There are no stoplights here. No buildings taller than a palm tree. This is the paradise that you have dreamed of but didn’t realize still existed.
As soon as you drive over the bridge separating this barrier island from the mainland, you’ll realize that this is a place that has succeeded in preserving a different time, a different way of life. Of all of the amazing vacation spots in Florida, Sanibel Island is at the top of my list. This is a true family-friendly paradise. You won't find any college spring breakers here, only a slower-paced life where everyone abides by a lights-out policy at night to help the hatching sea turtles find their way to the ocean. Beach and water activities galore, fascinating sea life viewing, unique restaurants offering an array of coastal cuisine, and plenty of shops to peruse while enjoying an ice cream cone are just some of the reasons why Sanibel Island is a must-see destination.
What to do?
Due to its atypical placement in relationship to the Florida coastline (east-west as opposed to north-south), this island is internationally known a true sheller’s paradise. And it lives up to that bill. The wide variety and sheer number of shells will surely surprise a newcomer. The “Sanibel Stoop” is a phrase widely used here, and you will quickly understand why.
If you’re looking to experience the island’s wildlife, head to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This is where education and fun meet as you enjoy biking and walking paths, winding canoe trails, and a four-mile scenic drive. Our 5-year old immensely enjoyed the nature and sea life cruise which is offered by Tarpon Bay Explorers. This 1-1/2-hour cruise allows visitors to explore the wildlife refuge by water and experience some of the over 300 species of bird and mammals, many of which are endangered. Make sure you arrive early so as not to miss the thoroughly enjoyable touch tank presentation, where your brave little one may be able to hold a spider crab or even try on a Loggerhead sea turtle shell for size. Cost: Youth $15; Adult $23.
Biking is a wonderful way to get to know the island, navigate from place to place, and hopefully encounter some wildlife. It is safe pedaling here with over 25 miles of carefully maintained trails, impeccable signage, and a true bicycle-friendly spirit in the community. Cyclists can make their way from their hotel to shopping districts, restaurants, beaches, wooden bridges, wildlife trails, and back again. Among the many trails, the Rabbit Road Trail and Wildlife Trail of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge are the best. Gray marsh rabbits, wading herons, and alligator snouts are common sightings. Cost: Youth Free; Adult $1. Many hotels offer free bicycles for their guests, and bicycle rental shops abound. The island is fairly flat, making it easy for kid cyclists and those pulling a kiddie trailer.
There are many unique and distinct beaches on Sanibel that deserve a visit. Dogs are allowed on all Sanibel beaches as long as they are leashed. Begin in the morning by touring the functional and historic lighthouse that greets visitors at appropriately-named Lighthouse Beach. Located at the far east end of the island, this beach features a boardwalk nature trail through native wetlands. Bowman’s Beach, located mid-island, is a relaxing next stop with its expansive stretch of white sand, refreshing gulf breezes, and abundance of pelicans and sandpipers. Turner Beach is located at the west end of the island and is the perfect spot to catch the sunset each evening. Pack your picnic basket, beach towel, camera, and shelling bag and enjoy nature’s majesty.
KidTripster Tip: While you will find shells by the millions any time of day, if you’re looking for that perfect Florida fighting conch, lightning whelk, jumonia or sand dollar, head out early in the morning at low tide. Ask for a tide schedule when you check in at your hotel.
How do I know the names of all those shells? Well, you will, too, after a visit to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. With record-setting shells from not only Florida but around the world, you are sure to see something that amazes you. Our 5-year old took great pride in completing his shell scavenger hunt and choosing his reward. Marine-themed movies and live shell tank presentations with a marine biologist are regularly scheduled throughout the day. Cost: Youth (5-17) $5; Adult $11.
KidTripster Tip: Head to the museum for an hour or so in the afternoon, when everyone needs a break from the sun.
Where to eat?
For the perfect laid-back island atmosphere and extraordinary food, try The Island Cow. There may be a small wait, but it’s worth it! Live entertainment, outdoor tropical seating, and outdoor games make this the perfect family spot. You’ll be greeted with a plate of scrumptious muffins to enjoy while you ponder the menu (two thumbs up motioned my son with his mouth full). Unique appetizers like gatortail or crispy fried artichokes make a great start. The menu here is expansive. Sandwiches, salads, pastas, steaks, barbecue, and catch of the day, not to mention the most impressive kid’s menu ever, make this a dining destination.
Located at short walk from Lighthouse Beach, The Lighthouse Café is a sensational spot for breakfast or lunch (also open for dinner during peak travel season). Its claim of “The World’s Best Breakfast” may, in fact, be true. My whole wheat blueberry pancakes and accompanying Applewood bacon hit the spot after a morning at the beach. Our little one cleaned his plate as well and got to blow the train whistle on his way out the door to show his satisfaction.
When you’re ready to take a break from the beach and satisfy your sweet tooth, Pinocchio’s is the place to go. Featuring an ever-changing selection of ice cream, gelatos, sundaes, and frozen drinks, there is something here for everyone. There isn’t much room inside, but the dozen or so rocking chairs outside make a great place to enjoy your treat. For those looking for something a little more savory, Geppetto’s Beach Foodies, located in the same building, features artisan sandwiches, pizzas, salads, and pastries perfect to grab and go. The bread here is baked daily and smells amazing. Pineapple coconut luau bread – need I say more?
Where to stay?
With traditional hotel rooms, large suites, and family cottages, the Island Inn offers the perfect-sized lodging for every family. Our son was completely amused with the folded towel swan that greeted us. Units are updated and very modern. While you will likely want to sample much of the island’s cuisine, it is nice to have a kitchenette for the occasional meal in. The screened-in porch is a delightful oasis for enjoying a morning coffee or listening to the evening waves. There is much attention to detail here. Each unit has its own outdoor shell sorting station, aslated table where shells can be rinsed, dried, (or else they will smell!) and displayed for all to envy. (There appears to be a code among shell collectors that you don’t take someone else’s shells.) The complimentary breakfast was perfect, and the staff was most helpful and gracious. They even have beach toys at the front desk for your little one; just ask. Rooms start at $159/night during low season (September).
KidTripster Tip: Upon arrival, be sure to sign up for the guided shell walk. A marine biologist from the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is on the grounds each morning at 9:00 a.m. and leads visitors on a very educational tour of the beach. You will be amazed at how much sea life is right under your toes. But don’t forget to sign up; space is limited to the first 15 guests.
Periwinkle Park Campground offers accommodations for tent campers, pop-up trailers, and large RVs. With an unbeatable location near the beach and convenient walk to everything, many campers come for a few days and end up staying much longer. Rates start at $40/night/2 campers during low season (June-October).
Sanibel Island is located on the gulf coast of Florida, approximately 2-1/2 hours south of Tampa and 2-1/2 hours north of Miami by car.
Greg Bailey lives in the Tampa area with his wife and two sons. Born and raised in Michigan, he picked blueberries and sold them door to door as a kid. He now considers himself somewhat of a blueberry pancake connoisseur.