This post was written before Sanibel, Captiva, and parts of the surrounding area were absolutely blasted by Hurricane Ian in September 2022. While the intention is to rebuild, the causeway has been fixed, and the island is expected to begin opening to tourism in January 2023, things are not “back to normal” and likely won’t be for a long time. If you’re planning to visit the area, make sure to do plenty of research to find out what’s open, what’s available and what’s just not even there anymore.
If you’re looking for the best tropical getaway on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sanibel and Captiva are always going to be in the conversation. These barrier islands off the coast of Fort Myers in southwest Florida are inextricably linked because, well…they’re linked. You can’t access Captiva without going through Sanibel and these two islands have such a different vibe than pretty much every other place in the area so they’re often compared. While Sanibel and Captiva aren’t radically different, I’ll do my best to break the two down:
Sanibel vs Captiva
Sanibel is a sizable island with direct access from mainland Fort Myers via the Sanibel Causeway. There’s a $6 toll to get onto the island. The causeway was built in 1963 (the island was previously only accessible via ferry) and the city of Sanibel was formed in 1974. Despite a huge push from developers, the city held their ground with strong building restrictions that were intended to protect the environment (to this day, half the island is a nature preserve) and it’s largely what makes Sanibel so quaint.
You won’t find any high rises (buildings are only allowed to be as tall as the tallest native tree on the island), any chains (except for the cutest little Dairy Queen that’s been grandfathered in), and pretty much everything is a mom and pop shop or restaurant.
There are no stoplights (only a couple of four way stops and traffic directors who help move things along in congested areas at peak times) and a phenomenal network of bike trails. Sanibel is a bike island.
Sanibel is most famous for its shelling. The way it juts out into the gulf (it’s situated more east/west than north/south) means it’s a treasure trove when winter storms stir up the billions of shells sitting out deeper in the Gulf of Mexico.
Captiva sits just north of Sanibel and it’s accessed via a very short bridge over Blind Pass. The island is a lot smaller than Sanibel (half of it’s taken up by the South Seas Island Resort), but it feels very much the same.
Honestly, I think of Captiva as an extension of Sanibel. If you’re staying on Sanibel, running up to Captiva to eat dinner or shop isn’t a big deal and vice versa. These islands are more alike than they are different.
Both have good shelling. The best shelling on the two islands is around the Blind Pass Bridge and there’s parking on both the Sanibel and Captiva sides. Captiva Cruises is the best way to get out and explore the surrounding area (Cayo Costa State Park, Useppa Island, Cabbage Key, etc.) and they leave from Captiva, but it’s an easy drive from Sanibel.
Both islands have a good selection of mom and pop restaurants and shops, although Sanibel definitely has more (it’s a much larger island though).
Both islands have the same great beaches, but if you’re coming for the day or you’re not staying right on the beach, parking at the beaches on Captiva is much more limited and more expensive than on Sanibel.
If you’re trying to decide which island to stay on, it’s really going to come down to your budget and what exactly you’re looking for. Overall, the options you’ll find on Captiva are a little more upscale than Sanibel, but both are very laid back islands without much major development. Captiva has more super high end vacation homes that sit on the beach whereas Sanibel is where you’ll find more of the condo units.
I will say, depending on the types of places you’re used to staying in Florida (or on vacation in general)…I find that 95% of what’s offered on Sanibel leaves a lot to be desired (especially for the $$). Sanibel isn’t a cheap vacation destination (supply and demand because of development restrictions) so you’re probably going to pay a premium for anything on the beach. And the standards of the condos aren’t the highest. Most places are a little worn and just not very updated.
Can you find a nice place to stay? Absolutely. But you’re going to have to dig around more than you’d think and it’s probably not going to be a bargain.
I’m not saying any of this to put you off, because Sanibel and Captiva are GREAT islands and one of my favorite places in Florida, but if you’re used to staying at more high end beach resorts in other parts of Florida, what that money gets you on Sanibel and Captiva is a lot…less. And anything called a “resort” is actually a condo with more resort-like amenities.
But it’s all about your expectations. The building restrictions here are what’s part of the charm.
As far as recommendations on where to stay on each island:
On Captiva: South Seas Island Resort or ‘Tween Waters Island Resort
On Sanibel: Casa Ybel Resort, Tortuga Beach Club Resort, the Inns of Sanibel
More posts about this area:
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