SANIBEL, Fla. — If you’re looking for beautiful beaches to go shelling and an excellent refuge to see wildlife, you need to add Sanibel Island to your to-do list.
Sanibel and Captiva are barrier islands located in Lee County, just 2 1/2 hours south of Tampa. This staycation location offers laid back vibes, with no street lights on the island and only locally owned restaurants, retailers and hotels.
Shelling on Sanibel
With 15 miles of beaches and 25 miles of bike trails between Sanibel and Captiva, this is a great place to do anything outdoors.
"Sanibel was actually named Travel Channel's number one destination for shelling," said John Lai, president and CEO of the Sanibel and Captiva Chamber of Commerce. "And we take that with a great honor."
Due to the island's oxbow shape and position between the Gulf of Mexico and Caloosahatchee River, currents cause piles of shells to wash up on Sanibel's beaches. Some of the most popular beaches to go shelling are Lighthouse Beach (where the island's famous lighthouse is still fully operational), Bowman's Beach and Blind Pass Beach (the beach between Sanibel and Captiva).
There are many tips and guidelines for shelling on Sanibel online. The best time to go is after a big storm or other weather event and during low tide.
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Sanibel is a 3-mile wide island with approximately 2/3 of its land in conservation.
“It is not one of those overgrown, overdeveloped tourism destinations,” said Lai. “It is very much…unspoiled Florida.”
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a fan favorite tourist attraction on the island. This federal park has been around since 1945 and is a great place to see wildlife and explore their environment.
“On any given day you can see an alligator, a bald eagle, and a manatee and a dolphin in one drive,” said Lai.
Check out Wilderness Drive, a 4-mile long road through the refuge where guests can stop along the path to fish, bird watch and explore different walking trails. Ride your bike or drive through this experience every day except for Fridays. Admission is $10 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian and $1 per bicycle for the day.
If you want to explore this refuge from the water, Tarpon Bay Explorers offers guided kayak, stand up paddleboard and boat tours.
"Tarpon Bay Explorers is the one and only concession," said Adam Sauerland, assistant manager at Tarpon Bay Explorers. "So we are the only one with a contract to do what we do [on the refuge]."
All experience levels are welcome to kayak and paddleboard. Tarpon Bay Explorers gives lessons before tours and rents out equipment for more experienced paddlers to venture out on their own.
The main goal is wildlife preservation and education.
"You're gonna learn all about the ecosystem within Ding Darling," and Sauerland. "It's a mangrove estuary; it's one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. And within that ecosytem, you're gonna learn all about not only the mangroves themselves, but all of the wildlife that inhabits the mangroves."
To learn more about Sanibel Island, stop by the visitor center at 1159 Causeway Boulevard or view more information here.