The famous shell-strewn beaches on these two islands are among the most beautiful in all of Florida. There are no amusement parks, no traffic lights, no billboard-lined highways, no glaring neon, and no tracts of high-rise condos. Instead, you'll find a laid-back vibe, terrific restaurants, chic shops, and 15 miles of drop-dead-gorgeous beaches.
1. Find the Perfect Shell
With 250 kinds of seashells, the islands of Sanibel and Captiva are a shell hunter's dream. Little kids are eternally fascinated with the quest for natural treasure and don't seem to mind the backbreaking stance known as the "Captiva crouch" or "Sanibel stoop."
Warm Gulf waters and a typically calm surf make most of Sanibel's beaches great for families with small children. Though it's the island's most popular stretch of sand, Bowman's Beach is pristine and quiet, with picnic areas, walking trails, showers, and restrooms. Come at low tide for the best shelling.
With over 25 miles of paved, flat trails, Sanibel is a wonderful place for families to explore on bike. A variety of local rental outfitters offer bikes, tandems, trikes, and even canopied surreys, along with helmets and locks.
Got a future marine biologist in your family? The Sanibel Sea School offers morning and full-day programs that teach marine conservation through hands-on experiences to kids ages 6 to 13 (older teens can enroll in the adult program). Class subjects vary but may include fiddler crabs, fish seining, wading birds, or sea turtles. Sign up in advance; space is limited to 24 students a day.
Tarpon Bay Explorers offers naturalist-led canoe and kayak trips in the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where you might spy alligators, raccoons, otters, and hundreds of kinds of birds. The 6,300-acre wilderness covers more than half of Sanibel Island and includes mangrove swamps, winding waterways, a two-mile boardwalk nature trail and a five-mile, one-way wildlife drive.
A stop at Pinocchio's Italian Ice Cream (362 Periwinkle Way) is a Sanibel must. The kitschy shop at the east end of Sanibel is legendary for its homemade Italian gelato. Thirty-seven flavors are made fresh daily from a repertoire of more than 130 flavors in total. Cute touch: Whether you order a cone or bowl, every serving is topped with an animal cracker.
Cayo Costa State Park features nine miles of beautiful beaches and acres of pine forests, oak-palm hammocks and mangrove swamps. You may spy manatees and pods of dolphins in the waters and, on the island, you can swim, snorkel, or take a ranger-led kayak tour or hike. The island park is accessible by ferry service from Captiva Island.
7. Visit a Lighthouse
Since 1884, the Sanibel Lighthouse has stood the on Point Ybel at the eastern tip of Sanibel Island to mark the entrance to San Carlos Bay. While you can't access the lighthouse, the site features a great shelling beach, fishing pier, and nature trail.
8. Savor a Spectacular Sunset
Facing due west, Turner Beach is renowned for its spectacular sunsets. Take heed of the signs warning against swimming due to the swift currents. Turner Beach is located on both the Sanibel and Captiva sides of the Blind Pass Bridge.