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Sanibel and Captiva are sister islands. Sometimes they are even joined when the narrow waterway of Blind Pass that separates them fills in and the two islands actually connect! Important note: Blind Pass is scheduled to be reopened the fall of 2008. Work will take about 6 to 9 months and will be on a 24/7 basis. Houses along Roosevelt Channel on Captiva will be impacted as the channel is dredged. Also affected are Castaways Cottages, and rental homes and cottages on the Sanibel side of the pass. Parking areas at Blind Pass will be closed for all or part of operation.
Sanibel is the larger of the two and is first island off the mainland. It is connected to Fort Myers by the Sanibel Causeway Bridge. It takes about a 20 minute drive (without traffic) to travel the length of Sanibel and come to the small bridge over Blind Pass that brings you onto Captiva. The bridge to Sanibel is $6 roundtrip; there is no fee to go from Sanibel to Captiva.
Both islands have these things in common: Beautiful beaches, lack of high-rise hotels and condos, mostly low density development, lush vegetation and a laid back atmosphere.
But each island has it's own distinctive personality:
Sanibel is a eclectic mix of nature, wildlife conservation land, tourist destination, island home, and shopping/ restaurant districts. In the early '70's Sanibel was slated by Lee County to become the next Marco Island with the building of the bridge. The residents, wishing to conserve the natural setting and protect the wildlife refuge atmosphere actually broke away from the county and formed Sanibel's own municipal government. Since then, Sanibel has followed a path of creating a balance for residents and visitors to enjoy the beauty of the island while at the same time proactively and aggressively controlling development and sprawl. At this point, the combined preserved/ protected conservation land owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Services, private foundations and the City of Sanibel extends to about 65% of the island.
Within the developed sections are things common to towns anywhere- schools, neighborhoods, supermarkets, and stores. But you will not find commercial chains or franchises (except a few grandfathered ones). No Wal-Mart, McDonalds, or Ben & Jerry's (sigh). These were also prohibited in order to promote local small business and restaurants and help to preserve Sanibel's "other worldliness". Other prohibitions are that there are no streetlights nor traffic lights (Sanibel police with white gloves move traffic along at peak times).
Periwinkle Drive is the main business street but you will note that large sections are still free of parking lots and buildings where it goes through natural areas. Here and on adjacent roads you will find a wide selection of restaurants, galleries, shops, food markets, a live theater company, a movie theater and several small shopping centers.
The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge has scenic drives, boating rentals and tours, hiking paths and a visitor educational center. Nearby is the Bailey Shell Museum and two private conservation centers.
Sanibel beaches are renowned for the shells that wash up every day - it's the top shelling destination in North America and this is the source of the posture known as the 'Sanibel Stoop".
Sanibel is crisscrossed by an extensive bike path system that gives you access to most of the destinations on the island including the wildlife refuge and most of the beaches. The paths are well marked and almost flat. There are a number of places to rent bikes at reasonable daily or weekly rates.
Sanibel has a wide variety of accommodations from resorts, condos, inns, cottages and B&B's. Many are gulf front and the rates vary greatly from moderate to ultra-deluxe.
There are also two 18 hole public golf courses on the island.
While Sanibel is not busy by mainland standards, Captiva manages to be even more laid back. With the exception of Turner's Beach, there is no public beach access or parking on the southern end of Captiva as the island is comprised mostly of private property. The western sunset-facing pristine beaches of Captiva are prime viewing areas and Turner's Beach parking fills up fast around sunset. There is a second small public lot at the very end of Captiva Drive past the Village, right where South Seas Resort land starts. If the beaches of Sanibel are uncrowded by most measures, Captiva's are generally even more so. As they are a bit less shelly, the sands are a bit softer than on Sanibel. Captiva attracts a large number of boaters and fishermen and some condos and houses have docks available so you can arrive by water or dock a boat rental right where you're staying.
Over a mile in from Blind Pass Captiva Drive takes a sharp turn and begins running right along the beach. This middle section of Captiva is so narrow in spots you can see both Gulf and Pine Island Sound just by turning your head and is often referred to as the 'Tween Waters Inn' stretch, after the long established island resort and marina that sits at the very narrowest spot. Shortly after Tween Waters and a few small townhouse style condo groups, Captiva Drive takes another sharp turn back toward the center just as you approach the small and very quaint village area where you will find an assortment of restaurants and shops. Just past the entrance to South Seas Resort there is a little known public parking area with just a few spaces and no facilities as at other spots. This is the second and last public access point to Captiva's beach area. The entire northern tip of the island, over 300 acres, is all owned by the South Seas Resort. This resort is probably the most upscale resort area of the two islands with extensive landscaped grounds, resort facilities and a private 9 hole golf course . If you are not staying at the resort you cannot go onto the grounds nor use the facilities except for limited reasons such as to use the marina to go on a sunset or dolphin cruise. Even some private homes and condos on the grounds that are rented to guests have limitations on the use of facilities.
Most accommodations on Captiva are in private home and condo rentals. Condo pricing is very competitive to Sanibel. House run higher, but generally have excellent location. Nightly accommodations are very limited and the few resorts and inns are in high demand in season.
WHICH ONE IS FOR YOU?
Preferences, preferences. Sanibel is your choice if you are looking for nature, activities, wide range of choices in restaurants and shopping, biking, if you are on somewhat of a budget or want to go off-island for touring or nightlife on the mainland.
Captiva (excluding South Seas) captivates if you want sunsets, a quiet island escape, a "get away from it all feel", and a more upscale environment. If at South Seas, add to this extensive resort amenities and a refined island atmosphere.
The choice is yours!