With 15 miles of beaches, more than 250 different kinds of shells and no roads wider than two lanes, Sanibel and Captiva Islands might be just off the coast of Fort Myers, but they are a world away from its buzz and bustle. The islands’ postcard-perfect beaches are inarguably the big draw for visitors and are considered some of the best for shelling anywhere.
But when you’re ready to explore beyond the idyllic seashore, these unspoiled barrier islands are an outdoor lover’s paradise—a mecca of land and sea adventures where visitors can do everything from kayaking through mangrove forests to spending time with rescued sea turtles. Here are some of the best places on Sanibel-Captiva for families to get right up close to the island’s natural wonders.
JN Ding Darling – Possibly the crown jewel of outdoor exploration on Sanibel, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is not to be missed. Start your visit at the Refuge’s excellent education center where there are free, naturalist-lead tours offered throughout each day. Grab a bike and head out along Wildlife Drive, a 4-mile loop through the refuge that offers access to several short hiking trails along the way, or spend an afternoon kayaking through the refuges prolific waterways.
Tarpon Bay Explorers – These folks are the official tour outfit within the Darling Refuge. Paddle your way through the Commodore Creek water trail where your guide will talk about the islands’ ecosystem and help you to identify some of the many island shorebirds. Wildlife cruises are also offered and visitors can rent bicycles, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks and canoes for some solo exploration.
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) Located right on Sanibel-Captiva Road, SCCF is committed to the conservation of the island’s costal habitats. Take some time to visit the nature center and butterfly house or head out for a short hike along the 4-miles of trails. A variety of educational programs for families are offered throughout every month and focus on everything from Florida black bears to hurricanes.
Cruises – There are several places that offer opportunities to get out into the ocean waters around Sanibel and Captiva. Set out on a morning expedition to an uninhabited island for a picnic and some shelling or watch dolphins playing at sunset. One of these, Adventures in Paradise focuses on teaches the eco-heritage of Sanibel. The most intriguing option is their sea-life encounter excursion where you’ll have the opportunity to safely net (and release) small creatures like seahorses, crabs, and puffer fish. Captiva Cruises offers a wildlife adventure cruise that is narrated by a docent of the SCCF as well as a catamaran sailing adventure with a naturalist from the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum.
Biking – With 22-miles of paved paths, Sanibel Island is an extremely bicycle-friendly community. These paths are separated from the roadway, making them great for biking with kids. The island boasts several bike rental outfits, offering bikes of all kinds including tandems, group bikes, trailers and bike seats. The paths do not continue on Captiva, however, and the twisty, tree lined roads make biking here unsafe for children and inexperienced cyclists. Grab a bike and start pedaling—there’s no better way to see the island. And don’t forget to stop for ice cream!
An ideal home base for your Sanibel-Captiva adventures is the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort and Spa. Sanibel Harbour is home to its own 85-acres of pristine white sand beach, kayaking, a nature trail, bike rentals and 3 beautiful pools, making it a great place for families to unplug and reconnect.