By Curtis Krueger

Sanibel Island, on Florida’s southwest coast, is known for spectacular sea shells, miles of pristine beaches and a nature preserve that teems with roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons and alligators. 

With all this natural beauty, it’s a bit surprising that the island’s iconic symbol is a century-old tower of iron.

The Sanibel Island Lighthouse, painted a utilitarian brown, rises above sparkling blue waters on the tip of the island. It’s a beacon that still guides ships along Florida’s Gulf Coast, and also beckons tourists to come back again and again.

“The setting is extraordinarily beautiful,” said Keith Williams, Sanibel Island’s public works director and city engineer. “You’ve got the two historic keepers cottages adjacent to it, and the beautiful waters and beach surrounding the lighthouse.”

The Sanibel light was the first lighthouse on the state’s Gulf Coast north of the Florida Keys, and it’s a reminder of the state’s maritime history. But today, many who pass the lighthouse are beach-lovers working on suntans and selfies.

“You have the opportunity to do any kind of outdoor activity you might think of right here in the shadow of the lighthouse, whether it be shelling, beach-going, kayaking, sailing,” Williams said.

Sanibel was home for centuries to Calusa Indians, who traveled these waters in canoes dug out of cypress logs. (For more about the region’s history, especially its pioneer history, visit the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village.)

The Sanibel Island Lighthouse, painted a utilitarian brown, rises above sparkling blue waters on the tip of the island.
- Chris Zuppa and Willie J. Allen Jr. for VISIT FLORIDA

The 98-foot lighthouse, which has been operating since 1884, is one of two identical lighthouses built in a New Jersey ironworks, which were transported by ship to Florida. The ship sank in a storm, not far from Sanibel. Fortunately, divers were able to salvage both lighthouses. The second lighthouse is on Cape San Blas.

The Sanibel lighthouse has what is called a skeletal design -- it’s a sturdy, narrow, metal column that was built to withstand hurricanes. Two cottages built for lighthouse keepers are still visible at the base. The keepers used walkways several feet above the ground, in case storm waters swept over the island.

The lighthouse is not open to the public, but serves as picturesque background for almost everyone who comes to visit.

“Look at that view right there, how cool is that?” said Vecky Juko, visiting recently from Dallas. She pointed above to the lighthouse, which at that moment was a shadowy tower eclipsing the sun against a pure blue sky.  “It’s very romantic.”

Something about this island, and neighboring Captiva Island, keep people coming back.

“It’s very majestic, so much so that my sister, who’s from Kentucky and lives in Boston, got married here so she could have the backdrop of the lighthouse,” said Aynsley Potter of Louisville.

The Potter family has been visiting Sanibel for years. “The sand here is so beautiful and so soft and so white,” she said.

But she especially loves the wildlife. “You’re almost guaranteed to see dolphins,” she said.

It’s also nice that Sanibel is close to the bigger city of Fort Myers, but still feels secluded, she said.

“You really feel like you’re in your own special place, even though it’s so close to the mainland,” she said.

For visitors, the lighthouse is a good place to start a trip to Sanibel. Unlike many barrier islands, Sanibel has an east-west orientation, perpendicular to the mainland. The lighthouse sits on the island’s eastern tip.

Pay for parking and stroll past the lighthouse, or possibly to the nearby fishing pier. The beaches are wide and pristine, and as you walk to the narrowing tip of Sanibel, you can let yourself imagine it’s really your own private island. Many spots along on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva islands, will give you a great feeling of seclusion as you set up beach chairs beside the seemingly endless Gulf of Mexico. Some of the beaches have bathrooms, changing rooms and picnic tables.

Sanibel prides itself not only on natural beauty, but on how it preserves that beauty. There are no traffic lights on the 12-mile-long island, which has a population of roughly 7,000, and the bicycle paths are extensive. You can easily find bike rentals and pedal down Periwinkle Way, stopping by fun shops and several restaurants. You also can pedal to the beach or on the Sanibel Island Causeway.

Whether you’re traveling by car or bicycle, you should head toward the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This preserve, named for a pioneering conservationist and editorial cartoonist, offers eye-opening views of Florida’s wildlife. Even if you don’t consider yourself a bird-watcher, it’s hard not to be impressed by seeing pink roseate spoonbills (sometimes mistaken for flamingos) a flock of egrets, white pelicans or other Florida shorebirds and migratory birds. Volunteers at the refuge’s free visitor center will offer inside tips on how to see the wildlife.

The preserve includes a four-mile “wildlife drive,” a great way of spotting where the birds happen to be feeding and flying on the day you arrive. You can pull to the side of the one-way drive and watch from an observation tower or just from the side of the road. Early morning and late afternoon are feeding times when you’re likely to see the birds in an active state. Keep an eye out for alligators as well.

If you’re in Ding Darling, you’re also close to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, which offers guided shell walks along the beach, as well as its own exhibits. Sanibel is known as a shelling paradise, and you’ll find many specimens simply by walking along the water, especially after a storm has recently passed.

After all this activity, you’re going to want something to eat, and fortunately there are many choices, from fine dining in the nicer hotels and restaurants, or casual eateries like the laid-back Island Cow.

Among the restaurants worth visiting is Doc Ford’s, named after the central character in a series of mysteries written by Randy Wayne White, a local author who is a former island fishing guide and columnist for Outside magazine. You can buy one of his books in the lobby, and no one will think you’re rude if you’re thumbing through it when a waitperson brings you a mojito or a plate of Yucatan shrimp.

When you go…

  • There’s a $6 toll on the Sanibel Island Causeway, plus parking fees at the beaches.
  • Bicycles can be rented on the island.
  • Wildlife Drive, the most popular way of exploring the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, is closed on Fridays.
  • For area information, check out Fort Myers – Islands, Beaches and Neighborhoods.


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