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Sanibel & Captiva Islands - Florida


The pair of barrier islands is famed as the finest shelling location along the Gulf Coast. Located north of Naples, and immediately west of the city of Cape Coral, the islands were occupied by the Calusa from about a.d. 600.

The native villages were very much in sight when the first Spanish explorers sailed up the coast during the early 1500s. While enjoying some early victories against the first waves of Europeans to come to the area, the Colusa were finally driven deep into the Everglades.

Sanibel & Captiva

Sanibel, the larger island, is joined to Captiva by the Turner Bridge crossing Blind Pass. In 1963, a three-mile causeway was constructed from the mainland to the eastern end of Sanibel, and serious resort development began. But all was not lost on these glistening white islands. From soon after the bridge was completed, Sanibel incorporated, and the municipal government passed strong zoning laws, with much of the island set aside for protection. As a result, half of the land on Sanibel is designated as natural areas, with two preserves protecting the island ecology and wildlife.

Captiva, the north island, has a small townsite located just across the bridge from Sanibel, and a yacht club on Roosevelt Channel, while the northern third is South Seas Plantation, a large and beautifully laid-out resort. Almost the entire inner coastline of Sanibel Island is within the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. On the other side of Sanibel-Captiva Road -- the main thoroughfare through the two islands -- is the Nature Center owned and operated by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

The preserves and the rest of the islands offer a remarkable natural experience, accompanied by a civilized, clean community, with pleasing architecture and many opportunities for recreation, including shelling on the expansive beaches, riding bicycles through the wildlife refuge or through the towns to the beaches, or walking on nature trails and along the beaches. Thirty miles of bike paths (also great for walking and skating) wind across Sanibel Island, leading to beaches and other natural scenes. On Captiva, bicycles share the island road with cars.

Winter daytime temperatures on the islands average in the mid to upper 70s, while winter nights are usually in the mid 50s. Averaging 95 degrees in summer months but with breezes from the Gulf of Mexico, and frequent afternoon and evening rains to cut the heat, the climate is quite comfortable. Summer nighttime temperatures seldom fall below 75 degrees. For information on island accommodations, and other local attractions, contact the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, Box 166, Sanibel FL 33957, or call (941) 472-1080.


Considered among the finest shelling beaches in the world, the islands offer more than 250 kinds of shells, brought to the beach by high tides and storms. Winter is the best time for shelling in this region of shallow gulf waters, where the shells accumulate before being swept on-shore. Once you get onto the gulf-side beaches, you'll develop the local posture known as the "Sanibel Stoop." Inveterate stoopers will be out in the pre-dawn hours, looking for shells by flashlight, particularly after a storm at low tide. Among the shells they look for is the elusive jumonia, and if you find one of these gems, you'll have your picture in the local newspaper. Among the shells in better supply are lightening and pear whelks, conchs, cockles, coquinas, olives, cones, tulips, sand dollars, and scallops. You'll also find buttercups and lion's paws, among many others.

Live shells are protected on Sanibel Island, and Florida Law dictates that no one collect live shells, including sand dollars, starfish, and sea urchins. All shelling is prohibited in the Darling Wildlife Preserve.

In 1995, the opening of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum made shell identification much easier. It's the only museum of its kind in the United States, and offers a range of exhibits devoted to shells in art and history, shell habitat, fossil shells, and rare specimens, as well as more common Sanibel&endash;Captiva shells. Some 3,000 types of shells are found here. This fine addition to Sanibel Island is open daily at 3074 Sanibel-Captiva Road, one mile west of the Tarpon Bay -- Palm Ridge Road junction. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information on current exhibits, call (941) 395-2233.

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Preserve

The winner of two Pulitzer prizes for editorial cartooning, Jay Norwood Darling (or "Ding" as he signed his cartoons) was the respected Des Moines Register newspaper cartoonist and satirist, and a champion of wildlife protection. In the 1920s and 30s his cartoons extolling the virtues of Nature, and campaigning against unbridled hunting and other "unnatural" callings, set the scene for the small but growing environmental movement in Florida. Darling, who lived for many winters on Captiva Island, and himself a hunter, felt that the environment needed a break from the intrusions of the human race. In 1945, a large area of Sanibel was set aside as the Sanibel Wildlife Refuge. It was named for "Ding" Darling in 1978. He help to establish more than 300 wildlife sanctuaries across the nation, and initiated the Duck Stamp program which secured money from hunters through licensing fees, when he served as head of the U.S. Biological Survey, the forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With more than 5,000 acres, the refuge offers an unspoiled view of what Florida was like 150 years ago. There are nesting sites for more than 200 species of birds, many of them endangered or threatened. Also residing in the refuge are hundreds of species of mammals, amphibians, and sea creatures. Among the endangered species living in the refuge are the American crocodile, American alligator, Atlantic loggerhead turtle, gopher turtle, Arctic peregrine falcon, and the Atlantic Ridley turtle. Endangered water birds include the American oystercatcher, the reddish egret, and the tricolored heron.

The refuge offers a five-mile scenic drive, winding along the sheltered western portion, past wading birds, beside mangrove islands, past osprey nests, and beside an old shell mound. Along the route are several viewpoint locations where one may stop to gaze eastward at several small islands and mangrove thickets. You'll probably see alligators from the cross dike, just off the main route. The drive is open from sunrise to sunset, Saturday through Thursday, and is closed on Friday.

Most of the wildlife is best seen during low tide periods, or in early mornings and early evenings, near sunset, when great flocks of roseate spoonbills fly over Wildlife Drive, near the observation tower. During the summer season, you'll see yellow-crowned night herons and blue herons; immature as well as adults. In fall, migrating birds include buntings, orioles, and warblers. Winter months (December through February) bring waterbirds on their way to more northern nesting grounds: white pelicans, red-breasted mergansers, and blue-winged teal, among many other sea and shore birds. In the geographical center of the reserve, hemmed-in by Wildlife Drive, is a fresh water pond. Here, you'll see many birds during high tides, including cormorants, anhingas, pelicans, and several types of shorebirds. The osprey is a year-round resident, as are 32 species of mammals and 50 types of amphibians and reptiles.

The entrance fee to Wildlife Drive is $4 per vehicle, and $1 for hikers and cyclists. The federal Golden Age and Golden Eagle passports are also honored for admission. Guided tram tours of Wildlife Drive are offered through the nearby Tarpon Bay Recreation Area, located at the end of Tarpon Bay Road. Canoe tours are also available, or you can rent a canoe or electric boat to explore the mangrove swamps. For information on the tram service, call (941) 472-8900. For general information on the refuge, call (941) 472-1100.

The visitor center is open daily, except Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through April, and from May through October from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except on Fridays. Picnicking and camping are not permitted in the refuge.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Nature Center

This nonprofit corporation has, since 1967, acquired more than 1,000 acres on and around the two islands, in order to preserve their unique natural character. This organization also began with the outspoken national campaign of J.N. Darling, who knew the islands well. Following the creation of what is now the "Ding" Darling Refuge, the Foundation -- aided by The Nature Conservancy -- was founded to acquire additional land, with a focus on freshwater ecology. The first land purchased (207 acres) lay along the Sanibel River. More land was acquired, resulting in nearly 1,000 acres held by the Foundation, on both Sanibel and Captiva, and all of Albright Island which lies between the two larger islands.

You'll find the foundation's Nature Center on Sanibel-Captiva Road, on Sanibel Island. This series of ecosystems along the Sanibel River offers 4.5 miles of nature trails, a Nature education center and exhibit area, and the Nature Shop. The foundation's Native Plant Nursery breeds and grows plants native to the islands, encouraging water-wise plantings. The nursery offers retail sales.

One of the more recent activities of the foundation was the purchase of an additional 22 acres of land along the Sanibel River, almost finishing the acquisition of the complete river corridor between its source and Tarpon Bay Road.

For information on the foundation's facilities and programs, write the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation at 3333 Sanibel Captiva Road, Sanibel FL 33957, or call (941) 472-2329.

Sanibel & Captiva Hotels

Here are some suggestions as to where you could stay on the two islands:

Best Western Sanibel Island Beach Resort
3287 West Gulf Drive, Sanibel Island
The resort offers 46 comfortable rooms and family suites. All accommodations are beautifully appointed with tropical decor. The huge pool and tennis court on five lush, tropical acres overlook the beach and the Gulf of Mexico.

Holiday Inn Sanibel
1231 Middle Gulf Drive, Sanibel Island
With a beachfront location, and a white sand beach to explore, the hotel offers all of the traditional Holiday Inn services. Staff will help you plan your Sanibel activities. Amenities include tennis, swimming pool, poolside lounge, and access to miles of bicycle paths.

Song of the Sea
863 E. Gulf Drive, Sanibel Island
Nnear the eastern tip of Sanibel Island, Florida is the European-style Song of the Sea resort. Song of the Sea is the ultimate luxury amid a tropical paradise, and the magic begins the moment you arrive.  Eat breakfast on the garden terrace, relax in the whirlpool, or take a bike ride.

South Seas Resort
5400 Plantation Road, Captiva Island
Set on 330-acres, this is a tropical paradise. There are more than 600 units, ranging from deluxe hotel rooms and villa suites to three-bedroom beach homes and cottages. Comfortable, quiet and luxurious, these accommodations feature glorious beach, bay, marina, tennis center or golf course views. These enclaves were all built in harmony with nature and provide an intimate, secluded setting.


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