The simple act of driving to Sanibel — Florida’s secluded barrier island off Fort Myers — puts you in relaxation mode. The three-mile-long causeway bisects a startling blue Gulf of Mexico with a sun-dappled surface seeming to sparkle with thousands of stars. Pelicans glide playfully alongside your car, and fragrant scents ride the air.
Once on 12-mile-long Sanibel, the sky-high buildings that have trampled most of Florida are absent, replaced by seaside-hued structures “no taller than the tallest palm tree.” Tropical foliage hugs streets with evocative names like Castaways Lane, while the absence of any stoplights and the presence of abundant wildlife make it difficult to remember that you’re still in the United States.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who wrote a love song to Sanibel and Captiva in her 1955 volume “Gift from the Sea,” captures the island’s spirit: “People, too, become like islands in such an atmosphere, self-contained, whole and serene; respecting other people’s solitude, not intruding on their shores, standing back in reverence before the miracle of another individual.”
The fact that more than two-thirds of Sanibel is held as a nature conservancy engenders reverence for exotic birds and wildlife, as well. It’s easy to encounter them on Sanibel’s 25 miles of bicycle trails.
WHAT TO DO
1. As Sanibel is renowned for its shells, a fitting attraction is The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum — the only such museum in the nation (adult admission $15). Shell displays from around the globe include the Japanese “spiral tudicla” that inspired the design of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, as well as Sailor Valentines — flowery mosaics crafted from shells in faraway ports for sailors to carry home. Holding pride of place is the museum’s collection of local whelks, conches, and murexes that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, having been swept ashore and held captive by Sanibel’s horizontal positioning. Marine biologists offer workshops, beach walks, and touch tanks.
2. In the 1940s, political cartoonist and conservationist J.N. “Ding” Darling was instrumental in having President Truman declare 6,400 acres of Sanibel a national wildlife refuge. You can enjoy Darling’s legacy on the four-mile-long Wildlife Drive at the Darling National Wildlife Refuge, accessible by tram tour ($13), automobile ($5), or bike ($1). Mud flats and estuaries hug both sides of the one-way drive, where migratory birds, native fish and mammals, and the occasional alligator thrive. Pull over often, and you may spot a white ibis, anhinga, snowy egret, or flock of roseate spoonbills. Equally compelling are the multirooted mangrove trees creeping throughout the estuary. The roots and leaves possess the remarkable ability to filter out salt from the water before it can do harm.
3. Periwinkle Way is shopping central — as well as the one road with perpetual traffic congestion. A few standouts that have survived for decades, and even a century: Bailey’s General Store, originally providing seed and supplies by way of mail-boats, today offers fresh meats, seafood, groceries, beach and fishing gear, hardware, books, and a coffee/bakery bar (try the dough-ssaints); She Sells Sea Shells carries pristine examples of local shells and specimens from around the globe; The Islander Trading Post is eBay on steroids, where nooks overspill with perfume bottles, license plates, Brownie cameras, travel posters, buoy balls, and New York Times vintage editions (“Men Walk on the Moon” headline, 1969, $42); and Lily & Co. jewelers flourishes on nearby Tarpon Bay Road. Co-owner Dan Schuyler, a transplant from 30 years in the jewelry business in Maryland, travels the world seeking striking designs (Vergano diamond-accented amethyst pendant, Italian, $1150)
4. Happily, the most popular activity on the island is free: shell seeking. Before long you’ll succumb and find yourself doing “the Sanibel stoop.” Ideally, hit the shoreline at any south-facing beach an hour before low tide, where unblemished shells are revealed by the receding waters. At any time of day, though, you’ll be able to gather an abundant collection of sunset-colored Calico Scallops, spiraled Fighting Conches, yellow-lined Buttercup Lucines, and fan-shaped Pen Shells. If you happen upon the elusive speckled Junonia, you’ll be spotlighted in the local paper.
5. Perhaps skip Sanibel’s Lighthouse, outshone by New England’s.
WHERE TO EAT
1. A popular breakfast hangout, the Over Easy Café serves breakfast all day, with locally sourced items like crab and asparagus omelets or Sanibel shrimp “bennies” (both $10.99). Don’t leave without trying the giant homemade sticky rolls (orange or cinnamon, $3.99). As the owners also run a nearby pet store, dogs are welcome — and omnipresent — at the café’s patio tables.
2. Occupying several acres adjacent to city hall, the Sanibel Island Farmer’s Market has become a Sunday morning fixture for a decade. You won’t get a fresher breakfast on the island. Arrive at 8 a.m. for the best selections, and stroll your way through a moveable feast of fresh strawberries and blueberries by the crateful, sausages tucked into just-baked French baguettes, bagels to rival New York City’s, and inventive offerings like cheese empanadas, or hippie loaf.
3. Join the locals for lunch or dinner at a Sanibel icon: Gramma Dot’s Seaside Saloon. Cool off in breezy porches overlooking the yachts in Sanibel Marina while experiencing sea-to-table dining. Try the much-praised spinach-boursin grouper sandwich ($17.95). Dot’s octogenarian son, Myton Ireland — a noted yacht racer — named his restaurant for her and still presides over the adjacent Ireland Yacht Sales.
4. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s present-day competition on Sanibel is resident mystery writer and former Sanibel fishing guide, Randy Wayne White. White’s fictional protagonist — crime-solving marine biologist Doc Ford — brings his passion for tropical cuisine and drink to White’s real-life establishment, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille. While awaiting your table, you can also purchase one of White’s 24 novels set in Sanibel. Libations here are all about the rum. Try a flight of three 3¾ oz. shots ($25) from Trinidad, Venezuela, Guyana, Barbados, Panama, or Puerto Rico; or go with the milder Old Havana Rum Punch ($7.95). For an entrée, savor the local snapper steamed in a banana leaf with masa harina, chili puree, and lime juice ($24.95), while you sneak a look around for White, who often writes onsite.
1. Sanibel’s nightlife is on the mellow side and runs to sipping key-lime concoctions while guitarists and vocalists entertain in the balmy night. Try The Island Cow or Traditions on the Beach.
2. Big Arts offers a rotating menu of performers, singers, visual artists, and film selections in intimate theater spaces. This winter, enjoy pop or classical music (Judy Collins, Peter Serkin), while supporting arts on the island.
WHERE TO STAY
1. The Sundial Beach Resort is a seaside complex of 19 all-suite buildings with five pools stretching a mile on Middle Gulf Drive. Recent additions include 12 pickleball courts and Shima Japanese Steakhouse. Free bikes. (Condos, from $359)
2. Casa Ybel Resort on West Gulf Drive offers 114 beachside bungalow units, with complete kitchens, living areas, and lanais. Thistle Lodge provides dining on the lush grounds. (Price varies.)
HIT THE JACKPOT
While digging your toes in the beach sand, be vigilant: In the 1800s the pirate Gasparilla is said to have buried his eye-popping treasure, as yet undiscovered, on Sanibel.
Diane Speare Triant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.