Sanibel Island, FL
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Sanibel Island, FL

Discover sugar-white sands and spectacular shell-seeking on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Gulf Coast Treasures

Have your kids ever found a whole, live seashell? You know, the kind with little critters still living inside? If not, they're in for a real treat on Florida's Gulf Coast.

No more buckets of broken shards. No more imagining what a full scallop shell really looks like. On Sanibel, they can actually find and hold perfect conches, starfish, and sea urchins -- of the quality you'd see in a picture book.

More than 200 varieties of shells wash up on these shores each day. There's so much to see above and below the water, visitors must complain of sore backs from hunching over as they search for hidden treasures.

Between winter baseball, wildlife, and Thomas Edison's legacy, there are enough activities on Sanibel and at nearby Fort Myers Beach to keep everyone happy for at least a week.

Best Beaches for Shelling

6 Mile Cypress Preserve,
copyright Lee Island
Coast CVB

This world-class shelling destination is easy to get to -- Sanibel Island's connected to Fort Myers by a three-mile causeway, which itself is worth the trip. Your biggest decision will be picking a place to let your little scavengers loose.

Locals say the best beach for shelling is Blind Pass, located between Sanibel and Captiva Islands (on the Captiva side it's known as Turner Beach). But watch the undertow when swimming there. Gulfside Park, with its boardwalk and shade trees, is another favorite. Both beaches have public parking and bathrooms. Go during high and low tide, especially after a winter storm. But remember: It's against the law to collect live shells, and that includes sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins. Make sure the little critter inside is gone (or at least dead) before plopping it onto your pile.

Not sure exactly what you've found on the beach? Bring your collection to The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the only shell museum in the United States, with huge displays and experts on hand to identify your pickings. If you're visiting in March, check out the Sanibel Shell Fair, where you'll see live shells with creatures still squirming inside, and shell crafts on display.

For a change of pace, take the family to J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which occupies more than half the island. There's a lot of local wildlife here. You may even spot an alligator! Inhabitants include 50 types of reptiles, 291 species of birds, and more than 32 different kinds of mammals. Explore by car, bike, or foot (maps are distributed at the visitor center). Or take a narrated tram, canoe, or kayak tour.

If you plan to stay on Sanibel overnight, be forewarned: Beautiful places don't come without a price; room rates can be expensive during high season.

The Cooler Town

Sanibel Lighthouse, copyright
Lee Island Coast CVB

On a budget? Head to Fort Myers Beach (13 miles south of Fort Myers on Estero Island). Teens will like the lively scene (a welcome change from Sanibel's upscale setting) including T-shirt shops, inexpensive restaurants, and water sports (including para-sailing and Waverunners). Hotel rooms are generally more affordable than on Sanibel. And wide, gradually sloping beaches and gentle tides are ideal for tots.

Fort Myers is also bustling with family-friendly attractions:

  • Baseball
    Welcome to spring training. The Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins both make their winter homes here each March. Players are surprisingly friendly in this small-stadium setting; your kids just may walk away with an autograph or photo (pre-game is the best time to ask). Games sell out fast, however, so buy your tickets well in advance.
  • Thomas Edison's Winter Estate
    Inventor Thomas Edison spent winters in warm Fort Myers. At his estate, the kids tour his laboratory (where he made rubber, among other things). There's also a museum housing Edison's inventions. Elsewhere on the grounds, kids will love climbing on and around the giant banyan tree, with its 400-foot-wide roots and endless forest of "shoots."
  • Imaginarium Hands-On Museum & Aquarium
    More than 60 hands-on science and nature exhibits give kids a chance to play TV weatherman, experience an indoor thunderstorm, or reach in the "touch tank" and pet a crab.
  • Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium
    This natural history museum, aviary, planetarium, and preserve offers daily programs starring local wildlife (snakes and alligators often make an appearance).

Tourist Traps and Manatees

Before leaving town, check out The Shell Factory. Okay, we're talking very touristy. But this shop-museum-attraction less than 15 minutes away in North Fort Myers is an institution in these parts. There's a huge collection of shells, two aquarium tanks filled with fish, an alligator cove, and at night, dancing-light fountains. You can pluck your own pearls from Japanese oysters, ride the bumper boats, or hit the video arcade. And of course, there's plenty of stuff to buy.

At Manatee Park, you can see endangered West Indian manatees, or "sea cows," in their natural habitat from viewing platforms. The creatures move upriver in warmer months, so catch them from November to March. The park also has a butterfly garden and picnic areas, as well as kayak rentals in season.


Type of travel: Nature, outdoor, educational, sports

Best ages: 3 and up

Distances (to Fort Myers): Miami (148 miles); Orlando (167 miles); Tampa (134 miles)

Ideal trip length: Weekend to one week.

Best time to go: Winter. May to January is best time for affordable hotel rates.

Weather: 70/50 degrees in winter; 90/70 degrees in summer

Lodging: If you're looking for a last-minute bargain, click on the Hot Deals section at the Lee Island Coast Visitor & Convention Bureau's Web site.


Squirm factor: Some

If You Go...


Ft. Myers Beach,
copyright Lee Island
Coast CVB

Blind Pass/Turner Beach Off Sanibel-Captiva Rd.; Gulfside Park, off Casa Ybel Rd. Phone: Sanibel Recreation Department, 941-472-6477 Parking at both

Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Rd. Phone: 941-395-2233

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge Sanibel-Captiva Rd. (Mile Marker 2) Phone: 941-472-1100 (park), 941-472-8900 (canoe and kayak tours)

Family Sandsculpting, copyright Lee
Island Coast CVB
Fort Myers:

Red Sox City of Palms Park, 2201 Edison Ave. Phone: 941-334-4700

Minnesota Twins Lee County Sports Complex, Six Mile Cypress Rd. (between Daniels Pkwy and US 41) Phone: 800-33-TWINS

Edison Winter Estate 2350 McGregor Blvd. Phone: 888-377-9475

Imaginarium Hands-On Museum & Aquarium 2000 Cranford Ave. Phone: 941-337-3332

Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium 3450 Ortiz Blvd. Phone: 941-275-3435

Outside Town:

The Shell Factory 2787 N. Tamiami Tr., North Fort Myers Phone: 239-995-2141

Manatee Park State Road 80, 1.5 miles east of I-75 at exit 25 Phone: 941-432-2004 Note: Optimum viewing is November to March.

More Information:

Lee Island Coast Visitor & Convention Bureau Phone: 888-231-6933


Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce


Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce


Sanibel & Captiva Chamber of Commerce Phone: 941-472-1080


The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spot: The Hungry Heron, 2330 Palm Ridge Rd., Sanibel, 239-395-2300. This local eatery broadcasts the Disney Channel on monitors throughout the restaurant and has a full kids' menu.

Annual events: Festival of Light The highlight of this celebration honoring Thomas Edison is a nighttime parade with floats decked out in Edison's most famous invention -- the lightbulb.

Sanibel Shell Fair Sanibel Community Center, Periwinkle Way.

Best souvenirs: Shells and shell items (like jewelry), oranges and grapefruits, locally-made Tervis tumblers (insulated cups for hot or cold drinks).

Side Trips

Swamp Creatures

Look at those teeth! Your kids will squeal with delight when alligators open wide during a 90-minute swamp buggy tour of Babcock Wildlife Adventures. Panthers, bison, and a variety of birds also put on a show during this jaunt through the woods and waters of Telegraph Cypress Swamp, narrated by a trained naturalist. Also available: Off-road bike tours. Babcock Wildlife Adventures 8000 State Rd. 31, Punta Gorda, about 20-30 minutes east of downtown Fort Meyers Phone: 800-500-5583 Note: Reservations required

Reviewed April 2004.