Sanibel Island Florida

My wife and I had a wonderful vacation on the barrier island that is connected by a causeway to Fort Myers. I will describe the place we stayed, some of our activities, and the places where we ate. However, this is not a travel guide, since we had only a short week there. I recommend that you look at the Chamber of Commerce site which has interesting descriptions of the wonderful shelling on the fifteen miles of beautiful beaches of Sanibel and Captiva (pronounced Capteava). For those wondering what the connection is with a web site titled, there are extensive wildlife refuges, and a large portion of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site is destined to become a wildlife refuge. I intend to do a separate posting describing our visit to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel.

We visited Sanibel in late November, and it was a wonderful time. November isn’t considered “high tourist season,” but the daytime temperatures were consistently in the mid 80s, hurricane season is over, the beaches weren’t crowded, and the water temperature was comfortable after a brief acclimation. We stayed at Sanibel’s Seaside Inn. Their motto is “Ole Island Charm,” and we agreed with that description. I suggest you check out 231 reviews on trip advisor if you want more than just our opinion, but we agree with many of the positive comments on that site. We found the people who worked there to be incredibly eager to make us comfortable, enjoyed having a well-stocked breakfast basket delivered to the refrigerator in our room daily instead of doing a “cattle call” in a lobby, and were completely satisfied with our stay there. The New York Times was provided daily. The small heated pool was just off the porch out the back of our room, and the beautiful beach was a short walk.

One of the people at the motel told us few workers can afford to live on Sanibel, and that the corporation bought them transponders for free passage over the causeway from Fort Myers. That keeps them from having to spend the six dollars each day to get to work.

We heard many languages around the motel, and were told that people from Germany, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Chili often stay there in October and November.  Apparently many of the people who stay there in the heat of summer are called “inlanders.” Those are Floridians who are happy to come to island for the sea breezes and escape the calm heat of the inland. We were also told a famous resident of the motel was a large orange cat named Garfield that lived there in the 1980s and 1990s and entertained guests by working them for food.

We were on the first floor, which is elevated a few steps. The island is a foot and a half above sea level, so it is wise to have the first floor of anything elevated. The noise from people walking in the room above us was the only negative, but that wasn’t too troublesome. My wife thought the room was a tad too small, but I didn’t notice that we had that many conflicts while we were inclined to mill around. There are plenty of complimentary bicycles, and they are all one speed. You really don’t need multiple speeds, since there is only one place we noted on the island that can be called a hill. It is a ten or twenty foot rise as the road goes over a causeway in the twenty two miles of pedestrian and bike trails along the main highway. Bikes aren’t allowed on the beach. There were signs marking gopher tortoise crossing areas, but we didn’t see one.

The Sanibel Seaside Inn began as the Gallery Motel, which was one of the first ten or so motels on the island constructed about 1960. Hurricane Charles flooded the island on Friday the thirteenth in August 2004. The storm surge didn’t reach the elevated first floor, but the place had to be renovated after the winds tore off the roof and the torrential rains damaged everything beyond repair. The recent large oil spill didn’t reach anywhere close to Sanibel.

Travel tip—it was suggested the greatest risk of hurricanes is in August, it is hot and humid in September, and things become relatively safe from hurricanes and the temperatures are more comfortable in October.  The “high travel season” (with resulting escalating room prices) is in March and April during the family Spring Break season. We noted busy restaurants, some traffic congestion and quite a parade of bicyclists during our visit, and are trying to imagine what it would be like with another several tens of thousands of people on the island.

All the restaurants where we dined were busy, but we never had to wait more than a few minutes. Every meal was wonderful. We had grouper fixed in a variety of methods, and my favorite was mesquite grilled. We saw fresh grouper in a fish market, and it was $18.95/lb, which indicates it is widely popular. We would have either clam or conch chowder and salads. We had shrimp with the grouper a couple of times and fried oysters once. We had an appetizer of soft shelled crab once, and I had to convince my wife to try it. The crabs are held and watched so they can be harvested and cleaned immediately after molting. The very thin membrane that would become a new hard shell is quite easy to cut through and chew, and the flavor of the crab is excellent. It is difficult to select a favorite restaurant. Our first meal was at Grandma Dot’s, which is next to a marina at the end of a road that was more of a trail over hard-packed sand with numerous potholes.  We had meals at the Sanibel Grill, Timbers, and twice at the Lazy Flamingo. We paid $60-$80 for full meals, drinks, and tips, and considered all the meals to be worth the price. We wished we could have stayed on the island longer for several reasons, but we knew we would have enjoyed trying other restaurants.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t describe our shelling experiences, since that is the reason many people go to Sanibel. Sanibel and Captiva were literally made from shells. We heard there once was a six foot high wall of shells on Captiva that was eventually carted away by tourists taking home loads of them. The best time to find shells was reported to be at low tide, and we did considerable wading in the surf and watching for something interesting as the waves would wash back out to leave a relatively clear view. There were more clams than can be easily imagined and a variety of scallops. We found a few live juvenile conches, one of which was eating a smaller conch and another was eating a snail. We also found live snails, two whelks, and a couple of starfish. We dutifully followed the regulation to immediately release living creatures and decided that should also include hermit crabs that had taken over a shell.  We legally collected a few larger clam shells, various colors of scallops, and a couple each of juvenile conch, snails, and lace murex.

We paid the two dollar parking fee to walk to the fishing pier on the south end of the island. The pier is relatively short, but it was crowded with people fishing. There had been several sheepshead caught and the one man jigging had a nice stringer of mackerel. The most fun was watching two youngsters with throw nets catching bait fish next to the pier.

I can’t select a favorite part of the visit. We enjoyed the lush greenery that crowds up to the bike paths and highway. We also enjoyed the people we met, the great seafood, and we always enjoy the wash of waves on a sea shore.

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