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    Sanibel and Captiva Islands: Budget Travel Ideas

    A secluded island getaway on a budget? You bet. Sanibel and Captiva Islands off Florida's Gulf Coast let you relax, unwind and escape on a dime.

    My boyfriend and I cross the Sanibel Causeway at night, and the island is draped in shadow. Restrictions on light pollution keep streetlights and neon signs at a minimum here, and our shrouded entry has the feel of passing over into another time – an effect that turns out to be pretty accurate.

    Sanibel Island and neighboring Captiva operate on “island time,” a slower pace of life that encourages people to relax and enjoy the moments. That’s exactly what Harold and I do after dropping bags at the Anchor Inn, our cozy – and reasonably priced – home base.

    On the way to popular Bowman’s Beach, we brake for a giant iguana. He takes his time crossing the road. Seems everyone is taking their time here – even the wildlife.

    We stroll for hours picking up shells and snapping photos of driftwood, seeing maybe two other beachgoers the whole time. I make a mental note to return to this secluded beach for sunset.

    Lighthouse Park at Sanibel’s southern end is more crowded, but certainly worth a visit, especially for history buffs who want to tour the lighthouse grounds. This is also a pretty, pet-friendly beach. Public parking costs $2 per hour.

    Families watch as dozens of thrill-seekers are propelled over the water harnessed to giant kites. Called kitesurfing, the sport is big on this side of the island.

    After a snack in our room – where a budget friendly kitchenette lets me keep fresh fruit and water stocked away – we head to the Chamber Visitor’s Center for guidance. A friendly volunteer named Julianne provides a wealth of information to us island newbies.

    The Anchor Inn on Sanibel Island rents spacious, clean rooms and cottages starting at $90 a night.

    The Anchor Inn on Sanibel Island rents spacious, clean rooms and cottages starting at $90 a night.

    - Mitzi Gordon

    Quirky antique shops, like this one on Periwinkle Way, are Sanibel's treasure troves.

    Quirky antique shops, like this one on Periwinkle Way, are Sanibel's treasure troves.

    - Mitzi Gordon

    We shuffle our piles of pamphlets, almost overwhelmed at the possibilities: hiking, kayaking, dolphin cruises, canoeing. As nature lovers, we appear to have hit the jackpot.

    My heart is set on touring the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, and the best way seems to be on two wheels. Harold and I head over to Finnimore’s Cycle Shop and rent one-speed bikes for about $12 each.

    Anyone staying longer than a few days should opt for the discounted weekly bike rental rate
    . Finnimore’s even delivers to some hotels, making it easy for travelers to ditch their cars and cruise around the island unencumbered.

    In a surprising twist, the bikes also help us save money. Entrance to the wildlife refuge is $5 per car, but only $1 for bikers and pedestrians. In fact, biking your way around Sanibel makes it so that you don’t even have to stay on a beachfront hotel to enjoy the island life. Our comfortable spot at the Anchor Inn wasn’t on the sand, but we never felt that we were missing out – and it saved us a few bucks in return.

    Once inside the wildlife refuge, Harold’s long legs soon leave me in the dust. As sun-bleached shells crunch softly beneath my tires, I spot a black snake and several large cranes. Mangroves give way to hardwood trees that drape over our path, clear testament to Sanibel’s rustic nature. In fact, much of the island is wildlife preserve and has building height restrictions to keep the landscape as natural as possible.

    Harold circles back to point out a raccoon at the water’s edge. We rest in a patch of shade and spy on the critter as he washes his paws.

    Feeling lazy from the late-afternoon sun, I decide it’s time I cool off too, so we leave the wildlife behind and head for our hotel pool.

    Kitesurfers flock to Lighthouse Beach on the south side of Sanibel.

    Kitesurfers flock to Lighthouse Beach on the south side of Sanibel.

    - Mitzi Gordon

    Celebrating the sunset on Captiva Island

    Celebrating the sunset on Captiva Island.

    - Mitzi Gordon

    For dinner, we satisfy our bellies with conch fritters and peel-n-eat shrimp from the Lazy Flamingo. Yes, even the restaurant names remind you to slow down. I see lots of families here, and conclude it’s because of the comprehensive and reasonably priced seafood menu. Harold and I stuff ourselves for less than $30 – a vacation bargain by any standards.

    We skip the return trip to Bowman’s Beach and decide to take in the sunset on Captiva Island instead. The bars and restaurants here on Captiva seem more crowded, and we find the prices a bit higher, but the beaches are equally lovely.

    Walking along the water, we enjoy an intoxicating sea breeze as the glow fades from the sky. A group of men and women are fishing up ahead, feeding bait scraps to a tall grey wading bird they’ve affectionately named “Harold.”

    We giggle about it all the way back to our hotel, agreeing that “island time” suits us both – and our wallets – just fine.