Southern U.S. Travel: 10 Ways Families Enjoy Florida's Sanibel Island

This barrier island is known for its exceptional shelling

By Kara Murphy, publisher of Macaroni Kid Erie April 9, 2019

Laid back Sanibel Island, located on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, is one of my family's favorite vacation spots to unwind and spend time together. I've been going with my family to Sanibel Island since I was a tween, and now my kids are lucky enough to vacation there too. The barrier island, 12 miles long and -- at its widest -- 3 miles across, is about 25 miles from Fort Myers.

Please note: This story originally appeared in Macaroni Kid Family Travel in April 2019. As of October 2020, all attractions mentioned in this story remain open, with COVID precautions in place. We urge you to check with locations for the latest information before traveling to that area.

Here are 10 ways for families to enjoy Sanibel:

1. Perfect the 'Sanibel stoop'

Travel + Leisure magazine named Sanibel Island the best shelling spot in the United States in 2018. The island is littered with shells. The best time to go is low tide when sandbars are exposed and you can find treasures like hermit crabs, sand dollars, conchs, and whelks. You and your family are sure to perfect the so-called "Sanibel stoop" in no time! Want to know more? Visit the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum to learn about your beach finds.

Photo courtesy of Jenny Steadman

The Sanibel stoop.

2. See the dolphins

Dolphins are plentiful around Sanibel and can often be spotted right from shore. But to get a more up-close look, take an excursion with one of the companies that offer dolphin watching tours. My family's favorite is the Sanibel Thriller, which circles Sanibel and its neighbor, Captiva Island. Dolphins jump and play alongside the speeding boat, giving you a chance to see these amazing animals up close. The narrated tour is also a great way to learn about the history of the islands.

Photo by Jenny Steadman

You can often see dolphins right off shore on Sanibel.

3. Go to school

Go to school? On vacation? Yep! My daughter loves finding out what classes Sanibel Sea School is offering when we visit. We typically sign her up for a half-day class and she comes back brimming with information and excitement about the topic, which ranges from sea horses to alligators. Kids ages 4 and up spend part of the time at the school itself before heading to the beach to continue their education there. Sanibel Sea School also offers family classes and beach walks. Check Sanibel Sea School's schedule to see what they're offering during your time on the island.

Photo by Kara Murphy

Beach finds with Sanibel Sea School founder Bruce Neill.

4. Search for alligators

J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Preserve teems with wildlife. More than 245 species of birds call the refuge home at different times of the year. Keep your eyes open and you can also find wildlife like alligators, turtles, and crabs. The secret to spotting wildlife here is to visit at low tide, preferably early in the morning or at dusk. Time it right and your kids can spy alligators and birds like the unforgettable roseate spoonbill.

5. Travel by bicycle

There are more than 25 miles of bike trails on Sanibel. The island is flat and the main trail that circles the island is smooth, well-marked and set back from the road (interesting fact: There are no stoplights on Sanibel Island!), making it a great spot for kids to wheel around without too much effort or concern on your part. It's the perfect way to explore the island, whether you're taking a ride through the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge or heading to the Sanibel Island Farmers Market. There are several places to rent bikes on the island, including ones outfitted with training wheels, baby seats, and pull-behinds. 

Photo by Kara Murphy

Bike riding is easy for all ability levels on Sanibel Island.

6. Spend an afternoon at the Sanibel Island lighthouse

Located at the east end of the island, the lighthouse beach is a great spot to spend a few hours digging in the sand, sitting in the shallows, searching for shells or watching for birds and dolphins, which, if you're lucky, will come in all the way to the shoreline to fish -- a thrill to watch!

Photo by Jenny Steadman

The Sanibel Lighthouse at dusk.

7. Bring your binoculars

There are so many birds on Sanibel, and each type is amazing in its own right. I never get tired of watching the prehistoric-looking brown pelicans as they fly by, skimming just inches above the water, or as they barrel downward from high at crazy speeds to catch their prey. Also keep an eye on the osprey, fierce hawks that have a deceptively harmless sounding high-pitched, whistling voice. If you pay attention, you might see one with a fish clutched in its talons perched on a high branch. The more comical but beautiful egrets, herons, and other wading birds are plentiful and fun to watch as they fish in the shallows or try to steal bait fish from a fisherman's bucket. 

Photo by Kara Murphy

Pelicans are plentiful on Sanibel Island.

8. Catch your own lunch

You can fish right from shore or at the Sanibel public fishing pier, located near the lighthouse. We've watched fishermen land everything from a 5-foot hammerhead shark to sheepshead, all right from the beach. There are also plenty of charter boats that can take you inshore or offshore fishing. The Bait Box is a great spot to find out what's biting, load up on gear, and get a fishing license. Catch something you'd like to have for lunch? Take it to the Lazy Flamingo, where the chef will be happy to clean it and cook it up for you.

9. Visit a deserted island

Cayo Costa State Park is an island with nine miles of beaches only accessible by boat. You'll feel like you're on a deserted island. But there's plenty to do other than re-create your favorite "Castaway" scene. You can shell, picnic, hike, bird watch, snorkel, swim, or just relax by the water knowing you're off the grid, even if just for a few hours. Cayo Costa Ferry offers half-day and full-day excursions.

Photo by Kara Murphy

A Cayo Costa beach find!

10. Island hop to Captiva

Just the next island over, Captiva feels like a different world than Sanibel in many ways. The high-end homes are marked with fun names like Livin' On the Edge and Shell Shocked. It's rumored some are vacation getaways for famous musicians and movie stars. The grandest mansions are set back from the road, though you can get a glimpse of some of them -- like the one that sold for a record $16.3 million in 2016 -- on boat excursions. Along with jaw-dropping homes, there are some great restaurants on Captiva, and there's also a marina here where you can rent boats and often spy manatees. Your kids won't want to miss Captiva's Bubble Room, a one-of-a-kind restaurant where it's always Christmas. We also love visiting the Captiva restaurant Mucky Duck just in time for sunset.

Photo by Kara Murphy

Sunset on neighboring Captiva Island.

Sanibel Island is a true paradise, a place for your family to relax, unwind, and make memories to last a lifetime!

Kara Murphy is the publisher of Macaroni Kid Erie, Pa.