When you visit the West Coast of Florida, be sure to make a stop one of the many pre-margined barrier islands between Naples and Clearwater. These include Marco Island, Big Hickory Island, Estero Island, Boca Grande, Longboat Key, Siesta Key, Anna Marie Island and many others. On a beautiful day we started our trip to discover the 3 islands Sanibel Island, Captiva Island and Cayo Costa.
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Things to know about Sanibel Island & Captiva Island
Sanibel Island is a small island with a population of about 6,400 off the west coast of Florida, about 30 kilometers southwest of Fort Myers. It is a typical barrier island separating the mainland from the Gulf of Mexico. The island is about 12 miles (20 km) long and 3 miles (5 km) wide and has been connected to the mainland by a causeway since 1963. The toll “Sanibel Island Causeway” includes 3 bridges and stretches across the water for a total of 3 miles.
In 1884 the island was first settled and in 1974 the city of Sanibel was founded. Sanibel Island is most famous for its beautiful beaches, which have the largest shellfish deposits in the U.S., especially at Bowman’s Beach Park. More than half of Sanibel consists of nature preserves with tropical vegetation, the largest of which is the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Sanibel Island offers 15 miles of beach, 25 miles of bike trails, 50 species of fish, 230 species of birds and 250 different types of shells.
We found it interesting that according to the city ordinance, no house there can be built higher than the tallest palm tree 🙂
Captiva Island is located north of Sanibel Island and originally belongs to the neighboring island of Sanibel. The storm surge from a severe hurricane in 1926 divided the two islands and created a channel about 70 meters wide, Blind Pass. Thus, today the two islands are connected by a small bridge.
Captiva Island was settled in 1888 and a tiny cemetery next to the Chapel by the Sea still contains the grave of its first inhabitant. Half of the island is privately owned and Captiva Drive, the island’s main street, is often referred to as “Millionaire’s Row” due to its many luxury homes. Throughout the year, about 320 inhabitants live here.
North Captiva Island (Upper Captiva) is a separate island and was also separated from the rest of Captiva Island by a hurricane in 1921. The island can only be reached by boat or by small plane on a private airstrip (Salty Approach).
Sanibel and Captiva have some of the best beaches in Florida, making them among the most popular vacation destinations on the Gulf Coast.
Sanibel Island is first and foremost a place to relax. Here you can easily escape the crowds of Orlando or Miami. There are no big hotels on the island, little traffic and the best: 0 traffic lights 😉 The most famous sights of the island are the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the National Shell Museum, the Lighthouse Beach Park with its lighthouse and the different beaches like the Bowman’s Beach, the Silver Key Beach or the Blind Pass Beach.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
The largest wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island is the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The 21 km² protected area was established in 1976 to protect one of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems in the country. The mangrove and marsh area where salt water meets fresh water is known for its migratory bird populations, bird watching opportunities, and raccoons, opossums, bobcats, river otters, alligators, rabbits and manatees.
You can easily explore the reserve by car. The entrance fee for the “Wildlife Drive” is currently 10 USD per vehicle. A four-mile one-way road with a 15 mph speed limit runs through the park. The road can be used by pedestrians, cyclists and cars, or you can sign up for a guided 90-minute tour. By car, you can always park on the right side of the road to explore the trails, viewpoints and lookout tower.
We spent about an hour in the park at lunchtime, but saw very little “wildlife”. Still, you get a great look at the mangrove ecosystem on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
An island that is one of the best shell collecting areas in the world naturally includes a museum to match. For those on Sanibel Island, we recommend a quick stop at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. The museum provides a diverse knowledge of shells from Florida and around the world. In addition, here you can find nine aquariums, where you can see more than 60 species of marine life, such as the Pacific giant octopus, squid or seahorses. Admission is $23.95 for adults.
The Sanibel Lighthouse
The Sanibel Island Light was one of the first lighthouses on the Florida Gulf Coast north of Key West. Located on the eastern tip of Sanibel Island in Lighthouse Beach Park, the approximately 100-foot-tall lighthouse was built in 1884 to mark the entrance to San Carlos Bay for ships entering the port of Punta Rassa on the other side of San Carlos Bay. The grounds are open to the public, but the lighthouse itself is not.
Unfortunately, we could only stay here for a short time, because a heavy thunderstorm with lots of rain came up that afternoon.
Unfortunately, we did not see much of Captiva Island due to time constraints. But McCarthy’s Marina, located on the island, was the starting point of our “Dolphin and Wildlife Cruise” with Captiva Cruises.
Lunch in the Bubble Room
But before we took the boat out on the water, we had lunch at a really unique restaurant.
The Bubble Room Restaurant on Captiva Island opened in 1979 and offers a completely crazy fantasy world. Starting with old toys from the 1930s and 1940s as decorations in a room, the collecting began and has continued to this day. Old toys, nostalgic dolls, garden gnomes, toy furniture, moving toy trains, photos with movie stars…. you don’t know where to look first. One room in the Bubble Room is completely dedicated to Christmas, true to the motto “It’s always Christmas in the Bubble Room”.
The Bubble Room is absolutely kitschy, but really unique and worth seeing. If you want to eat here, you should definitely book a table in advance – if you drop by spontaneously, you hardly have a chance to get one of the coveted tables. By the way, the food here has also been very tasty. We were told that the restaurant is very famous for its great cake offer – unfortunately we couldn’t try that, because we were very well satiated from lunch 😉
Dolphin and Wildlife Cruise
In the late afternoon we went on a “Dolphin and Wildlife Cruise” with Captiva Cruises. We were able to park our car directly at “McCarthy’s Marina” and from there it is only a few steps to the big excursion boat. The boat ride costs 30 USD per adult and 20 USD for children under 12.
From the marina you sail out into the bay (Pine Island Sound), which lies between the barrier islands of Sanibel Island, Captiva Island, North Captiva Island and Cayo Costa and the mainland of Florida. If you are lucky, you can see dolphins, white pelicans, ospreys, bald eagles and a variety of migratory birds.
The trip across the bay took 90 minutes and we kept looking for dolphins. But unfortunately, we had little luck on our trip and have mostly been able to spot the dolphins only very far away. But then, when we were already on our way back to the marina, a dolphin appeared right at the boat and swam with the bow wave. Always a great experience to see these beautiful animals in the wild 🙂
Cayo Costa Island
Cayo Costa Island is located south of Boca Grande Island (Gasparilla Island), north of North Captiva Island and about 19 km west of the city of Cape Coral. The island, which is a piece of untouched and natural Florida, is accessible only by boat, kayak, ferry (Tropic Star Ferry) or helicopter. Cayo Costa Island, like Sanibel Island and Captiva Island, is part of a chain of barrier islands protecting Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound. The park includes nine miles (14 km) of soft, white sand beaches, several hiking and biking trails, 10 square miles of pine forests and mangrove swamps. Birds abound on the coast and manatees, porpoises and sea turtles can be seen offshore. The entrance fee to the park is 2 USD per person.
A map of Cayo Costa State Park with more information on picnic areas and where to stay (12 rustic cabins & 30 tent sites) can be downloaded as a .pdf version here.
Boat trip to Cayo Costa State Park
We made our excursion to Cayo Costa State Park with Captiva Cruises in the early morning. Meeting point was at “McCarthy’s Marina”. The excursion to Cayo Costa State Park costs 45 USD per adult and 30 USD for children under 12 plus 2 USD per person for the Park Admission Fee.
With a slightly smaller boat than the dolphin tour, we then took a 30-minute boat ride across Pine Island Sound to the west side of Cayo Costa Island. Here the boat moored at a jetty and we had to walk only a few meters on a wooden walkway through the mangrove swamps to get to the gulf side of the island. The white sandy beach is several meters wide at this point and deserted. The only thing you can find here are: Mussels. Hundreds, thousands, millions of them. A truly idyllic and paradisiacal place 🙂
Drone pictures from Cayo Costa island
In total we had a good two hours to swim, snorkel, hike or collect shells on Cayo Costa. We took the opportunity to let our new DJI Mini 3 Pro drone fly a bit to take some nice aerial shots of the island. Beautiful ❤
Video from Cayo Costa Island
And here you can find a short video of the island Cayo Costa, taken with our drone DJI Mini 3 Pro.
All travelogues of our Florida round trip (2022)Sun, beaches, palm trees, sightseeing, beautiful hotels, pools and the fun of Sea World, Walt Disney & Co.... we were really looking forward to this vacation in Florida. We planed a beautiful itinerary for our almost 3 week trip through the Sunshine State, with places we mostly didn't know yet. In the following travel reports we will tell you about our experiences in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers Beach, Fort Myers, Tampa and Orlando.
➥ Miami Beach » Arrival, Route, Rental Car & Hotel in Miami Beach
➥ Miami » Our Top 10 Sights & Attractions
➥ Fort Lauderdale » Sights, Beach & Attractions
➥ Fort Myers » Fort Myers Beach, Downtown & Lovers Key State Park
➥ Sanibel Island » Sanibel Island, Captiva Island & Cayo Costa State Park
➥ Tampa » Top Sights & the best Attractions
➥ Tampa » Theme Park Busch Gardens & Adventure Island
➥ Orlando » Theme Park SeaWorld & Water Park Aquatica
➥ Orlando » Magic Kingdom Theme Park (Disney) with toddler