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Sanibel Island in Southwest Florida has 15 miles of unspoiled beaches lined with palm trees, 25 miles of scenic bike paths, world-renowned shelling, and the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge! We spent one day of our trip to Fort Myers on Sanibel Island and driving from each side of the island much longer than I thought it would so I’ve created this 24-hour guide with top Sanibel and Captiva Island things to do organized from the East side of the island to the West!
Quick guide to things to do on Sanibel Island
We stayed in Matlacha and drove to Sanibel in the morning – about a 51-minute drive (60 minutes to Captiva). If you want to stay on Sanibel Island, there are so many cute, colorful vacation rentals, condos, cottages, hotels, and resorts.
TIP: Toll is $6 into Sanibel Island
BREAKFAST AT Lighthouse Café
The Lighthouse Cafe is considered the world’s best breakfast with eggs, omelets, hot cakes, Belgian waffles, and French toast served 7am to 3pm. I’m so sad we went straight to Captiva to shoot photos in the morning so Lighthouse Cafe was closed by the time we got to the other side so I’m putting this at the top of Sanibel Island Things To Do List! Dinner is served Dec 15 to Easter weekend only.
362 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL, lighthousecafe.com
VISIT THE HISTORIC SANIBEL LIGHTHOUSE
Located on Sanibel Island’s southern tip, the Sanibel Island Light or Point Ybel Light was one of the first lighthouses on Florida’s Gulf coast north of Key West and the Dry Tortugas. The light, 98-foot above sea level, on an iron skeleton tower was first lit on August 20, 1884, and has a central spiral staircase beginning about 10 feet above the ground. Sanibel Lighthouse is down the street from Lighthouse Cafe so come afterward to walk off that breakfast!
112 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL, sanibellighthouse.com
SHELLING AT BOWMAN’S BEACH
Yes, shelling is a real activity and there are 400 species of multi-colored seashells from the commonplace scallop, lightning whelk, Florida fighting couch, and dollar, coquina, starfish, and clam to the exotic, like the tulip, olive, and fragile paper fig shell. Picking shells on Bowman’s Beach was surprisingly therapeutic! Beach amenities at Bowman’s Beach include parking ($5 fee/hour), bike rack, shaded playground, BBQ grills, picnic tables, outdoor showers, and restrooms. All of the Sanibel beaches are family friendly activity!
Blind Pass Beach is another popular shelling location on Sanibel Island and I did stop by but it was rather small.
Note: The City of Sanibel Island prohibits all live shelling.
1700 Bowmans Beach Rd, Sanibel, FL
LUNCH AT THE ISLAND COW
This colorful casual restaurant loved by the locals serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We scarfed down a delicious fresh salmon sandwich (a generous portion of salmon) and pina colada before going on our boat cruise at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. There’s a back patio that is pet friendly too.
2163 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL, sanibelislandcow.com
BOAT RIDE AROUND J.N. “DING” DARLING NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Ding Darling was an American cartoonist who won two Pulitzer Prizes and who founded the National Wildlife Federation in 1936. You can rent a bike, paddle board, or kayak from Tarpon Bay Explorers to explore the refuge. We opted for the nature and sealife boat ride around the wildlife refuge and spotted many different kinds of birds and manatees! The 7,600-acre wildlife refuge is home to 51 types of reptiles and amphibians, 32 mammal species, more than 230 species of birds.
900 Tarpon Bay Rd, Sanibel, FL, tarponbayexplorers.com
YUCATAN SHRIMP AT Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille serves up Caribbean flavors on Sanibel Island with fresh seafood. The Yucatan shrimp is their signature dish – Tomlison traveled to the Bay of Ascension, Quitana Roo, Mexico to fish for bonefish and came back with this recipe. Steamed peel-and-eat shrimp in a dressing of real butter, garlic, Colombian chilies, fresh cilantro, and Key lime juice.
2500 Island Inn Rd, Sanibel, FL, docfords.com
DINNER AT TIMBERS RESTAURANT
Timbers originally started out as a steakhouse in 1978 and over the years transitioned into a fish market and restaurant by customer requests. I loved the freshly made bread that comes to the table and that the entrees come with the option of a bowl of soup (we got the clam chowder) or salad. The menu notes which fish are caught locally so we had the black grouper and it was delicious!
703 Tarpon Bay Rd, Sanibel, FL, timbersofsanibel.com
DESSERTS AT THE BUBBLE ROOM
It’s always Christmas in the Bubble Room! This bright, colorful pastel building is hard to miss on Captiva. Once you walk up the steps, you’re greeted with a big Merry Christmas sign and then inside, the decor features old toys from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Try desserts like the white Christmas cake, orange crunch cake, and Jamaican rum cake.
15001 Captiva Dr, Captiva, FL, bubbleroomrestaurant.com
WATCH THE SUNSET AT CAPTIVA ISLAND
The beach on the west side of Captiva Island is stunning with the white sand and blue waters of Florida. The sunsets on this side of the island so try to get to this side of the island to see the iconic red-orange Florida sunset!