SANIBEL ISLAND, Florida – There are vacations you take to experience something new, to see something different, to try something you’ve never tried before.
This was not one of those vacations.
This was a trip to revisit a favorite location, to reconnect with family, to reclaim some sanity after a difficult couple of years.
Our choice of destination was obvious: Sanibel Island, Florida, where my parents lived for nearly 20 years, and where my extended family has gathered over the years for beach walks and biking, card games and cocktails.
Sanibel, off the southwest Florida coast near Fort Myers, is a barrier island approximately 12 miles long by 3 miles wide, with more than half its land protected nature preserve. There are no buildings more than three stories high here and no traffic lights; instead, during busy times, police officers direct traffic at key intersections.
Last year was the first year in more than 20 years that I didn’t make it to Sanibel, discouraged from traveling with a big group because of COVID-19.
That we ended up going earlier this month during the biggest surge of the pandemic was incredibly stressful – until I arrived and felt the sand beneath my feet. No trip in recent memory has been quite so therapeutic.
Our agenda was modest: beach, bike, pool, repeat. We were lucky and had terrific weather, with high temperatures in the upper 70s and low 80s most days (weather in January, even in south Florida, isn’t always so perfect).
If the weather cooperates, early in the new year is a nice time to go, before the crowds descend in February, March and April. Indeed, we didn’t have any trouble getting seated at our favorite restaurants and we never waited in a line for an ice cream cone.
Here then, the five things I love most about Sanibel:
1. The beach
Twelve miles long and coated with shells, the beach is the island’s biggest draw. The entire stretch of sand is public, but visitor parking is limited to a handful of lots along the island’s Gulf coast. During peak season, spots usually fill up by mid-morning.
We’re a family of beach walkers and we rose early every day to catch sunrise, typically logging several miles before lunch. Our favorite walking destinations: Lighthouse Beach Park, at the eastern end of the island, centered around the iconic Sanibel Lighthouse, built in 1884; and Gulfside Park, also a favorite biking destination, in the center of the island.
Bowman’s Beach, at the far western end of Sanibel, is the island’s widest and wildest – we hit this beach after breakfast one morning and had it nearly to ourselves. Walk west during low tide and you can almost make it to Captiva, the island just to the north of Sanibel.
I’m no collector, yet I can’t seem to keep myself from searching for interesting shells every time I’m on Sanibel. The beach is coated with them, so much so that strolling the sand barefoot can be painful. I always bring a few favorites home, which populate a bowl in my basement (this time – a couple of lightning whelks, some conchs, a jingle shell, calico clam and lacy murex).
The island accumulates many more shells than nearby beaches, primarily because of its east-west orientation, with the waves washing up large quantities of sea creatures onto the shore.
Every time I’m here, there seems to be a different specimen that is most prevalent. This time, scallop shells lined the beach, many of them still alive, a tasty target for hungry seagulls.
To learn more about the shells here (and shells everywhere), head to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum (3075 Sanibel Captiva Road). The museum offers a terrific overview of the scientific and cultural importance of shells, plus aquarium exhibits and a new special section on water quality in southwest Florida. The museum also offers guided beach walks, which my family did a few years back. Highly recommend.
Other than occasional grocery runs, our rental car sat mostly unused in our condo parking lot. Our preferred mode of transportation: two wheels.
Sanibel is home to 22 miles of dedicated bike paths, which run alongside all of the island’s main roadways. We rented coaster bikes from our condo – no gears required for the flat paths that crisscross the island. We biked to the lighthouse, to Gulfside Park and through the Dunes neighborhood, where my parents used to live.
New this year, we biked 7 miles from our condo to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which takes up much of the northern half of the island. And then we biked through it.
4. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Ding Darling protects the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. The 6,500-acre park is named after Jay Norwood Darling, an editorial cartoonist who was an early pioneer for wildlife conservation and served as director of the U.S. Biological Survey (forerunner of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) in the 1930s. Darling was instrumental in the creation of the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945; it was renamed in 1967 to honor him.
The park provides an important habitat to more than 245 species of birds, plus alligators, manatees and lots more.
The central tourist feature of the park is 4-mile-long Wildlife Drive, which winds through the heart of the mangrove forest, with observation towers and boardwalks along the route for wildlife spotting. Most visitors drive through the park – there’s also a tram tour offered by Tarpon Bay Explorers – but the best way to experience this part of the park is via bicycle.
I’m not much of a birder at home, but I become one on Sanibel. Among the many birds we saw at Ding Darling: white pelicans (much larger than their cousins, the brown pelicans that we see diving for dinner in the gulf); brightly colored roseate spoonbills; a yellow-crowned night-heron; plus egrets, ibis, cormorants and more. We also saw an alligator lazing in the mangroves along the Indigo Trail.
To take a car through the park is $10; to bike or walk, it’s $1. For information: fws.gov/dingdarling.
As much as I enjoyed biking through the park, my favorite way to experience Ding Darling is to kayak through it. At the eastern end of the refuge, Tarpon Bay Explorers offers kayaks to rent and kayak tours through Commodore Creek Kayak Trail, a narrow path through the mangroves that offers lots of close encounters with nature.
It was nearing low tide on the morning of our paddle in early January, and we were warned that the water levels might cause us to get stuck. Not to worry -- my daughter and I, sharing a boat, pushed ourselves along as we scraped the sandy bottom of the creek.
The shallow water proved helpful as we searched for sea creatures, including lots of starfish on the bottom of the bay.
6. And one more: The ice cream
My kids and I visited five ice cream shops in four days, and then returned to two of them later in our stay. Hey, we were exercising a lot!
My favorite is Pinocchio’s (recently reopened in a new location at Periwinkle Place); my kids like Love Boat the best. But they’re all excellent: Love Boat (1700 Periwinkle Way), Pinocchio’s (2075 Periwinkle Way), Joey’s Custard (2467 Periwinkle Way), Sanibel’s Best Homemade Ice Cream (362 Periwinkle Way), and the Shack, a new custard shop (1219 Periwinkle Way).
And a few things we didn’t do (this time)
The island has two golf courses open to the public (the Dunes and Sanibel Island Golf Club), most condos have tennis courts, and pickle ball has become a very popular island activity.
When my kids were younger, we almost always spent an afternoon at the visitor education center at CROW (the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Animals), which offers animal exhibits and guided hospital tours. And the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation offers guided walks and programs that focus on the island’s unique ecological features.
My advice, though: You don’t need to plan too much activity on this island. Hit the beach, rent some bikes, scout for birds. And eat lots of ice cream.
Where to eat
Because of the omicron surge, we ate most of our meals in our condo. We dined out, altogether, just once, outside on the porch of our favorite Sanibel restaurant, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, 2500 Island Inn Road. The shrimp tacos are terrific.
Smaller groups of us also ate at the West Wind Inn (3345 W. Gulf Drive), outside at the Upper Deck; and the Lazy Flamingo (1036 Periwinkle Way). And we all enjoyed takeout from the Pecking Order Fried Chicken (2496 Palm Ridge Road).
Where to stay
Sanibel is home to just a handful of hotels, as the vast majority of visitors stay in rented condos, usually for a week or more. We’ve stayed at a bunch of places over the years, but in recent years have favored the Sanibel Siesta, a condo complex on the beach in the center of the island. In addition to its terrific location, it allows for stays that are less than a week, and also permits rentals that don’t commence on the weekend.
For short visits, try the West Wind Inn, on a beautiful stretch of beach on the island’s western end.
If you go: Sanibel Island, Florida
Getting there: Three airlines fly nonstop from Cleveland Hopkins to Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers: Spirit, Frontier and United. Spirit also flies from the Akron-Canton Airport. Allegiant will add flights to Punta Gorda Airport from Akron-Canton in March.
Causeway toll: A 3-mile-long causeway connects the island and Florida mainland. The minimum toll to cross the bridge to Sanibel is $6. A year ago, Lee County closed the bridge toll booths in favor of an electronic, cashless system. Visitors who have a LeeWay, SunPass or other transponder (including E-ZPass) are assessed a $6 fee.
Alas, I didn’t realize there were no longer toll collectors at the bridge. Most rental car companies, including Dollar, which I used, give renters two choices: Pay $10.99 (or thereabouts) per day for all-inclusive toll coverage (about $80 for a week) or pay an administrative fee -- $9.99 for Dollar – plus the $6 toll every time you cross. Either way, it’s a cash cow for the rental car companies. Next time, I’ll remember my E-ZPass.
Source : https://www.cleveland.com/travel/2022/01/what-to-do-on-sanibel-island-florida-beach-bike-birds-repeat.html3518