Sanibel: World’s Top Shelling Beach

by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett of

“It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there, ” may not be the oldest cliché in the book, but it’s arguably among the more frequently used. After all, who hasn’t been to some overly hyped vacation destination only to find themselves overwhelmed by traffic, overpriced accommodations and neon-lit tourist traps hawking all manner of useless keepsakes you ultimately wind up selling at a garage sale? These, sadly, are not the things life-long memories are made of.

Sanibel Island is different. It is a place I would want to live. And I have made many life-long memories there. Located on the Gulf Coast just minutes from Fort Myers, Florida, Sanibel Island was incorporated as a city in 1974 by residents hoping to stave off overdevelopment after a three-mile causeway connecting the island to the mainland was built to replace the ferry. Neon, stoplights and fast food restaurants are strictly prohibited (except for a Dairy Queen built before 1974); businesses are restricted from using gaudy colors or constructing buildings taller than the tallest palm tree; and homes must be built a certain distance from the shore.

As a result of these measures, the island (and its much smaller sister, Captiva Island) offers a nostalgic taste of Florida as it was about 50 years ago, and gives visitors the feeling of having stumbled onto their own private paradise.

Sanibel and Captiva are both barrier islands, created by nature to buffer the mainland from the elements with their native palm and mangrove trees. Their gorgeous white sand beaches are consistently ranked among the finest in the world, lined with picturesque sea grape and sea oats that lend themselves to striking sunrise and sunset photography.

Sanibel is also widely considered the number one shelling beach in the world, and even a casual morning walk along the shore will lead to sightings of myriad coquinas, scallops, whelks, sand dollars and other deeper-water mollusks, the collection of which produces a position affectionately known as the “Sanibel stoop.”

I’ve returned to Sanibel nearly a dozen times since my first visit back in the early ‘90s and, aside from a few new businesses and the imported Australian pines largely destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004 (to the delight of most local residents), the place hasn’t changed much over the last 15 years.

One thing that did change was my perspective after taking my enthusiastic daughter, Alexandra, there for vacation. The island may not offer much in the way of lively nightlife for those seeking a walk on the wild side, but for families with a deep love of nature, it offers a broad range of outdoor activities sure to create a lifetime of wonderful memories.

Renowned as a serene haven for artists of all mediums, Sanibel Island features dozens of art galleries, a community theatre, numerous bookstores and even a two-screen movie theatre. There are also restaurants of virtually every cost and type of cuisine, two grocery stores and shopping centres galore, offering everything from inexpensive souvenirs and T-shirts to upscale fashion and jewelry stores.

But the truth is, Sanibel Island is the kind of place where, as long as you stay in beachfront accommodations with a kitchen, such as the West Wind Inn or my personal favorite, Beachview Cottages, you can have the vacation of a lifetime without ever getting into a car.

The only problem is, once you visit Sanibel Island, you may find yourself wanting to call it home.