- Cathy Neubauer
My Favorite Place in the World: Sanibel and Captiva Island
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
This post was a long time coming...I love writing about my travels, but when writing about my absolute favorite place in the world, I hesitated. Not because I didn't know what to say but because I cherish every ounce of this place. A place I've been going to (literally) my entire life, a place I grew up in and got to experience with my family. A place that is the epitome of a beautiful, relaxing vacation and one in which my family and I look forward to going to each year. Well, that place is none other than Sanibel and Captiva island (aka Santiva), a tiny island off the coast of Southwest Florida, between the west coast of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. On most of my travels I try to fit in a lot of activities because I want to try to experience as much as I possibly can. Santiva is the exception, here I just want to relax, enjoy umbrella drinks by the pool/ocean and not take life too seriously. That's probably another reason why this place is so special to my family and I... I don't know if one post can do it justice, but I'll do my best to try ;)
Even though I now live in Los Angeles, my family lives in Fort Lauderdale so I usually fly in to FLL and from there we drive west (about a 2 hr drive). If coming from outside of Florida, the closest airport is the Fort Meyers Airport (RSW), which is just about 20 miles from Sanibel. Given that this is actually an island, you'll need to cross over a longer bridge to access it. This is always our favorite moment as a family because it signals the start to our amazing trip! We usually roll the windows down and start screaming Wooooo Hooooo!!!!! Your short drive over the bridge will take you directly to Sanibel Island which is only about 12 miles long. Keep driving and you'll eventually get to Captiva Island (also connected to Sanibel by a very short bridge). Captiva is even smaller and is only about 5 miles long. Tiny, but absolutely beautiful.
Things to Know:
Sanibel and Captiva are protected lands. This means that the nature and wildlife are legally protected, which makes it all the more beautiful. It also means that there are actually ZERO stoplights or busy intersections. You'll only see stop signs here, which means driving through the islands is slow...don't expect to zip along. Additionally, there are no buildings taller than the tallest tree, which means you won't see skyskrapers or other tall buildings. All of this really adds to the 'island' feel of the place and allows you to really relax.
Where to Stay:
There are tons of places to stay and houses to rent on Santiva, but during each visit we actually stay at South Seas Resort. My parents bought a time share there the year before I was born so that's why we've made the tradition of going each year. SSR is at the tip of Captiva so we really love the location and amenities that are located within. Wherever you decide to stay just make sure there's a pool and easy access to the ocean :)
Now that we've got the basics of getting there out of the way, I'd love to share my favorite things to do on the islands :)
1) Play Golf at one of the Prettiest Golf Courses in the World!
For those of you who know me, this might come as a shock, but sometimes I golf lol. It really began because my dad loves golfing, so as kids we took lessons and played with him here and there in anticipation of our trip to Santiva. One of the world's most gorgeous golf courses is housed within the resort that we stay at on Captiva and it's absolutely stunning. Even if you don't enjoy golfing, you'll enjoy it here because the course is situated along the coastline, so that the entire time you're golfing you can see The Gulf of Mexico, which is absolutely stunning! You can play 9 or 18 holes, rent golf carts, buy snacks and drinks along the way and enjoy the ocean breeze as you play. Truly some of the best photo ops are along this course :)
2) J.N. Ding Darling's Wildlife Refuge:
I mentioned before that the islands are protected, so why not go the extra step to actually experience what this looks like? The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is technically part of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System, and is located on Sanibel. It's basically a stretch of protected land that you can drive, walk or hike through to look at wildlife and local animals (think mangroves, alligators, native Floridian birds, reptiles and maybe even a manatee or two)! We usually drive through the park and stop along the way to get out, explore and search around. Price for entrance is $5 per vehicle and could take about an hour or two to drive through. Make sure to spend some time in the visitors center to get visitor information, book a tram tour and see some of the great displays and exhibits.
3) Shopping around Santiva:
Any great vacation includes great shopping, and Santiva has tons of that. We usually spend an entire afternoon on a shopping excursion, exploring the various shops and stores all throughout both islands. You can literally just drive through the islands to find shops but our favorites are the shops on Periwinkle Way or in Chadwick's Square near the entrance to our resort on Captiva. We also always have to make a stop at She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore. What makes shopping on the Islands so special is that so many stores feature handmade goods and crafts that were made by local artisans! Some of my favorite souvenirs are jewelry and art that I've gotten from the Islands over the years from local Floridians.
4) Eating at the Fabulous Restaurants of Sanibel and Captiva!
In addition to shopping, no vacation is complete without some great eating. Well Santiva is no exception, when we go here we can't wait to go back to all of our favorite places throughout the island. I wrote another post about my favorite restaurants here if you want to read the full story, but to make a long story short, think really fresh seafood and upscale, yet casual eating.
5) Drive out to the Lighthouse at the end of Sanibel:
One of the first lighthouses on Florida's Gulf coast is the Sanibel Island Light aka Point Ybel Light. It was originally built in 1884, is 98-feet above sea level and has a spiral staircase leading up to the top. The lighthouse has gone through a very interesting history, most recently it was added to the City of Sanibel’s Register of Historic Sites and Structures in 2016. Take some time to walk around and wait for the spectacular sunsets to get great pictures. If driving, type in 112 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL 33957 into your GPS and you should get there just fine :)
6) Have a Beach Day:
You can't go to Santiva or any island for that matter and not spend some time, or rather a whole day at the beach. I love waking up early, packing my bag and walking down to the beach. At our resort (and many on the island), beach access and chairs are included in the resort fee so get comfy! I like packing snacks and cocktails but there are usually places you can get them from too. There's truly nothing more relaxing than watching the waves drift in and out. Also, because of our location to the Gulf of Mexico, you're more than likely to see some aquatic friends like pelicans and pods of dolphins!!! Finally, (this is a local favorite) you absolutely must try the hot dogs from Joey's!! My family and I love him because he has a pontoon boat that he rides up and down the coast. He literally parks his boat on the beach shore and hungry beachgoers line up for fresh grilled hot dogs and cold sodas. I'm not a hot dog person at all but there's just something about being in the hot sun, at the beach with hot dogs.
7) Shelling at Bowman's Beach:
Did you know that Sanibel and Captiva are the best places in the world to find sea shells? Well if you didn't, now you do! Yes, this is the best place to find buckets of sea shells if that's your thing. This is a great past time activity for everyone but especially kids. You'll see plenty of people up before sunrise doing "The Sanibel Stoop", looking for sea shells that washed up on shore overnight. Sanibel even hosts their Annual Shell Fair and Show (a 3-day event) held each year during the first week of March! Any of the beaches are great for shelling but here are some of the most popular: Gulfside City Park, Tarpon Bay Road Beach, Blind Pass Beach and Bowman's Beach
Each of these beaches is different so why not grab a bag and explore all of them? For serious shellers, there are many shell identification guides available in most stores and within the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Shelling on protected lands requires good knowledge of the state laws, which does not allow collecting of live shells (aka any shell with an inhabitant). This also applies to live sand dollars, star fish and sea urchins, so while they may look cool, you can't take them with you.
8) Learn about your new shells at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum:
Once you've spent time collecting or just marveling at all the shells on the island, take a trip to a museum to learn about them. The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is a museum devoted to every aspect of the study of seashells. It'll cost about $15 to get in but has a wealth of knowledge about the island and shelling in general. They also support a lot of great conservation and scientific causes so I feel good about supporting them :)
9) Find a Pool and Never Leave:
No matter where you stay, there's sure to be a pool. One of my favorite things to do while I'm here is to have an entire 'pool day' where I do nothing but lounge, swim and order umbrella drinks. Fortunately for us, we have two pools to choose from at our resort, a smaller private pool near our condo and a larger resort pool. We love the resort pool because it's literally situated on the Gulf of Mexico, you could not ask for a better view. I can only show photos but trust me, it's truly magically watching the water and of course lots of dolphins and pelicans pass us by.
10) Go on a Dolphin or Sunset Cruise:
For me, half of the fun of being on the islands is seeing all of the amazing wildlife, and being in SW Florida, you're sure to be surrounded by it. You can stroll by the beaches or marinas and see dolphins and manatees daily! I could literally spend hours looking at these gentle giants... If you want to get closer then I recommend taking either a sunset or dolphin cruise around the island. We usually go with Captiva Cruises, which takes off from the South Seas Resort Marina. You can get drinks and snacks on board and either relax or head to the bow or stern of the boat to get a better view. Reservations are required and will set you back at about $30. For me, I love seeing dolphins, who are really curious and tend to explore their surroundings. With this in mind, hopefully your captain will rev the engines to make a lot of noise as the boat speeds through the water. The first time I did this was truly magical because the dolphins, attracted by the noise, were literally swimming and jumping alongside the boat with us! They were so close it felt as though I could reach out and touch them, such a memorable experience <3
11) Indulge in Kayaking, Jet Ski's or Parasailing:
I'm not usually a water sports kind of person, but when I'm here I love kayaking, jet ski-ing or parasailing. These are more expensive activities but are a really fun way to see some of the beauty of the island along with the wildlife. When I go out I usually sea pelicans, bald eagles and have even had pods of dolphins follow me next to my jet ski!
12) Find the Best Light for those Gorgeous Sunrise and Sunset Pictures:
Need I say more? Some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets are on these islands. Anytime is beautiful but if you wait for just the right moment the light is truly magical. The photo below is completely unfiltered, what you see is what you get <3
Well there you have it, my attempt to catalogue and describe mine and my family's favorite place in the world. I'm sure I'll add more over the years but in the meantime, I'd love to hear any other recommendations or favorite places to go from all of you!