Sanibel is not a stereotypical "Spring Break" type of destination. Its primary attractions are its birds, seashells, and sunsets, and many families travel here for a quiet getaway.
Sanibel is flat, long (12 miles), and narrow (3 miles at its widest). On the west, its beaches face the Gulf of Mexico. To the east, Sanibel borders Pine Island Sound and San Carlos Bay. The majority of the waterfront on the Sound is part of J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, including the calm waters of Tarpon Bay.
People looking for well-groomed white-sand beaches on Sanibel may be disappointed. The beaches are less maintained and more natural than in many locations. Seashell collectors will be pleasantly surprised by the density of seashells.
The peak travel season in Sanibel is January through April. Southwest Florida has some of the nation's mildest weather during this time, making this particular area appealing to winter-weary travelers. September and October are the island's quietest months, with some businesses shutting down for several weeks of the year.
Summers in southwest Florida can be oppressively hot and humid, but during the other months of the year Sanibel is a mild and pleasant environment. Even in the summers Sanibel's ocean breezes can eliminate some of the stifling heat.
Most travelers arrive by automobile, crossing the Sanibel Causeway (a one-way toll of $6 applies at the time of this writing). There are no airports on the island and no ferry service from the mainland.
Sanibel Island is less than 25 miles from Southwest Florida International Airport. Follow Daniels Parkway west to Summerlin Road, then Summerlin Road south and west to McGregor Boulevard, which leads to the Sanibel Causeway.
Posted speed limits are enforced by local police, who will remind you why you have come to Florida's islands. Most roads will have limits of 35 MPH or less, through both residential areas and protected wildlife zones. Before of the infamous double stop signs of Sanibel. They are posted like that because they are often missed. Be particularly careful to mind the speed limit at night, there are not many roads on the Island and at night there is virtually always someone watching them. Watch for pedestrians and cyclists.
On the eastern half of the island, the main road through the city is Periwinkle Way. A variety of side streets connect this road with the beaches, shops, restaurants, and lodging on the island.
On the western half of the island, the main road is Sanibel-Captiva Road, or "San-Cap". Fewer roads connect to this one, which is bordered by protected lands on both sides for much of its length. At the end of San-Cap where the two islands meet at Blind Pass, this area is called "Santiva", a portmanteau of Sanibel and Captiva.
Running parallel to both these roads, along the southern shore of the island, is Gulf Drive.
There are 22 miles of cycling paths on Sanibel. With no hills to speak of, cycling can be a rewarding way to see the island. Numerous local businesses rent bicycles, and some hotels/inns will have bikes for their guests to use. Remember to bring water and sunscreen and obey all traffic laws.
The gorgeous naturalized beaches covered ankle deep in beautiful shells, sponges, driftwood, sand dollars, and so on. Shells cover a great bit of the sand, beach and ocean grasses and somewhat "wild looking" plants, seaweeds and aquatic plants are to be found between the homes and the water's edge. These are not "weeds," and this is not a "dirty" beach. It is a naturalized area, and Sanibel and Captiva Islands are making every attempt to keep these beautiful islands in their natural state.
The island is lush with bouganvellia, and other brilliantly colored flowers and shrubs nearly all year long. This is definitely a sub-tropical climate. Tiny chameleons scurry about (even in and out of restaurants) and you may see lots of cute, tiny tree frogs stuck to your condo door when you come home at night! Bring insect repellant with DEET for the sand flies (also called midges and "no-see-ums.") You literally cannot see the "no-See-ums" and they come right through the screens on the balconies and lanais. They may be virtually invisible to the naked eye, but you'll see the bites later. Some folks are driven crazy, others do not get bitten at all.
Sanibel is mostly known as an ecological destination. Bird watchers and shell collectors make up the majority of the island's visitors each year.
Shells, sharp fashions, beautiful jewelry, decorative "beachy items" and all kinds of quality merchandise. A full size grocery store ("Jerry's") holds court in one of the malls. Lavish decor outside includes macaws, parrots, Mynahs, cockatoos. This shopping "complex" consists of a combination large grocery and quality yet affordable souvenir store, as well as a specialty liquor store and a few other shops and boutiques.
You will not find any fast-food chain restaurants on Sanibel, other than a single Dairy Queen which received an exemption to the strict laws passed to preserve the island's special charm.
Although there is one "chain" on the islands, with the rest of the accommodations being small-to-medium townhome or condo complexes, each one prettier than the next. Most all have outdoor, (or indoor/outdoor covered) pools, patios and grills,and some of the largest have tennis courts, clubhouses, putting greens, etc. If you want a constant ocean view, be clear about it when making reservations. Lots of townhome and condo complexes are across from the beach. Still just a hop, skip and jump from the water, but unless you spend a lot of time on the beach itself all day, you'll miss the view! Most private rental homes are across the street from the beach or on the inner parts of the island.
Dogs and cats are allowed in some (but not many) of the condo/townhome complexes. Dogs may be on the beach if on leash. All condos and townhomes are family-friendly.