Winter Getaway: Sanibel Island

Looking to escape frigid winter temperatures, Christine and Randy Crawford took a week-long vacation in late January, trading the Ohio frost for warm Floridian sands.

warm florida beach waves

Located on the southwest Gulf Coast of Florida, Sanibel Island is a shelling paradise that draws visitors from all over looking to enjoy beautiful white beaches, luscious ecosystems, and diverse wildlife.

scenes from florida beaches in sanibel

While the subtropical island remains a popular vacation destination year-round, peak travel season begins in December and continues through April, when the days are cooler and rain is less frequent than in the summer months. For avid shellers, October to November is a great time to visit: the tides are low, the crowds are lighter, and the seashells are on full display.

path to the beach sanibel florida

Sanibel and its sister island, Captiva, run East/West, perpendicular to the rest of the barrier islands of Florida. This makes the shores perfect for the catching shell-laden gulf currents—even calm conditions provide miles of shell lines at low tide. Shellers and beachcombers can find all sorts of captivating treasures including pastel coquinas, fighting conchs, Atlantic cockles, lightning whelks, banded tulips, and much more. Christine and Randy Crawford had arrived during a big storm with heavy surf and were amazed at the abundance of live shells, sea stars, and other critters. They did their best to return live shells back into the ocean, and enjoyed finding empty sand dollars, sea urchins, and even an angel wing.

Christine and Randy flew into Ft. Meyers International Airport and took a quick 30-minute car ride to the island. She explained that renting a car was great for getting groceries and evening outings, since they did not stay in a resort or along the “main drag” of Periwinkle Ave. Their condo neighborhood had an easy access point to the beach, which stretched all around the 12-mile-long island. They visited several different spots but greatly enjoyed Bowman Beach and Blind Pass, which is the cut-through between Sanibel and Captiva. Lighthouse Beach and Bowman Beach have great public access, parking ($5 an hour), restrooms, and are quite spacious, especially at low tide. Various boardwalks all around the island help visitors traverse dunes and grasses to get to the beaches.

Christine and her husband were out there every morning for sunrise, which luckily coincided with low tide, and caught magical sunsets on the beach almost every evening. They recommend bug spray for those pesky no-see-um’s (tiny biting midges) at dusk and water shoes to protect against the thick shells with sharp broken edges.

seashell collection and shore bird florida

One of the best aspects of Sanibel is the community’s focus on living harmoniously with nature. Relaxed neighborhoods are quiet and peaceful, buildings do not rise above the tallest tree, and even the street lights are limited to protect sea turtle hatchlings from heading inland. About 67% of the island is protected under conservation land, which includes the famous 5,200-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, an undeveloped mangrove forest full of cordgrass, marshes, and spectacular migratory bird populations. Tarpon Bay Explorers is the licensed concession that offers kayak rentals, pontoon boat trips, and tram tours of the refuge—a fantastic way to learn about the island and its efforts of preserving the ecosystem.

A great way to explore the refuge and the rest of the island is by cruising around on the 25 miles of bike path that connects to the beaches, lighthouse, shopping, dining, gardens, etc. Christine especially enjoyed the Mom & Pop feel of the island commerce. Dock Ford’s Rum Bar is a famous seafood restaurant with specialty rum drinks and tasting named after local owner and author Randy Wayne White’s character “Doc Ford,” from a crime novel series set in the Tarpon/Sanibel Bay area. Christine also recommends Mud Bugs, a fun restaurant with a bayou atmosphere and an excellent Cajun seafood menu.

mailing shells home from florida

Christine and Randy filled a USPS Large Flat Rate Box worth of goodies to send home through the Sanibel Post Office, whose postman proclaimed that the most common shipments sent off of the island are seashells and dirty laundry. The cherished finds were safely wrapped in bubble wrap and mailed home—arriving on a frigid, snowy Ohio day, perfect for unpacking and remembering the trip.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2022 issue.

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No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.

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