A little adventure—plus the promise of doing nothing at all—draws us to this famous Florida isle.
1 of 9Photo: David Hillegas
The very act of arriving on Sanibel Island, off Florida's southern Gulf coast, feels like a beautiful escape. The only way to get on the isle, 20 miles southwest of Fort Myers, is to drive across a three-mile causeway that is surrounded by a sparkling bay. The view from all sides is an expanse of water and blue sky—until the causeway narrows and you're gradually funneled onto a two-lane country road. The speed limit goes down, the guardrails disappear, and the water makes way for pines and palm trees that stand tall enough to create a canopy shielding you from the rest of the world. Ordinances ban high-rises, stoplights, and national chain restaurants (though three exceptions, among them a very retro-looking Dairy Queen, were grandfathered in years ago).
2 of 9Photo: David Hillegas
Where to Stay
Arguably the island's most luxurious property, Casa Ybel Resort provides an historic, beachfront experience along the Gulf of Mexico. Each of the 114 luxurious bedroom suites includes a huge kitchen and screened balcony or lanai.
3 of 9Photo: David Hillegas
Where to Drink
Coconuts Poolside Bar and Grill
This watering hole at Casa Ybel Resort is the place to go for relaxing after a day of fun in the sun. Order the Frozen Alligator (pictured here)—a frosty cocktail made from coconut rum, Midori melon liqueur, piña colada mix, and vanilla ice cream.
Tucked along Periwinkle Way is another of Sanibel's best happy hour hot spots. It's named after Jimmy Cipriani, a beloved local and former owner of the property who inspired the current proprietors to create a place where you're reminded of "the good old days of Sanibel." Here, the patrons are heavier on longtime residents and lighter on tourists.
4 of 9Photo: David Hillegas
Where to Eat & Drink
Traders Café and Store
Singling out one restaurant is hard, but this Sanibel gem is a must-visit. It's far more sophisticated and special than its name might suggest.
Pinocchio's Original Italian Ice Cream
For dessert, an ice cream cone is the ticket. They are not messing around at this place. The Sanibel Krunch, made with toasted coconut, mixed nuts, chocolate, and a few secret ingredients is one of the shop's signature flavor options with good reason.
Sanibel is widely known as "the shell capital of the world." The shelling is superior here because unlike other islands, which generally run from north to south, Sanibel lies east to west—it reaches like a finger beckoning into the Gulf, and scoops up shells that have made the voyage from the Caribbean and even farther south. There's even a term for the way these determined people sift through the sand, hunched over on a mission: the Sanibel Stoop.
7 of 9Photo: David Hillegas
What to Do: Play Outside
Besides shells, Sanibel's other claim to fame is The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, known simply as Ding Darling. It's the most popular attraction on the island; with 700,000 guests a year, it's also the busiest of the 561 wildlife refuges in the United States. During prime nesting season, May through October, fleets of locals walk the beaches at dawn, cordoning off turtle nests and looking for tracks.
8 of 9Photo: David Hillegas
What to Do: Watch the Sunset
The half hour or so just prior to sunset is unquestionably the most magical: The beach slowly begins to fill up again as spectators set up shop on beach chairs and blankets and wait for the show to begin. The mix of colors that appears on the horizon is mindblowing—it's as if an artist blended drops of paint in colors of peach, dusty rose, coral, and salmon, and then brushed them across the sky. The goal for any sunset watcher is to spot the elusive Green Flash, which appears when the sun turns bright green at the absolute split second it slips below the horizon; the phenomenon occurs only on cloudless evenings.
9 of 9Photo: David Hillegas
What to Do: Explore a Quiet Beach
On Sanibel it all comes back to the beach. There's no such thing as a sub-par stretch, but if looking for a secluded swath of sand, head toward the end of West Gulf Drive to "Beach Access #6." In a place that already feels like a private hideaway, this beautiful, isolated beach seals the deal.