Romantic Family-friendly Island Sanibel. Gulf of Mexico Gem

Romantic Family-friendly Island Sanibel: beautiful wildlife refuge, mangrove forests, over 200 species of birds, and best shelling beaches in America.

For many people, “Florida” is a synonym for “Disney World” and “Miami Beach”, but there are more than just theme parks and beaches. Florida is rich in nature! There is an outstanding diversity of animals, plants, and ecosystems. National Parks, islands, corals reefs, and sanctuaries. Romantic family-friendly Island Sanibel is one of those.

Sanibel Island combines two wonderful places: the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (an amazing bird-watching opportunity) and one of the best beaches in North America for sea shelling.

Sanibel is a subtropical barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. 60% of the island’s territory is a nature reserve and will never be developed.

The island is small and often referred to as Sanibel and Captiva, a smaller island off the north. Both are family-oriented, cozy, with many visitors returning year after year. We only had a day here but could easily spend a week or at least a couple of days and not get bored.

Romantic Family-friendly Island Sanibel: J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge

On the 4-mile drive wildlife drive, "Ding" Darling Wildlife refugee
On the 4-mile drive wildlife drive, “Ding” Darling Wildlife refuge

Who was “Ding” Darling?

Jay “Ding” Norwood Darling was an American political cartoonist, who won two Pulitzer Prizes. In Florida, he is known as a pioneer conservationist who made an effort to stop the sale of environmentally valuable land to developers on Sanibel Island. The refugee was named in his honor in 1967.

Why refuge is so famous?

The refugee is famous for its migratory birds’ population (245 species) and one of the largest mangrove ecosystems in the country. Most visitors come for birdwatching, but you may also encounter alligators, river otters, raccoons, or occasional bobcats here.

Boardwalk at the mangrove forest, Ding Darling Wildlife Refugee

A group of American white pelicans:

Sanibel, Florida
Sanibel, Florida

Romantic Family-friendly Island Sanibel. How to Explore “Ding” Refuge

Make sure to visit the Educational Center before you go to ask about schedules, family activities, free programs, prices, and tours. If you are traveling with kids, check out fun staff designed especially for them: Just for Kids

Map of Sanibel Island, Florida
Map of Sanibel Island, Florida

You can explore the wildlife refugee on a bike, with a canoe, by car, or with a tour: 90 minutes tram ride (all ages are welcome). The last two are the most popular ways to explore the refugee.

Prices are reasonable – $5 per vehicle if you are going on your own or $16 per adult for a tram tour. We were late for a tour and explored a four-mile wildlife drive (the most popular and worthy route at the refugee) on our own.

At the beginning of the ride, on Tuesday (there are much more visitors during weekends and holidays):

Tram tour passing by:

One of the big birds at the “Ding” Darling refugee – Snowy Egret:

Some of the observation platforms:

I would love to go with a guided tour: we met a group along the way and the guide’s narration was really great. As usual, local guides have a lot to say. I don’t think we would have noticed those tiny creatures without a guide:

Mangrove Tree Crab
Mangrove Tree Crab

The Mangrove Tree Crab is a small crab (males are about 2 inches long) that lives on mangrove tree roots and feeds on leaves and occasional tiny animals. It can move along branches at the speed of 1 yard per second (so it is not eaten).

Pictured below: one of the most favorite sights at refuge: American white pelican. At first, we were sure it’s a mom pelican and her babies, but they aren’t 🙂

American white pelican

Near the end of the 4-mile wildlife drive of the National Wildlife Refuge: Gulf of Mexico:

The entire trip to the refugee took us around 3 hours. I would love to go there again. Beach time after that was a great way to finish the day.

Must-Have at Ding Darling refuge

1. Binoculars will be helpful, a camera with a zoom is a must-have if you want to take good pictures. We had only a camera.

2. Patience – there are no guarantees to spot a certain animal or bird. We saw a lot of birds, many of them up close. The roseate spoonbill is a beautiful bird, common at the Ding Darling, but we didn’t see any. We’ll see a group of it later at Everglades.

"A fed alligator - is a dead alligator". Please, don't feed animals and birds.
“A fed alligator – is a dead alligator”. Please, don’t feed animals and birds.

3. Water, sunscreen (please, use the only mineral, chemical ones are killing the reefs), bug spray, a hat. We were here in the middle of April and it already felt pretty hot. I was wearing my beloved Teva sandals and was able to wade in the water while taking a peek at the mating horseshoe crabs:

Romantic Family-friendly Island Sanibel. Bowman’s Beach

Bowman’s Beach is one of the best places for sea shelling in America.

Why are there so many shells at Sanibel? The secret is in the direction of the island. If you take a look at the map, you’ll see as it runs east to west while most islands run north to south. This feature allows the island to collect tons of seashells out of the Gulf of Mexico like a scoop!

Sea shelling on Sanibel: how and when

Bowman’s beach is the most popular beach on Sanibel. Many people come here to collect shells, but we liked it for being secluded, with a very long, white stretch of sand and a variety of birds.

The best time to go shelling is around low tide and at full or new moon. We visited the beach during high tide and I was pretty skeptical about shells, but oh, my! The beach was filled with them as was the seafloor. The shell in the picture above I scooped with my toe 😀

Save Sanibel!

Sanibel may not be the same for the coming generations. Ocean acidification (due to the rising levels of CO2) decreases the ability of marine shellfish and corals to build their shells. The amount of shellfish will decline by approximately 25% percent in the next 50 years.

Shelling in Sanibel
Shelling in Sanibel. photo credit: Paul Brennan

More Cool Things to Do at the Sanibel Island with a family

  1. Sanibel Lighthouse: a sweet spot to watch the sunset and explore the area around. Note: you can’t climb the lighthouse, but there is a display at the base of the structure to learn more about the lighthouse’s history.
Sanibel Lighthouse
Sanibel Lighthouse. photo credit: wikipedia

2. Blind Pass Beach: great to collect shells, but currents are dangerous for swimming.

3. Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum has one of the largest shells ever found. It is a fun and educational place for the entire family.

4. Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) is both a clinic and an educational center. A must for animal lovers.

Best Time to Visit Sanibel

Summer is the low and cheapest season at Sanibel, because of the hot and humid weather.

The high (and expensive) season runs from December through April when the weather is the best.

The shoulder season on Sanibel island is considered from September to October. Fewer crowds, no summer heat, lowest rates… and hurricanes. The other shoulder season falls in April and May – in my opinion, the best time to travel (we visited in April).

Thanks for reading, friends!

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By Mrs. Grazy Goat

I am Ira, the author behind Grazy Goat. My husband and I run this blog and share our experiences about thrilling places and cultures. Our son Artem recently joined us and helps with editing.

We are very happy to have YOU here 😻

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