Close your eyes. You’re reclined in a beach chair on a long stretch of powdery white sand. Out in the water before you, a pod of wild dolphins turns somersaults in the waves. You rise, walk to the ocean’s edge and dip your fingers in, only to catch a sand dollar in your outstretched hand. Around you, thousands of seashells tinkle in the tide like a giant wind chime. Relaxed yet? This isn’t a guided meditation—it’s real life on Sanibel and Captiva islands, just across the bridge from Fort Myers. Explore these unspoiled isles tip-to-tip by bike, spot resident manatees from trailside lookouts and roam the shell-strewn beaches.
Here at the top things to do.
1. Visit the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Go here to see gators, river otters and hot-pink-winged roseate spoonbills. Across the street, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) is a wildlife hospital where you can watch the patients’ progress.
2. Stay in a beach house
They range from tiny rustic cabins to glamorous stilted mansions on North Captiva. Self-catered options abound, but, for hotel-style amenities, opt for a breezy beachfront cottage at the Island Inn.
3. Find a junonia shell on the beach
Anyone who finds a coveted junonia shell gets their picture in the local paper.
4. Eat at Sweet Melissa’s Cafe
Chef Melissa Donahue whips up local seafood with inventive flavours. Order the fish stew, a hearty serving of shellfish in tomato-saffron broth with Pernod aioli. Finish with Lime-Elo sorbet, made from the rare hybrid of a key lime and a Honeybell orange.
5. Take a water taxi to Cabbage Key Restaurant
Cabbage Key Restaurant is said to be the inspiration for Jimmy Buffett’s song, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Marvel at the 70,000 dollar bills covering every inch of wall and ceiling.