Photo: Courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
A family vacation to Florida is usually synonymous with Disney, but it doesn't have to be. Sanibel Island (and the neighbouring Captiva Island) is loaded with fun, family-friendly things to do proving it's worth broadening your vacay horizons beyond Orlando.
Sanibel is known as the Shelling Capital of the World, and it's not hard to see why. The beaches on this barrier island are covered in beautiful shells of different shapes, sizes and colours, so make sure to set aside a day at the beach where you and the kids can swim in the gulf, lounge in the sun and rifle through all the shells to find the perfect specimen. Bonus: Shelling is free—as long as you clean and dry the shells before you leave, they make the perfect souvenirs. Just make sure not to keep any live ones! Visit the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum to get a more in depth understanding of the areas shells, and book a guided beach walk where a seasoned naturalist will teach you how to find the best shells.
Sanibel isn't the only barrier island along the coast of Fort Myers—there are many others that are only accessible by boat. Book a ride with Captiva Cruises, and make a stop at Cabbage Key. The island is home to many burrowing gopher turtles and lush plantlife grows wild here giving the island an old Florida feel. Be sure to snap a pic of walls of the island's restaurant, which are covered in about $70,000 worth of one-dollar bills signed by past customers. As bills fall off the walls, they get added to a big end-of-the-year donation, so make sure to bring a bill or two for your kids to sign and hang up themselves (don't worry about the marker and tape, just ask the server). Private tour guides are also available to take your family around the islands in search of dolphins and manatees while sharing all kinds of tales about the islands' rich history.
Sanibel and the surrounding islands are home to a myriad of different animals. In fact, almost half of the entire island is dedicated to the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which you can drive, bike or walk through to spot some of the region's many different creatures among the estuaries. Make sure to go during low tide because that's when a lot of the birds, including brown and white pelicans, ibis, cormorants and spoonbills, flock to the refuge to feed on fish stuck in the shallow water. If you're lucky you may even spot a gator! The refuge also offers tram rides hosted by a naturalist, so kids can learn more about what they're seeing. Check out the nearby learning centre at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) where kids can watch as animals are nursed back to health at the animal hospital and perform their own pretend rehabilitations on stuffed versions of their favourite critters.
Many of the area's islands are lined with red mangroves, which are fascinating trees that are easy to spot by their tangled root systems that make them look like they're standing on stilts above the water. Home to all kinds of Floridian wildlife (have your little ones try to spot the mangrove crabs scuttling around among the branches), the mangroves are best experienced by a guided kayak tour through the mangrove tunnels, where the trees naturally form a closed canopy to create a tunnel over the waterway. You'll soon find there's nothing quite like the calm and quiet beauty of being completely surrounded by nature—even kids will be too entranced to cause a ruckus. Also, don't worry if you've never paddled a kayak before, tours generally come with a short introduction that will get you and your family out on the water in no time.
Almost every restaurant in the area boasts its own version of Key Lime pie, but if you have kids—or a big sweet tooth—you HAVE to make a stop for a slice of cake at the Bubble Room located on Captiva island (which is accessible from Sanibel by car). Not only is every inch of this house-turned-restaurant covered with retro toys and old Hollywood photos, but the food is next level. We definitely suggest sharing plates, since each dinner portion is huge and comes with a sticky bun, garlic bread and a side salad. That way, you'll have room left over for a slice (or two!) of the many flavours of cake, which a Bubble Scout server displays on a silver platter. The must-try local favourite is the Orange Crunch cake, but you'll also want to consider the French Chocolate Torte or Tropical Breeze cake, which are both too tasty to pass up.
Back in 1996, the City of Sanibel passed an ordinance that prevented big chain businesses from opening up shop on the island. Because of this, the island is home to a ton of locally-owned boutiques where you can buy bathing suits, sun hats or souvenirs to take home. (Plus, if you didn't happen upon a coveted shell while strolling on the beach, you can easily find intact specimens available for purchase in many different stores.) For more shopping fun, check out the shops in Times Square at the nearby Fort Myers Beach Pier.
"It's the stupidest thing you've ever seen!" That's the tagline for the Captiva Island Crab Races, which are held twice a week in the Crow's Nest restaurant at 'Tween Waters Island Resort. Part sporting event, part comedy dinner show, the crab races have guests select a hermit crab from a bowl, name it and then cheer it on as it races to the finish line. Heads up, you'll want to arrive early as spots fill up quickly. Another note, Sunburned Willie, the host of the crab race, can be a bit crass. If your kids are particularly sensitive to teasing, maybe wait until they go to bed and come back for the adults-only late night race, which has even raunchier jokes.
Sanibel Island is best experienced by bike. With about 22 miles of paved bike trails, it's super easy to get anywhere on the island. Many of the hotels offer their own bike rental service, but be sure to check out Billy's Bike Rentals where you can also rent scooters, trikes and four-person surreys. Don't worry too much about the being out in sun while you're riding as most of the trails are shaded by the islands dense plant life (although it's probably still a good idea to put on some SPF and a hat). Make sure to bike to the east end of the island to see the Sanibel Lighthouse, and if you get hungry for some ice cream while you there, Pinocchio's Original Italian Ice Cream is right there for you on the way back.
No matter the time of year, Sanibel sees some brilliant sunsets. Watch the sky burn a bright orange from the Mucky Duck, where they hold a sunset celebration on the beach just steps away from their patio. While the view is great on any of the two islands' west-facing beaches, watching the sun dip below the horizon while cruising on the water somehow makes the experience even more breathtaking. Captiva Cruises offers three kinds of sunset cruise: the Sunset Serenade with live music and cocktails, the Wildlife Sunset cruise with views of birds and dolphins and the Sunset Sail on a 40-foot catamaran. Why not try a different one each night?
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