Fourteen miles west of Fort Myers, Sanibel Island is a long, narrow strip of sand, which parallels Florida’s Gulf coast and forms the boundaries of the city of Sanibel. Regional history and legend holds that, in 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was in search of the Fountain of Youth when he discovered Sanibel Island, which he named for his queen, Isabella. In the early 1800s, rumors swirled that a buccaneer pirate named José Gaspar buried stolen treasure somewhere along the barrier island’s beaches.
Today, coconut palms still soar high above those sands, now scattered with a different kind of treasure: 250 varieties of seashells dotting the sugar-white shores. Sanibel Island’s east-west bearing creates a natural “catcher’s mitt” for seashells. One of the top attractions on the beach is shell collecting, referred to by locals as the “Sanibel stoop.” Join in combing the shoreline during low tide for gastropods or wading through the warm Gulf of Mexico waters to find conches and whelks. Sightseeing at Sanibel Island’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum keeps you dry while you marvel at beautiful locally collected shells and exhibits from around the world.
Perhaps the most compelling attraction to Sanibel Island is the area’s mindful control of development. A stone’s throw from touristy Naples, Sanibel remains a quiet seaside village with no traffic lights and a main thoroughfare called Periwinkle Way. Oaks and Australian pines shade the colorful boutiques, eateries and quaint motels. Unwind along the 15 miles of sandy beaches, cast a line from the fishing pier near Sanibel Lighthouse or enjoy prime sunset views from west-facing Turner Beach.
The protected bayous and Tarpon Bay make the extensive J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which blankets half the island, ripe for sightseeing. Sanibel Island’s eastern end holds 6,000 acres of mangrove swamps that are home to alligators, raccoons, otters and 230 species of birds. Outdoor enthusiasts kayak through the twisting waterways, study herons on the mudflats, or bike through wildlife-laden Bailey Tract. Tarpon Bay Explorers rents out watercraft and leads a tram tour narrated by an expert naturalist.
On Dunlop Road near Tarpon Bay, history buffs can explore Sanibel Historical Village and Museum. Its seven restored buildings include the 1896 Sanibel School House and 1926 rural post office and Old Bailey General Store. Exhibits include an overview of the island’s original inhabitants, the Native American Calusa tribe, as well as photographs from Sanibel Island's pioneer era.
Moments from the museum, the 150-seat Schoolhouse Theater on Periwinkle Way features Broadway comedies and dramas starring professional actors. Programs run from October through August.
When the stars illuminate Sanibel Island, visitors head to the easy-going bars and restaurants on Periwinkle Way. Live bands perform at Jacaranda’s Patio Lounge, which offers an extensive wine list and daily-catch seafood such as Florida snapper and lobster. Less than half a mile away, housed in a bright pink building, the Lazy Flamingo sports bar and restaurant serves Key lime pie and signature local conch meat in salads, fritters and chowder.