By Debi Lander
mail@floridanewsline.com

Just south of Fort Myers, you’ll find a chain of small remote islands except Sanibel and Captiva. They’re known for their quiet residential communities, their sparkling white sand beaches, and the Gulf’s pristine turquoise water. Seashells, however, bring them distinction. 

Sanibel lies in an east-west position making it one of the few islands that run perpendicular to Florida’s coast. This lineup causes the ocean currents to flush water downward and allows Sanibel to capture shells — thus earning the nickname “Shelling Capital of the World.” The laid-back isle attracts seashell collectors from all over the globe with more than 250 varieties. Add the many outdoor activities to the natural attractions, and you’ve got a wonderful getaway for couples, families, or solo travelers. 

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I was impressed with the 25 miles of bike paths, most of them shaded and off-road, making them far safer. Half of Sanibel’s acreage has been preserved against development, and buildings must stand no taller than the tallest palm tree.

Nature lovers, especially birders, are drawn to J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This area becomes home to many seasonal mating birds who build their nests in the protected landscape. Best time to visit is late winter through spring. 

In addition to beaching, boating, kayaking, golf, and tennis, the east end allows a peek at the historic 98-foot tall Sanibel Island Lighthouse. Don’t expect a circular building. Sanibel Lighthouse was built with an iron skeleton tower back in 1884 and lit with kerosene oil. To get to the top of the lighthouse, the lighthouse keeper had to walk up an external spiral staircase with 127 steps. 

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the only museum in the U.S. devoted entirely to shells and mollusks. The octagonally-shaped building looks impressive, but so was the entrance fee of $25. I skipped it and browsed shells in a seashell shop nearby.

Cross a small bridge at the northern end of Sanibel, and you’re on Captiva, where magnificent villas hide behind lush tropical foliage. At the tip, you’ll discover the Seven Seas Resort with a full marina and sailing school and the place where day-trippers board cruises to Cabbage Key or Useppa Islands. Sunset viewing on Captiva becomes a daily ritual, except when those late afternoon thunderstorms creep up. I missed the sunsets!

I’d heard about the famous Dollar Bill Bar on Cabbage Key and decided to take the cruise. Once I arrived on the rustic, Old Florida style island, I ate lunch outdoors overlooking the marina. Afterward, I popped inside the inn to find walls thickly papered with old dollar bills. The ceiling, beams, and rafters all drip with hanging currency. When the old bills fall off, the staff collects them for an annual gift to a charity. Guests enjoy signing a dollar and adding it to the wall, wondering if it will still be there, should they return. Cabbage Key offers a few rental properties, but most of the 100 acres remain undeveloped, with no paved roads and no cars. A short nature trail near the inn proved interesting. 

Back on Sanibel, I indulged in the relaxing vibe. The islands offer a variety of fine restaurants, so dining out becomes the treat. Unlike the Keys, Sanibel and Captiva’s nightlife remains low-key. I look forward to returning.

If you go: sanibel-captiva.org

Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.

Photo courtesy Debi Lander

Dollar bills on the wall and ceiling, Cabbage Key Inn.

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