I love birthdays. I think they’re awesome, and I look forward to mine every year. That said, I know there’s a huge portion of the population who doesn’t agree with me… the people who think they’re no big deal and who have no desire to celebrate getting yet another year older. Well, for me, I feel like it’s the one day of the year when you can really feel special, have a reason to treat yourself, and embrace all that’s come to you in the last 365 days. Friends and family call, maybe a couple cards come in the mail, and you can eat all the chocolate cake you want! I don’t know, birthdays just resonate with me.
Last year, my birthday was spent exploring Vietnam’s limestone karsts on a wooden junk in Ha Long Bay. I’ll admit, as grateful as I was for that birthday, I was a little depressed knowing this year would be the antithesis to that overseas voyage. Still pining for the nomadic lifestyle six months after returning to U.S. soil, I just had to do something to celebrate year 35.
As June approached, I mentioned to Stephan that Sanibel’s shell-covered beaches were on my list of places to see. I then suggested that, since North Carolina is as close to Florida as I’ll [hopefully] ever again be in my life, perhaps we could do an extended birthday weekend… a SHELL-ebration, if you will! Of course, since my last birthday someone new has entered our life – our furry Thai rescue, Sanchez – and that would mean turning a short Sanibel excursion into a marathon 12-hour road trip, and our first with the dog. Lucky for me, for some incomprehensible reason, Stephan almost always consents to my crazy ideas. So there we were at 5 a.m. on a Thursday morning – a guy, a girl and a dog, all shoved into our well-traveled Subaru along with a cooler of food, two bikes, a couple of duffle bags, and a dog bed.
Twelve hours later, we crossed the causeway over San Carlos Bay and arrived in the quaint beachside community. Being off-season (who the hell visits Florida in the summer?!), the island was pretty laid-back – no major crowds or traffic, just a few cyclists out for a late-afternoon jaunt to the beach or ice cream parlor. And while Stephan and I were immediately taken by Sanibel’s charm, Sanchez was instantly enraptured by the throngs of rabbits scampering about the island. Our backyard may well have been the ultimate rodent-loving (lagomorph-loving?) street-dog’s heaven!
We spent the next few days doing what you’d expect in a laid-back beach town – exploring the vast bands of white sand, combing for shells, and enjoying the incredibly warm, turquoise waters of the gulf. For those who know me, kicking back… hanging loose… unwinding… chilling the f*#! out… isn’t my strong suit. I remember sitting by our apartment’s community pool one afternoon toward the end of my graduate school career, intending to review some immunology and replenish my vitamin D store after holing myself up in the dreary lab for weeks on end. Unexpectedly, I “relaxed” a little too well for a minute and I felt my head start to collapse toward my shoulder. Abruptly realizing my misdeed, I pulled my textbook to my chest, looked around ashamedly for any witnesses, and bolted for home – you know, everyone’s typical reaction to lounging by the pool. Much to my surprise, though, I had no issues unwinding on Sanibel. The atmosphere is so serene, the people are exceedingly friendly, and, frankly, there’s not a whole lot to do other than hop on your bicycle, ride to the beach, poke around for shells and enjoy a refreshing swim, then stuff your face with some locally-churned ice cream. It was just lovely, and just the birthday I needed.
— Our Sanibel favorites —
Sanibel’s top treasure
The shells! One of my favorite things about visiting the beach has always been hunting for seashells. As discussed above, I don’t do the whole ‘sit still and relax on a towel’ thing very well. And while I love swimming, I need some alternate entertainment for when I’ve all but shriveled into a crenate little prune. Thus, shelling has always been my go-to beach adventure. For years I’ve read that Sanibel is touted as one of the best shell destinations in the country, if not the world, and I’ve always wanted to visit. Now that we were headed there, I wondered if it would live up to the hype.
After four days of combing Sanibel’s shores, I was elated to find that the shelling was everything I’d dreamed it would be. There were more beautiful shells with one wash of the tide than you could ever sort through in a year – perfect marine relics of all shapes, sizes, and colors. We spent hours each day exploring the beaches’ veiled treasures, uncovering lightning whelk, pear whelk, shark’s eye moons, lettered olives, banded tulips, apple murex, king’s crown conch, Florida fighting conch, augers, bubbles, and buttons, and enough calico scallops to make us millionaires if shells were currency. One of the shells we didn’t find, however? The coveted junonia – a cream-colored shell flecked with regularly-spaced brown dots that is considered the ultimate prize of Sanibel’s shores. That’s okay, though… we’ll certainly be back to try again.
Best overall beach
Bowman’s Beach. As mentioned below, this beach has it all – a lovely strip of sand, nice swimming, great shells, quiet nature trails, and very few people. It’s the perfect little retreat from the more bustling beaches.
Best shell beach
Blind Pass Beach. The shells here are simply astonishing, piled up by the thousands as far as the eye could see. In one morning, we found five of the Sanibel six here: the conch, tulip, whelk, olive, and murex (we were missing only the cone shell). Of course, there were dozens of other striking species here too, and you couldn’t even begin to sift through all of them.
Best ice cream
It’s hard to choose a favorite – we had some really delicious ice creams at both Love Boat and Pinocchio’s. Tucked inside Jerry’s Shopping Center, right in the heart of Periwinkle Way (the island’s main drag), Love Boat has been serving up ice cream on Sanibel since 1967. With some 50 homemade flavors to choose from, you may have a tough time making a decision here. For me, though, it was a no-brainer: black raspberry chocolate chip. It’s one of my all-time favorites, and I’ve not found too many scoop shops that offer it. Stephan had a harder time deciding, ultimately opting for one scoop each of coffee toffee and malted whoppers and fudge. All the flavors were decidedly delicious.
Pinocchio’s, an iconic establishment at the eastern end of Periwinkle Way (across from Lighthouse Beach), serves up some equally tasty frozen treats. Their selection was similarly impressive, offering a dizzying selection of ice creams, Italian gelatos, and sorbets. The shop has been an island fixture since 1980, but has changed ownership four times since opening. Interestingly, the current owners had been visiting Sanibel – and Pinocchio’s – since 1984, and in 2007 decided to purchase the establishment. The ice cream parlor offers a more quirky and friendly vibe, perhaps more of what you’d expect from a cute beach town. Outside, an eye-catching green façade greets you, with colorful outdoor benches and beach chairs inviting you to take a seat. Inside, the friendly staff takes your order and tops off your handmade, frozen treat with an animal cracker – a fun tradition that’s been Pinocchio’s trademark for more than 20 years. While Stephan settled on a dark chocolate, malted milk shake, I opted for a heaping bowl of mocha chip ice cream (amazing, I might add). The lovely folks at Pinocchio’s even offer a free ‘pup cup’ (a scoop of vanilla ice cream with hallmark animal cookie) for your four-legged friends.
Best non-beach activity
If you’re interested in spotting birds or wildlife, JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a nice spot for a morning walk or bike ride. The preserve encompasses 8,000 acres of wetlands, mangrove forests, and small islets for roosting birds. Wildlife Drive is a small, paved, one-way road (4 miles) open to vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. 24-hour admission costs only $1 per cyclist or pedestrian, and $5 per vehicle (note: Wildlife Drive is closed on Fridays). While the main strip gives you only a glimpse of the refuge’s vast area, it’s a peaceful place to just sit and enjoy nature, or to spot some wading birds (particularly heron, ibis, egrets, and spoonbills). There are also some short pedestrian boardwalks that cut through some of the mangroves. If you have any intention of walking through refuge in the summer, though, I’d strongly advise donning a Tyvek suit and respirator. Sure, you’ll sweat like hell, but the mosquitoes are friggin’ ferocious here. We had just layered ourselves in two kinds of bug spray and were getting absolutely chewed alive by the merciless pests.
Best money-saving tip
If you can, bring a bicycle with you. If you’re traveling by plane and can’t bring your own, definitely rent one on the island. The island is made for cycling – it’s small (~12 miles long, though most things are within a few miles’ ride), it’s flat, and it’s lined with beautifully-maintained bike/walking paths. A single-speed rental will cost you about $40/week, whereas car parking (all beaches) will run you $4/hr. And aside from being a money-saving and environmentally-conscious option, it’s such a fun way to explore the island.
— Thoughts on beaches (East to West) —
Note: All beach parking areas offer restrooms and outdoor showers with the exception of Blind Pass Beach (there are facilities on the Captiva side but not the Sanibel side). Beaches also provide bicycle racks for use free of charge. All beach lots enforce 24-hour paid parking at a rate of $4/hour (handicapped parking is free). Dogs are permitted on-leash at all Sanibel beaches, but are not allowed on Captiva Island beaches.
Located on Sanibel’s eastern tip, the beach’s namesake is a historic (if not homely), russet-hued lighthouse whose steel frame rises humbly above a small nature preserve abutting the sand. On the bay side, a large fishing pier juts out into the surf. This side of the beach is a popular spot for fishing and, consequently, not a great spot for swimming – discarded hooks are not an uncommon find on the sand and there are also some reasonable currents. The ocean side is fine for swimming, though. If you visit at high tide, the beach all but vanishes to a narrow strip just a few feet wide. At low tide, though, a beautiful sandbar forms and there are thousands of small shells to be found and tidepools to explore.
Algiers (Gulfside City Park) Beach
This central beach backs up to a nature preserve rather than a strip of towering condominiums, which you’ll find as you wander the sands along Middle Gulf and East Gulf Drive. For this reason, we speculated that it might be a more quiet, secluded place to bring the dog. Conversely, this ended up being the most crowded beach we visited, and it appeared all the other beachgoers must have had a similar mindset. The shells here were few and the people numerous… needless to say we did not love Gulfside and we didn’t stay long.
To the northwestern end of the island, Bowman’s Beach seems to be a bit more off the beaten track – much further from the center of town, devoid of hotels and condos, and just across the island from the JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This was perhaps our favorite beach. There was a great strip of white sand, very few other beachgoers, and the shelling here was also quite good. There are also a series of nature trails, and a wooden footbridge that crosses a small, mangrove-lined canal en route to the beach. One morning we watched eagerly as a pair of manatees (an adult with her calf) swam playfully just below the bridge. It’s really just a lovely spot altogether.
Note: Because of its bit of solitude, this also turned out to be Sanchez’ favorite beach. She even took some delight in helping us dig for shells here, and she turned up a pretty nice little lightning whelk.
Blind Pass Beach
If you’re keen on doing some serious shelling, Blind Pass Beach is the place to go. After doing a bunch of online research about the best shelling on Sanibel, it seemed that Blind Pass was the unanimous favorite. Because it’s a popular spot for both shelling and fishing, and because the parking lot is significantly smaller than those at the other beaches, we arrived around 7:00 am, which was about 1.5 hours before low tide. It turned out to be a good decision, because there were only two spots left when we pulled in. While we wondered if it would live up the hype, we were not at all disappointed with Blind Pass Beach. The shelling was just incredible – enormous mounds of chitinous treasures running the length of the beach… so many that you couldn’t even begin to dig through them all. If you are die-hard shell-lover, be sure to spend some time at Blind Pass – you won’t be disappointed.
A few notes about the beach if you’re not into shell hunting: (1) There are some serious currents at this beach, with signs strongly advising against swimming. If you’re looking for a nice spot to take a dip, this probably isn’t it. (2) The sandflies here are exponentially worse than any other beach we visited on Sanibel. Even though I’d generously applied some DEET-containing spray, I got absolutely chewed alive.
Turner Beach (Captiva Island)
Just over the short causeway from Blind Pass Beach is Turner Beach. Similar to Blind Pass Beach, swimming is not recommended here due to swift currents, though fishing seems to be quite popular. There’s a pretty nice strip of sand, but we found significantly fewer shells here than any other beach. Dogs also aren’t allowed on Captiva beaches, so our little buddy had to hang at home in the A/C while we ventured up here. Our one bit of excitement here was watching a couple of manatees swimming in the narrow channel running between the two islands. For us, though, Turner Beach didn’t really meet our needs.
— Sanibel Tips —
- Bicycling around the island is fantastic, and is how most people get around. If you’re traveling to Sanibel by car, bring your own bicycles (several shops rent them, but rentals are not cheap). The island is small – only ~12 miles (19 km) from the easternmost point (Lighthouse Beach) to the most western (Blind Pass Beach) – and is very bicycle-friendly. Beautiful bike paths run the length of the island and drivers generally respect the prescribed pedestrian laws.
- Parking at all beach lots across the island costs $4/hr per vehicle. Most lots provide basic facilities, including bathrooms and drinking fountains. It’s still a bit steep if you consider the cumulative cost, so this is another great reason to bring your bicycles.
- We easily had the most luck shelling at Blind Pass Beach. The number of conch, whelk, scallop, top snail, moon shells… it’s just staggering! That said, the shelling is pretty epic around the island. Our other top picks would be Bowman’s Beach and Lighthouse Beach.
- Check the tide tables if you’re interested in shelling. Accurate tables can be found at the Chamber of Commerce website (bottom of the page under Island Happenings): https://sanibel-captiva.org/wp-content/uploads/sanibel-island_island%20happenings.pdf. We found several sources online to be quite inaccurate, but the Chamber of Commerce’s tide chart was spot on. Low and high tides are calculated for Lighthouse Point, but they also provide an adjustment for Blind Pass. If you are interested in shelling at low tide, Bowman Beach is +55 minutes from Lighthouse Point, and Blind Pass is +1 hour 15 minutes from Lighthouse Point.
- The best time for finding shells is at low tide (or within an hour thereof). We tended to go about 1 to 1.5 hours before low tide and shell for at least a couple hours, and found many beautiful specimens.
- By law you can not take any live shell or other creature (sea star, urchin, sand dollar, etc.). Please obey this law! We saw beachcombers cavalierly plucking starfish from tidepools on the sandbar, or nonchalantly snagging whelk shells that still housed their resident snails. My heart broke for the defenseless marine critters. They may be further down the food chain, but you have no right to these animals, so please let them enjoy their home. There are thousands of other empty shells on the beach. That said, carefully check that a shell is empty before taking it – there just may be a little crab hiding inside.
- Bring your insect repellant if visiting in the humid summer months. The mosquitoes were unbelievably dense and made a pretty good meal of me over the course of four days. As much as I hate to recommend a DEET-containing spray, save yourself the welts and pick one up. I’ve tried about just about every natural repellant on the market – and initially attempted a DEET-free spray on Sanibel – but none of them have cut it.