Sanibel Island is a popular winter destination for Northerners, but itís also great to visit with the kids year round. Rates for hotels and condos drop dramatically after the winter high season and breezes keep the island comfortable all year. One of the best times is to go is in mid-April, right after the rates drop but before the insect activity gets going. Fall is also a great option with nice weather and fewer crowds (though it is hurricane season). Condo rentals are a good option for families, providing a kitchen to cook meals. When choosing a condo, ask how far a walk it is to the beach; it could be worth it to pay more and be closer since traffic during high season can be a nightmare. There are no traffic lights on the island, and things can move at a crawl.
Here are some of the highlights of the island.
Beaches: There are several beaches on Sanibel, but our favorite was Bowmanís Beach with its fantastic shelling, sense of seclusion (in April it was practically deserted), and fairly calm water .Thereís no development here either (picnic and restroom facilities are available). Look for pelicans diving for fish and dolphins spouting offshore. Lighthouse Beach is home to the Sanibel Lighthouse and a great place to find gorgeous wentletrap shells (look in the shallows near the pier). This beach does get crowded since itís close to the causeway and the surf can be rough. Be sure to catch a sunset from one of the beaches.
The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum:Visit this museum early in your vacation and youíll learn tons about the shells that have made Sanibel famous. Thereís a learning lab and video available for kids, plus a gift shop with a nice selection of shell guides.
Wildlife: There is wildlife in abundance here, including birds (egrets, herons, ibis, and roseate spoonbills to name a few), alligators, dolphins, and raccoons. One of the best places to see wildlife is at the popular J.N. ďDingĒ Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Try to visit the refuge at least twice during your stay, once to make an early morning or late evening drive through (the best time to see wildlife) and once to stop in at the visitorís center and explore a few trails. Guided nature tours are available for an extra fee. The refuge is home to potentially dangerous alligators, never try to feed or touch one and keep small children by your side at all times.
Shelling: You wonít be able to leave Sanibel without at least a pocketful of shells. Try looking early in the morning or at low tide for the best selection and get the kids a good shell guide so they can identify their finds.
Biking: Sanibel is a fantastic biking destination. You can rent bikes here and have them delivered to your condo. Tandem bikes, bike seats, and trailers are available for young kids. The island is flat and bike paths run nearly everywhere.
Restaurants: Expect a wait, but the food at the Lazy Flamingo is worth it. Go to Cheeburger, Cheeburger for the classic burgers and shakes experience. Hungry Heron boasts an enormous menu and TVís that play the Disney channel (sound muted). Lighthouse Cafe is great for breakfast, but get there early to avoid a long wait.
Some Practicalities: Groceries are pricey on the island; try to do your major shopping in Fort Myers. The closet airport is in Fort Myers, but it may be cheaper to fly into Tampa (about a 2-3 hour drive north). Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen, coverups, and hats. Water shoes, shell containers or bags, and a dip net are useful for shelling. Binoculars come in handy while visiting the refuge or dolphin-watching from the beach.