A trip to Sanibel Island with kids is perfect if you are a family who wants to send some quality time together in a laid back, relaxed atmosphere. Time seems to move differently on Sanibel. Our days were spent playing in the water, riding bikes around the island and collecting shells (SO MAY SHELLS! This was my daughters favorite part of the trip!)
If this sound like a trip to Sanibel Island with kids is in your future, here are my best tips for planning the perfect escape!
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First off…where is Sanibel Island on the map?
Sanibel Island is a barrier island located on the Gulf Side of Florida, about 30 minutes from the Fort Myers. Fort Myers (RSW) is the closest airport to Sanibel Island Florida. Because of it’s distance from the airport, there are no public transportation methods to get here.
Most folks rent a car, but there are shuttles available to take you here (depending on where you are staying and what you plan on doing, you may not need a car once you get to the island).
Getting Around Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island is approximately 30 minutes from the Fort Myers Airport. There aren’t really any great public transportation on Sanibel Island, so unless you are planning to take an Uber to and from the airport (expensive given the distance) you will need a car to get around.
If you are staying at a resort and aren’t planning on straying too far from your quarters, you might be able to get by without a car (especially if your resort has bikes that you can use, which many Sanibel Island family resorts do). The island is relatively compact and very bike friendly and many people get around by bike!
How to Choose Between Sanibel Island Family Resorts
There are so many options for accommodations on Sanibel Island with kids, at all budget levels. Here are a few things to think about when narrowing down the best Sanibel Island family resorts for your vacation.
Do you want amazing sunsets or sunrises? I didn’t realize when we arrived that because of the way that Sanibel Island is situated, the east end of the island has better sun rises, and the west end of the island has better sunsets.
Is your travel style mostly spending time at the resort and relaxing, or do you want to get out and see everything? Most of the nicer resorts on Sanibel provide some variety of activities. In addition to an amazing pool and poolside bar, our provided kayaks, paddleboards, bikes to borrow and a naturalist led beach walk.
With all we had to do, we had plenty to keep us occupied for our three night visit. With time spent on the beach looking for shells, we barely had time to get out and see what the rest of the island had to offer! Too bad…will have to make another trip 😉
My point is that if you only have a few days, and have a list of things you want to see on the island, spending the extra money for a resort with all of the bells and whistles might not be worth it for you. Next time we go, I might choose a simpler place, or an Airbnb with a kitchen where we can cook, because the resort was lovely, but Sanibel has some really great things that we want to get out and see!
Suggestions for Sanibel Island Family Resorts
The Sanibel Inn
We stayed at the Sanibel Inn and absolutely LOVED it. It has an authentic, old Florida vibe. Our room was clean and spacious, and had a little kitchenette (some of the units in this resort have full kitchens, if this is a need for you). The balcony was huge and screened in. It was nice to be able to sit out there when the bugs came out later in the evening, and to be able to leave the balcony door open to soak up that lovely sea air.
The Sanibel Inn offered the use of paddleboards, kayaks and bikes free of charge for their guests. We were also able to take advantage of a free daily tour of the beach with a naturalist guide during which we learned some really neat tidbits about the beach and its creatures.
We saw these cottages at the far end of Sanibel Island whilst viewing one of the most spectacular sunsets that we have ever seen. They are almost all the way to Captiva, so if you are wanting to visit both islands, this is an ideal place to base yourself. We really loved the fact that they walk right out onto a perfect stretch of pristine beach that we had nearly all to ourselves.
These cottages are on the western end of the island, so you are guaranteed some beautiful sunsets right from your front porch! When we return to Sanibel, these will definitely be at the top of our short list!
Sundial Beach Resort and Spa
This was a close second choice when booking our trip to Sanibel Island with kids. They offer a wide variety of accommodations choices as well as a beautiful kid friendly pool with a water slide. Bikes, kayaks, tennis and paddle boards are all at your disposal. They also offer a kids program (if you feel like a little adult time needs to be a part of your vacation!)
Why You Should Spend the Dough to Stay on Sanibel Island with Kids and Not in Fort Myers
It was tempting. I looked carefully at the hotels and resorts just across the bay in nearby Fort Myers. They were a lot cheaper than similar resorts on Sanibel. I am so glad that I chose to stay on Sanibel proper for our trip to Sanibel Island with kids, because it would have been a whole different trip if we hadn’t been right here.
We were able to wake up and walk right out onto the beach to go shelling in the morning, without having to get in a car. If we had to drive over and visit just for the day, it would not have been at all the same experience. The time lost in driving, the tolls and just the increased level of relaxation that staying on the island gave us were completely worth the extra money.
Sanibel Island just has a different “vibe”. It is laid back, friendly and has a lovely old Florida charm. There are no big mega resorts. It feels special because it is. If budget were a consideration, I would happily advocate for cheaper accommodation (even if it was away from the beach) on Sanibel before staying at a moderate resort on the beach in Fort Myers.
The Best time to Visit Sanibel Island
This is what I know about the best time to visit Sanibel Island. Summers in Florida are HOT. Winters the weather can be hit or miss, and the months between December-February are busier with snowbirds escaping winter.
We visited in November, and it was just the right time for us. Temperatures were still in the 80’s. The beach was lovely, and the locals that we talked to told us that we had come before the winter sun-seeking crowds.
The Best Things to do on Sanibel Island for Kids
I am not going to post about EVERYTHING to do on Sanibel Island for kids. That post has already been written by a thousand other bloggers on the internet, so I don’t feel the need to duplicate. What I am going to tell you is some insights what we did while visiting Sanibel, and what is on our shortlist for next time:
This is the number one reason that many folks make the trip to Sanibel, and for good reason. The island acts like a big scoop and because of the way that the ocean currents flow, the shells just wash up on the beach. If you are looking for soft sand, this will not be your place because the whole beach is LITERALLY made out of sea shells.
We came back with so many amazing shells (a whole suitcase full of them in fact). This is definitely one of the best Sanibel Island activities for families, and one of the top reasons that many people plan a visit here. The best times for shelling were at low tide and early in the morning (even better if these coincide). Download a tide app to check tide times.
Jerry’s Foods/Love Boat Ice Cream and the parrots
I have to include this. I know it sounds strange, but if you ask my daughter, this was one of her favorite places on Sanibel island for kids.
Jerry’s Foods has a lovely outdoor courtyard that it shares with Love Boat Ice Cream (which was super yummy and definitely worth a stop, btw). In the courtyard are large enclosures with a variety of different parrots.
I think we stopped here three times during our stay. Each time, we had to walk around and see the parrots (the naughty one on the end kept throwing his toys out of the cage and pouting as passersby to pick them up…she thought it was hilarious!) This is for sure at least worth a stop for ice cream (or a place to leave the kids and hubby so you can go in and grocery shop BY YOURSELF!)
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
Where else but the seashell capital of the world would you find the national shell museum? Learn all about seashells and the animals that make them. Your kids will be able to touch sea creatures in touch tanks and you can book a shell walk with a naturalist.
They even have a special app that you can download and identify any shells that you find (you don’t have to visit the museum to use the app!).
JN Ding-Darling National Wildlife Refuge
This wildlife refuge is a great place to check out the local flora and fauna. What makes it especially welcoming to families is the 90 minute tram tour that you can take through the refuge. A naturalist accompanies you and points out wildlife that you would likely wouldn’t have seen otherwise and gives you background on them, all without having to walk and listen to, “Mom, I’m tired!”
Bonus tip – if you come down here, make sure to include a stop at Sanibel’s Best Homemade Ice Cream. I had the Key Lime Ice Cream and my daughter had something called Unicorn poop. Both were phenomenal.
Sanibel island is one of the most bike friendly places that we have ever been. There are bike lanes literally EVERYWHERE. We had a fun morning riding out to see the Sanibel lighthouse. This is one of the best things to do on Sanibel with kids. As I mentioned above, many resorts loan out bikes to their guests. You can also rent them.
The Sanibel Island Lighthouse
This lighthouse is picture perfect and worth exploring for a morning. It is a pretty photo stop, the beach is (of course) covered with shells and there is a lovely shaded picnic area there. If you are staying on the east end of the island, this makes for a lovely bike ride (and you can stop for THE BEST key lime ice cream at Sanibel’s Best Homemade Ice Cream afterwards!)
The Best Restaurants on Sanibel Island for Families
I am going to be honest. We didn’t eat out that much while we were here. We ate breakfast in the room. We ate THE best burgers at the poolside bar at the Sanibel Island Inn, and we ate out once or twice for dinner. Here is my short list of family friendly restaurants on Sanibel Island. This should be enough to get you started (and if you have any favorites that you think I should add, please let me know!):
- Dante’s Coal Fired Pizza: This family friendly pizza place was conveniently located right at the Sanibel Inn where we were staying. The pizza was excellent…chewy yet crispy with a pleasant char to it. A family favorite – pizza for the kids and a salad and glass of wine for mom!
- Blue Giraffe: A family friendly restaurant on Sanibel’s main drag with a little playground in the front courtyard. They have a nice family friendly outdoor patio to enjoy your meal on.
- The Island Cow: Another Sanibel Island favorite serving family friendly comfort food. An outdoor patio with yard games to play while you are waiting make this a family friendly find.
- Jerry’s Cafe: We didn’t eat here while we were staying on Sanibel Island, but I wish that we had. This little cafe is attached to Jerry’s Grocery Store (see my note above about the parrots in the things to do section). It serves a variety of unfussy, kid friendly menu items at great prices (budget friendly restaurants on Sanibel are hard to find). Definitely eating here next time we visit!
My Best, Super Secret Ninja Tips for Visiting Sanibel Island with Kids
- Buy groceries before you come over. Groceries on Sanibel were significantly more expensive than on the main land. There is a Publix right before paying the toll to cross the Sanibel Island Causeway.
- If you plan on dining out, get your hands on the Sanibel Kiwanis coupon book which gives awesome discounts on local restaurants. Just eat out twice and you will have paid for the cost of the book!
- You might want to bring water shoes or sandals for walking on the beach. The shells can be sharp, and they hurt my daughter’s feet at times.
Oh, and bring some bug spray. Why, you might ask? It wasn’t something that we even thought about packing, but at sunset, the no-seeums come out something FIERCE here.
My ankles were red and raw by the time we came home, and they itched for a long time. At sunset, bugspray is one of the most precious commodities on the island and it isn’t cheap (thing $15 for a small bottle). Lesson learned. Bring your own.
What are the Differences between Sanibel Island and Captiva Island?
I did not realize until we visited Sanibel and next door Captiva Islands that each of these islands is distinctively different.
Sanibel Island: Much better shelling. More shops and restaurants and better choice of hotels and resorts. Hotels tended towards being cheaper on Sanibel. The beach was not sandy, it was made of crushed shells. Also, the water tended to be murky on Sanibel. The same currents that bring all of the shells and wash them up on the shore also stir up the shallow bottom, making the water less than clear.
Captiva Island: Felt more “off the beaten path” and exclusive. Less busy. Less restaurants and shopping. Resorts felt more “high end” and had price tags to match. The beach here was beautiful white sand, and the water was a bright shade of beautiful blue.