Saturday, April 20, 2019

Sanibel Island, Florida

I first heard of Sanibel Island from a friend who vacations in the area every year with her family. My friend spoke of a laid-back beach paradise, perfect for families and filled with lovely restaurants and resorts  it's more like a tropical island than Florida, she said. We finally decided to spend a few days there on a weeklong Florida vacation that combined a beach stay with some time at Disney World (located three hours away).

And it truly was wonderful! Sanibel Island is everything you want a beach destination to be  low-key and relaxing, yet gorgeous and resort-like. We loved the casual biking culture and the fantastic food scene. I could see myself coming back year after year with my own family.

Where to Stay

We drove and biked by many bungalow-esque resorts in Sanibel Island, and every single one of them appeared to be adorable and just steps from the ocean. We chose to stay at Song of the Sea, which was perfect for us, with a kitchenette, enclosed porch looking out to the pool, beach access, laundry room, and continental breakfast.

It's within biking distance of Lighthouse Beach Park  and you can borrow bikes from the hotel for free. You could also walk next door to the slightly more happening Sanibel Inn, a sister property of Song of the Sea, and use any of the amenities there.

What to Do

Sanibel Island is the ultimate family biking destination. The whole island is set up with bike paths that are paved and level (here's a map), and you can bike just about anywhere with the kids. Most of the area resorts lend out bikes, and there are bike racks at every restaurant and shop. You see people biking everywhere you go.

We biked to Lighthouse Beach Park from our hotel (about 2 miles) to check out its legendary shelling scene  and we weren't disappointed by what we found. Areas of the beach are completely covered with shells, and people were scooping them up with everything from sand buckets to long ladles designed for shelling. The kids quickly got in on the action, combing the shore for shells of all sizes, shapes, and colors.

In the end, we walked away with more than a hundred shells. But the best part was that the shells were a continual source of amusement for my kids. When we got back to the hotel, they spent a lot of time washing them. Then they spent more time sorting them. And re-sorting them. Back at home, we put them in a glass vase for display.

On our last full day in Sanibel Island, we rented a pontoon and fishing gear from Tarpon Bay Explorers and sailed out to Tarpon Bay. There are options to rent kayaks as well, but we wanted to try sailing our own boat. The pontoon is easy to master; it's sort of like the golf cart of boating. We had no problems sailing to the middle of the bay and hanging out there for three hours, trying to catch fish. We did have a couple of nibbles and eventually caught one fish (possibly a tarpon!), but it got away just as we were about to scoop it up with our net. We also got to see a few manatees up close, and a dolphin swimming in the distance.

Places in Sanibel Island that we didn't get a chance to visit, but are recommended by my friend, include the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum, the J.N. Ding Darling National Wild Refuge for hiking or biking, and a local bookshop called Gene's Books.

Where to Eat

We didn't have a single bad meal while in Sanibel Island. There's a wide variety of cuisines and tons of cute places to eat. For lunch, I'd recommend the Lighthouse Cafe (fantastic breakfast foods; call ahead to reserve your table or be prepared to wait), The Pecking Order (a takeout fried chicken place with the best sides; there's some outdoor counter seating), and The Clam Shack (a casual seafood joint run by a Rhode Island native; get the clam chowder!).

For dinner, grab a table outside at Gramma Dot's to take in the dockside views, or the Island Cow for a fun, beachy atmosphere. There are games like corn hole and ring toss while you wait (because you will have to wait) and the menu features just about everything you could possibly order at a restaurant.

Make sure to visit Pinocchio's Italian Ice Cream at least once. The ice cream is fresh, rich, and prone to melting in the Florida sun  all the more reason to eat it quickly! And we also loved the variety of flavors at Love Boat Ice Cream, situated in an outdoor mall called Jerry's Plaza that's got macaws and parrots to admire in the courtyard.

What's Nearby

About two hours from Sanibel Island is Everglades National Park. Because we're such big fans of national parks, we just had to stop by for a day to check it out. It's very different from most of the other parks we've visited, like Yellowstone or Zion, which are preserved for their special beauty. The Everglades are preserved for the ecosystem, which is teeming with wildlife.

We decided to visit the Shark Valley section of the Everglades. At 1.5 million acres, the park is enormous, with five visitors centers spread across the tip of Florida. The Shark Valley section features a 15-mile loop that you can walk, bike, or tour by tram. We considered biking the loop, since we like being active, but opted for the tram instead, since it was a hot day.

Thank goodness we chose the tram. It took two hours to complete the whole loop in the tram, with a 20-minute stop at the halfway point to check out an observation tower. The bikers we passed along the way looked tired and hot. There's no shade along the loop at all. Plus, we were treated to very informative and entertaining narration about the park's history and wildlife for the whole ride, and saw tons of alligators, turtles, and blue herons (but, oddly, no sharks).

For a completely different kind of tour, we also went out into the mangroves on an airboat with Captain Jack's Airboat Tours. It was also informative and entertaining, but in a completely different way. Our caption (not Jack, but a jovial guy named Ken) expertly drove us through the beautiful waterways to show us the native wildlife up close.

The animals are actually more like his pets than wildlife, since they came right up to our boat when they saw him coming. We watched an alligator snatch fish out of his hand, and three raccoons perched in the mangroves grab pieces of a granola bar from him.

Of course, we also got to experience the power and speed of the airboat whenever we came upon open water. The kids loved zipping along and feeling the wind in their face!

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