Sanibel & Captiva Island Beaches
Two Beaches United as One of Florida's Best
Note: In September 2022, Hurricane Ian devastated both islands. Rebuilding will take time. Check back with us in a few months for a rebuilding update.
Yes, I know they are two separate islands! Who visits one and not the other? Are there differences, yes. Driving the 14 miles from the end of Sanibel to the end of Captiva, you may not notice the differences until your toes are in the sand.
Sanibel is famous for the number of shells washed up daily, while the beach at Captiva has sand that is fine with fewer shells. Combined they make a beach connoisseur’s perfect pair.
Just across a very busy bridge from Fort Myers are these two barrier islands that combined with North Captiva and Cayo Costa islands form the Gulf’s arguably best island beaches.
While Sanibel and Captiva are more developed due to the bridge from the mainland, North Captiva and Cayo Costa are accessible only by boat.
Sanibel and Captiva are loaded with resorts, mom-and-pop hotels, restaurants and the forever sprouting-up t-shirt shops.
However, someone with visions of future development decided a significant portion of Sanibel Island be set aside for wildlife refuges. Along the main road entering Sanibel is the J.N. Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This 6400 acre reserve features walking trails as well as a four-mile scenic drive.
The preserve advertises everything from bobcats to bald eagles, but the real star of the refuge is the natural flora and foraging birds that offer a colorful walk or ride through their habitat.
Sanibel & Captiva Definitely in Top Ten Beaches in Florida
The wildlife is a sideshow to the beaches. Beaches are what bring people to the Sanibel-Captiva islands. Sanibel beaches run almost east to west with a long shallow shelf. Daily the waves and tides deposit tons of shells that by noon are picked through by the throng of regular walkers looking for that treasured species of shell.
Captiva more closely resembles the typical barrier island beach with off-white fine sand which is the remnants of shells crushed by waves of a thousand years ago.
Historians tell us that some 2500 years ago these islands were inhabited by the mighty Calusa Indians who flourished in southwest Florida before the Europeans arrived. Sitting on a beach chair watching the subtle waves of the Gulf of Mexico, you can almost imagine the native Americans fishing and harvesting shells to be used for tools and weapons. History also tells us these islands were used as a stopping-off point for pirates and explorers looking for temporary shelter.
Activities After the Beach
After your day at the beach there is plenty of shopping, bars and restaurants dotting the coast and along the two major roads through Sanibel and crossing over the bridge to Captiva. There is even a small golf course to help keep your game sharp. Of course, fishing is most likely the number one sport, not counting beach people watching, for visitors and residents. Some of the best redfish fishing in the world is just across the sound along the mangroves of Pine Island. Gulf fishing offers opportunities for grouper, snapper and other species a few miles offshore. Charter fishermen can accommodate whatever type of trip you want to enjoy.
The islands are served by ferries to the other islands like North Captiva, Cayo Costa and even the famous cheeseburger joint on Cabbage Key. South Seas Island Resort on the north part of Captiva is worth a visit and a great place to dock your boat for a visit. Then there is the Mucky Duck. No one resists a lunch at a restaurant named Mucky Duck. They have been serving pretty good food on Captiva since 1976!
So Why is Sanibel – Captiva only a Top Ten Beach in Florida and Not a Top Five?
While we love the two islands, there are a few things a traveler should know. First, traffic across the bridge on weekends gets congested and the kids will be restless! Second, once you get on the island(s), parking can be a futile effort at times. Third, there are times when Sanibel beaches look like south Miami Beach with more people than seashells.
Overall, there is no question Sanibel – Captiva island beaches deserve a high ranking in Florida, but knowing when to visit them will enhance your stay and reduce the stress you want to relieve by visiting one of Florida’s top ten beaches.