Travel

The Laid-Back “Anti-Florida” Is the Ideal Winter Island Escape

Where Florida achieves its full potential.

The city pier at Sanibel Island. | Jeff Greenberg / Contributor / getty images
The city pier at Sanibel Island. | Jeff Greenberg / Contributor / getty images

I love my family. But every now and then, we all need an escape. And while visiting family in South Florida over the holidays for the past decade-plus, I found just the spot.
 
You won't find Florida Man gators or spring breakers doing body shots here—just a beautiful natural area stuffed with gorgeous beaches, sprawling nature preserves, some of the world's best shelling, and sunsets that might prompt you to dial up real-estate listings.
 
Sanibel Island ain’t exactly a secret. With around 3 million vehicles making the journey onto the island each year, this popular winter vacation destination is easily accessible via a breezy 45-minute drive from Fort Myers over on Florida’s more relaxed Gulf Coast.

With tight restrictions that lock out high-rise buildings and most chain restaurants, Sanibel’s vibe is easily distinguishable from the overdeveloped Florida of our collective nightmares. Basically, this is what Florida would look like if it lived up to its full potential: No traffic lights or seedy “VIP” lounges. Call it Florida’s “anti-Florida.”
 
While Fort Myers sports more of the spring break-ish vibe you might be traditionally accustomed to, Sanibel is nothing but chill. Once you get off the main road into town, that is. Periwinkle Way (the island’s curiously named chief artery) gets quite backed up on busy winter weekends, so plan for a little gridlock. Yet once you get off the main road, you realize in short order why you made the trip.

Pretty much any place you stay will have its own sliver of sand. | Paul Carter / EyeEm / getty images

Chill out on some of Florida’s best beaches

Sanibel and its even homier and more remote sister island Captiva are known for their world-renowned beaches showcasing soft white sand and absurdly glorious sunsets. Pretty much any place you stay will have its own sliver of sand, with top public beach options including the popular Blind Pass Beach and the somewhat more secluded Bowman’s Beach

Interestingly, some of the most overlooked waterfront real estate can be found right off the main bridge into town at Causeway Islands Park. Sanibel is also known as one of the world’s finest shelling destinations, so don’t be surprised to see a bunch of hunched-over locals combing the sand in a posture colloquially known as the “Sanibel Stoop.” 

Go island hopping

One look at the crystal clear Gulf of Mexico waters will instantly have you contemplating your watercraft options. Sure, you could buy a boat. Then again, you could also hire a local tour boat operator like Captiva Cruises, which makes regular runs to nearby islands like the relatively chic Boca Grande and the more old-school Cabbage Key, which is best experienced between the dollar bill-adorned walls of the delightfully Old Florida-style restaurant at Cabbage Key Inn. But if you only have one option, by all means opt for the excursion to the “secret beach” at Cayo Costa State Park. With nine miles of pristine undeveloped beach only accessible by boat, it’s easily one of the top state parks in the nation.

Pelicans enjoy the sunset JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. | Jeff Greenberg / Contributor / getty images

Hang with eagles and gators in a wildlife refuge

Two-thirds of Sanibel Island is actually a nature preserve, with the 6,400-acre J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge providing an interesting alternative to the beach scene and a healthy dose of local flavor. The largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the country hosts around 250 species of birds plus hiking trails, a scenic loop drive, and even a tram. Look around for eagles, watch out for gators, and get lost in the marshes. In short, it’s a pretty low-risk way to spend a few hours when you need a break from the sun.

Where to eat

If all that adventuring has made you hungry, it’s time to turn your attention to Sanibel’s satisfying food scene. The Mucky Duck on Captiva is a legendary beachside hang for patio cocktails and games of ring toss on the beach before sunset, while The Mad Hatter is a romantic spot serving up more high-end Florida classics with a touch of French sophistication in cozy cottage-style environs on the waterfront. 

For something quick and easy before heading to the beach, it’s hard to beat a freshly made deli sandwich from Sanibel Deli (where the pizza is also surprisingly on point), while Gramma Dot's is another top-shelf waterfront eatery that should be high on your hit list for dockside eats in a homey Cape Cod-style cafe where a lobster roll and cup of clam chowder will have you fitting in nicely.

For more of a local feel, grabbing a drink and a burger at the character-filled American Legion Post 123 might just be the highlight of your trip. Simply pull up a stool (it’s open to the public) and start chatting up a wonderfully diverse crowd from grizzled old-timers to curious newbies. The locals are happy to offer advice on everything from the top fishing holes to the best spots to hide out from their wives for some low-key day drinking (hint: it's here.) And you definitely won’t have to suffer through any Jimmy Buffett.

Where to stay

Sanibel is not at all known for being budget-friendly in the area of accommodations, so those looking to save a few bucks are encouraged to crash at the La Quinta in Fort Myers just across from the island. On the island itself, the Sanibel Island Beach Resort offers all the comfort you need in a good location at a reasonable rate (as well as an A-plus tiki bar steps from the beach.) But for only a few shekels more, you can also dial up a more high-end stay at the iconic South Seas Island Resort on Captiva, a sprawling activity-rich complex set along two miles of beach fully equipped with its own shuttles and golf carts.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine, and more. Follow @thejaygentile.