Shells, Serenity, and Sanctuary: Spring Break on Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel Island, Florida, a pristine sanctuary that’s easily accessible with rarely crowded beaches.  Our family visited at the height of the winter tourist season, and even though bumper to bumper traffic crawled to a standstill on the Island’s main thoroughfare, the beaches never felt tight (compared to their northeastern counter-parts).  The sand was pure and white, with a slight crunch underfoot due to seashells and crushed pieces.  Our girls whiled away the hours drifting in the Gulf of Mexico, looking for shells, and building sandcastles.  Continue reading for more details on the beaches, sanctuary, and serenity we found during our recent spring break visit to Sanibel Island.

Sanibel Island, FL

The island is small and compact, making it simple to frequent multiple beaches and attractions during your vacation.  Over the course of our week-long trip we checked out:

Lighthouse Beach

A quintessential family beach located at the southern tip of the island.  Lighthouse Beach has views of the Gulf, bay, causeway, as well as the mainland of Fort Myers Beach, FL.  Tall, shady, palm trees offer a break from the sun for us delicate Yankees not used to seeing sun in February, and, of course, there is the Sanibel Lighthouse itself, first lit in 1884.

Sanibel Island, FLLighthouse Beach, Sanibel Island, FL

The Sanibel Lighthouse may look like an oil derrick with a giant lightbulb screwed on top, but the lighthouse was intentionally built with an open structure so hurricane force winds would pass right through without toppling the tower.

Sanibel Island Lighthouse

Blind Pass Beach

At the northern end of Sanibel, right before crossing over onto Captiva Island, is Blind Pass Beach.  This was our daughters’ favorite beach – a relative term on Sanibel Island (all the beaches were fantastic).  Setting Blind Pass apart from other beaches was looking directly out into the Gulf of Mexico and no longer seeing Florida’s mainland coast.  You truly felt as though you had left the United States for a secluded tropical island.

Blind Pass Beach, Sanibel Island, FL

Bailey Beach (Sanibel Causeway)

A small strip of beach on the bay located at the end of… well, Bailey Street.  Get it?  Bailey Street… Bailey Beach… hey, I didn’t name it.  This narrow strip sports views of the bay, and sits right underneath the Sanibel Causeway connecting the mainland to the island.  This is a very breezy spot on the island, good for windsurfing, and a boat launch makes it accessible for your boat as well.  There’s a single picnic table that’s rarely used, and you can make Bailey your own private dining beach.

Collecting shells on Sanibel Island, FLBailey Beach, Sanibel Island, FL

Un-named beach – (Beach St. Beach?)

Bailey Street used to be a through-way connecting the bay side to the ocean side of the island.  At one point, the street was closed off, and condos were built.  The ocean side of the road was re-named Beach Street, and the beach associated with it was called… ???  We never did find the beach’s official name, so our family dubbed it Beach St. Beach.  This was my personal favorite spot on Sanibel Island with an expansive, sandy beach, covered with shells, and lots of room for strolling.  This spot on the Western side of the island was ideally situated to watch the disappearing sun in the evening.

Sanibel Island, FL

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Sanibel Island has strict zoning laws to prevent the towering buildings and overdevelopment found in other parts of Florida.  Nearly 70% of the island is undeveloped land.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.  Darling himself was an artist and wildlife conservationist.  The sanctuary contains 6400 acres of forest and wetlands making it the largest, preserved mangrove forest in the country.

Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL

There is a small, natural history museum in the visitor’s center of the wildlife refuge, but the real draw of “Ding” Darling is Wildlife Drive.  For a small $5/car fee, families can motor along Wildlife Drive, pulling over whenever the mood strikes to enjoy nature, birds, and maybe even the occasional alligator.  There is also a guided, narrated, open air tram tour for $14/person, as well as private companies that lead tours through the refuge.

Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FLDing Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FLDing Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL

We did not take advantage of a guided tour, but next time we will.  At one point we stopped at the Red Mangrove Overlook.  We walked down the boardwalk, saw some waterfowl, gazed at the mangroves, enjoyed the breeze, and headed back.  A tour came along as we were leaving, and we overheard the guide pointing out “tree crabs.”  We never heard of tree crabs, and certainly never saw one.  We stopped and looked where the guide was pointing, and, sure enough, there were the crabs crawling right up the trunks of the mangroves.  We definitely would have missed spotting them if it weren’t for the guide.

Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FLDing Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FLDing Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL

After spending a couple of hours inside J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, our family was hungry.  And we were in luck because conveniently located outside the entrance gates is Doc Ford’s Sanibel Island Rum Bar & Grille.  Doc Ford is the lead character in a series of crime novels written by local author Randy Wayne White – a co-owner of the restaurant.  The eatery was a relaxing place to grab a sandwich and drink, and we even gave the raw oysters a try – although, one taste was more than enough for our youngest daughter.  Yes, the restaurant is a little “touristy,” and there were plenty of Doc Ford books and souvenirs on display to purchase.  However, the food and prices were not too bad, and it certainly hit the spot after a morning of nature watching.

Doc Ford's Sanibel Island Rum Bar & GrilleDoc Ford's Sanibel Island Rum Bar & Grille

One of the best parts of Sanibel Island was making sure you scheduled time for, well, nothing.  My wife loved sitting on the deck of the house watching birds, wildlife, and enjoying the salty breezes.  The kids loved unstructured time to make crafts with their found shells or read on the beach.  I enjoyed taking drives, going for runs, and exploring the island.  The blue skies, pristine beaches, and warm sun were invigorating after a long northern winter, and we quickly learned what keeps bringing snowbirds back to the region.  This certainly won’t be our last visit to Sanibel Island.

Sanibel Island, FLSanibel Island, FLSanibel Island, FL

For more photos of our spring break family trip to Sanibel Island, Florida, click here or on any of the images in the gallery below.

Have you been to Sanibel Island, Florida?  What are your favorite things to do on the island?  If you haven’t gone, does it sound like the type of vacation your family would enjoy?  Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.  For more family travel news, reviews, and trip reports, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.