Florida’s stunning island sanctuary

Amid the theme parks and overdeveloped beach fronts, Sanibel Island is a slow-paced, family friendly refuge that cuts against all Sunshine State stereotypes.

Amid Florida’s theme parks and overdeveloped beach fronts, a slow-paced, family friendly refuge cuts against all Sunshine State stereotypes. Sanibel Island, located in the Gulf Coast near the city of Fort Myers, is part hard-won watery nature reserve, part vigorously defended small town, where more than a century of careful design continues to pay dividends to its people and its wildlife.

A mere toddler in geographic terms, the 117-square-mile sand bar is only about 5,000 years old. Storms gathered sand into a reef where mangroves eventually rooted, holding it in place and encouraging the formation of an island. Today, its entire south coast is a crescent of white sand, while the north is a maze of shallow mangrove bayous protected as the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, after the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who helped create it. Between the beach on one side and the bayous on the other, the rest of the island is modest resorts and a quiet town of about 6,000 people. None of it rises more than 10ft above sea level.

Because of the length of the beach and the set back and height restrictions on the resorts, much of the island feels secluded. Wildlife spills from the refuge, and it is common to see flocks of snowy egrets perched on lawns and several gopher tortoises crawling beside the heavily speed-restricted roads and numerous bike paths.

A cautious history
“Welcome to our sanctuary island”, a sign greets those arriving via the three-mile  causeway from the mainland. “Do enjoy. Don’t destroy.” That cautious, conditional reception sums up the Sanibel approach to visitors since the arrival of the first Europeans 500 years ago by early Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. He returned in 1521 and unloaded 200 settlers, 50 horses and farming implements onto Sanibel to establish what would have been the first European settlement in America after the Vikings. But the formidable native Calusa tribe, who had already been there for 2,500 years, did not take kindly to the invasion. They attacked, wounding de Leon in the thigh with a poison dart. He died of the wound in Cuba.

Within two centuries, European diseases and Spanish ships had driven the Calusa from Sanibel. Pirates, settlers and various naval expeditions came and went until the Reverend George Barnes from Kentucky discovered its charms when his boat ran aground in 1889. The Presbyterian mystic fell in love with the island, built an enormous church to seat three times the then island population of 100 and started working Sanibel into his sermons wherever he went, convinced that God had arranged his boating accident.

Barnes constructed a 30-room inn he named Casa Ybel, which lured wealthy Americans such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford down the coast for great fishing, eternally sunny weather and shell collecting. Today, the original lodge and the additional 114 one- and two-bedroom suites are still a destination in their own right; holidaymakers come for the fine dining, in-room spa services, tennis courts with a resident pro, an Olympic size swimming pool and of course the miles of beach right at its doorstep. And “shelling” remains one of the most popular island pastimes, leading to the posture locals refer to as the “Sanibel Stoop”. In some places, the beach is literally ankle deep in shells. To see one of the world’s best shell collections, make time for a visit to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on the Sanibel-Captiva Road.

Island exploration
With 22 miles of well-designed bike paths that parallel the roads and shoot off through the bush, renting a bicycle is an excellent way to explore the island. One of the most scenic routes is the Wildlife Drive through Ding Darling Refuge – and at one dollar per bicycle, it is also the best deal on the island. Start at the interpretive “Ding” Darling Centre for Education at the park’s entrance, and make your way along the four-mile route, stopping to watch roseate spoonbills swishing their long bills back and forth in search of food, herons darting at fish in the shallows and flocks of cormorants and sandpipers resting on sandbars. An observation tower en route delivers a bird’s eye view of much of the park, including the sandbars, shallow bayous and bays, plus acres of red mangrove forest and islands.

If you are looking to travel at a slower pace, the two-mile Indigo Trail is a sandy walking path that also starts from the educational centre. Along the route, look for alligators lurking in the water and get a close up view of the mangrove ecosystem, where the roots resemble a tangle of cables. If you are inspired to get in the water, hire a guide and a kayak at Tarpon Bay Explorers to paddle around the endless bayous, channels and tiny islands rimmed with red mangrove.  

For something a little less active, take the 90-minute Tarpon Bay’s Refuge Tram Tour along Wildlife Drive, from which you can scan the landscape for anhingas drying their wings like giant black bats in the trees, plus birds of every colour including white ibis, little blue herons, reddish egrets and brown pelicans. Because the refuge is a stopover on the migratory flight corridor, bird life is dynamic and ever changing.

Protecting a quiet refuge
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Sanibel residents fought development plans to turn the island into a major residential area, finally voting to incorporate as the Town of Sanibel in 1974 and immediately putting all building permits on hold. In the 1990s, residents fought another development battle, this time against fast food monoculture in the form of the first McDonald’s restaurant. When the corporate giant paid half a million dollars for a small plot across the street from a little grocery store, residents, tourists and even school children took up the charge and managed to stop the burger chain – and others that might follow – from setting up shop simply by banning drive-throughs.  

As a result, there is still a small town feel to Sanibel. It is still possible to walk or ride a bike to a corner store, cafe, gallery or museum. The restaurants are all within an easy bike ride, and are busy but unpretentious, family friendly and affordable. With laid back names like Doc Ford’s, The Island Cow and Lazy Flamingo, they offer up fresh fish and shellfish from the Gulf of Mexico; the piping hot heaps of steamed shrimp are especially delicious.

Bike in the warm evening air to take in a play at the Herb Strauss Theatre or the J Howard Wood Theatre. Kids and adults alike will enjoy a visit to the Visitor Education Centre at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, where you can play vet using a touch-screen exhibit, see behind-the-scenes of wildlife medicine through live video footage from the animal hospital, and check out themed displays on the rehab and release of some of the 4,000 reptiles, birds and mammals treated each year, including sea turtles, owls and otters. Learn about the history of the island at the Sanibel Historical Village and Museum where seven buildings have been restored to their original condition to help tell the stories of the Calusa, the early Spanish and the pioneer families who farmed here in the 1800s.

Through careful development and hard won victories, the residents of Sanibel and its many return visitors have managed to maintain the island’s slow pace charm. For what is a holiday but a chance to relax, explore the natural surroundings and enjoy other people who are just as happy to do the same.