The trip from the mainland across the Sanibel Causeway hints at what the islands of Sanibel and Captiva have to offer. Bright sunlight glittering on the water, lazy palm trees, and arching dolphins breaking the surface invariably inspire drivers to pull over to take pictures. Simply crossing the causeway invokes a sense of serenity from the natural beauty that prepares visitors for the island themselves.
Sanibel is noted for its strong conservation ethic and natural beauty, and internationally renowned for the shells and mollusks that can be found along its shores. Many newcomers are struck by its lack of high-rises and by the lush foliage- which might explain why the extensive bike paths are often bustling with those who prefer to park their cars and take a more natural route. Much of the island is preserved as natural habitat for the wildlife that share the island with humans, so don’t be surprised to see egrets and herons stalking prey in watery swales along the roads, raccoons scuttling across parking lots, or occasional alligators sunning on a golf course. But don’t think that they are tame. These animals are wild and dangerous, especially the alligators, and a sure way to make them even more dangerous to people is by feeding them.
One of the best places to learn more about the island’s nature and to see its wild inhabitants is at the J.N. “Ding Darling” National Wildlife Refuge. Stop at the refuge’s new Education Center for activities and displays, then drive a bicycle along the five-mile Wildlife Drive for a closer look at the mangrove forest that dominates the refuge, and the wild residents. There are also walking trails and those who want to get closer to the water can rent a canoe or kayak at Tarpon Bay Recreation Area. A haven for migratory birds, “Ding” Darling refuge is a destination for bird-lovers and photographers from around the world.
Just down the road, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation has walking trails and an ongoing schedule of environmental education programs, and the nearby Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) offers daily tours.
Adjacent to the foundation is the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, a logical facility for an island internationally renowned for its shelly shores. The museum is a natural history museum dedicated to shells from around the world with a stunning abundance and variety of information, from the scientific to the artistic.
Sanibel and Captiva have long fascinating histories, colored by the distinctive characters that have made them their homes. Sanibel’s Historical Village offers glimpses into these people and their lives.
Next door to the village is B.I.G. Arts (the Barrier Island Group for the Arts), which offers courses, exhibits, performances, poetry readings, and all things art. In addition, J.T. Smith, an island institution, stages his witty musicals at the Old Schoolhouse Theater. Sanibel also has become known internationally for its music festival, which draws some of the world’s best musicians to perform in a winter-spring series each year.
Beyond Sanibel lies Captiva, with its beautiful, relatively vacant beaches overlooking the Gulf of Mexico in all its brilliant blue-green glory-the island’s main attraction. Its downtown area is small, but well worth the time to browse its boutiques shops, galleries and restaurants.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands have something for everyone, from the outdoors enthusiasts, to vacationing families, to those in need of upscale down time.