is the first island you get to after crossing the causeway, and also the bigger of the two islands. Though both islands are famous for their shelling – some of the best in the world, with 15 miles of beach –Sanibel’s east-west orientation (unlike most north-west oriented islands) makes it easy for the shells to roll in and stay put. The shelling is unparalleled and people from all over flock here to look for shells.
Sanibel is also known for its abundance of nature trails and wildlife. The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is here to walk around and explore. There is also the popular Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Simply put, Sanibel is a nature-lover’s paradise.
Captiva is smaller and further away from the mainland, as you have to take a small bridge from island to island. This means less people, and less crowds. It is so narrow that at some points you can see water on both sides. This automatically lends itself to having a slightly more laid-back and relaxed feel, being that much further away from the mainland.
Dowtown Captiva is a funky mix of beach shack style houses and restaurants, with swirls of bright beachy colors. We love the vibe of Captiva and tend to spend more time here. Grab a drink from the outdoor bar at the Mucky Duck pub, set right on the beach in downtown Captiva, watch the sunset while your kids play around in the sand, and you’ll swear there’s nothing more peaceful. The famous South Seas Resort is also located on the northern tip of Captiva – occupying 300 acres, it has long been serving families who want an upscale retreat.
Whichever you prefer, both islands have beautiful, pristine beaches with an abundance of shells, including over 400 varieties. There is a reason people the world over come to visit. See a list below of the beaches to go to, all with their own flavor.
Alison Hagerup Beach Park
Also known as Captiva Beach and said to be one of the most romantic beaches in the world. Concur completely! It’s breathtaking. There is a (very limited) parking lot adjacent to South Seas Resort. We tend to find parking elsewhere near the Bubble Room and Mucky Duck and enter there.
14790 Captiva Drive, Captiva Island
Bowman’s Beach Park
GREAT family-friendly beach with clean facilities and a playground. Miles of white sandy beach. Go on the early side to get a parking spot. $4 per hour.
1700 Bowman’s beach Road, Sanibel Island
Located on the eastern tip of Sanibel with both Gulf of Mexico and Estero Bay views. Working lighthouse, boardwalk, nature trails. The shells are small, but there are many. Parking $4/hour.
1 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island
Located on the Southern tip of Captiva where Sanibel meets at Blind Pass Bridge (the beach on the Sanibel side is called Blind Pass Beach), this is a popular spot to go shelling and fishing. Beware of strong currents and swimming with the little ones.
17200 Captiva Drive, Captiva Drive, Captiva Island
Beyond beach life there are sports activities, shopping and dining.
A Captiva classic, this beachside pub has been operating since the 1970’s. The pub fair is good but nothing special, however the setting is very special. If you don’t want to wait the long 1-2 hour wait for food, grab a drink from the beachside bar, or you can even order apps off a special menu inside and your name will be called, thus foregoing the lines.
11546 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 239.472.3434
“It’s always Christmas at the Bubble Room” is their motto at this quirky, colorful restaurant. Known for their insanely delicious cakes and pies.
15001 Captiva Drive, Captiva, 239.472.5558
This local seafood chain is widely popular and they make great mojitos. Locations in both Sanibel and Captiva.
975 Rabbit Road, Sanibel. 5400 S. Seas Plantation Road, Captiva
It’s all about the ambience at this beachy outdoor restaurant with good food and excellent keylime pie.
11509 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 239.395.4000
Popular waterside restaurant with beautiful views.
15183 Captiva Drive, Captiva, 239. 472.3337
As for places to stay, both Sanibel and Captiva have an assortment of hotels, b & b’s, motels, resorts, house rentals, etc. To see a full list, and for other noteworthy pieces of information such as activities and shopping, see the Sanibel-Captiva website here .