Sanibel Island has been at the top of my Florida Bucket List since our family moved here almost 4 years ago. The laid back island culture and abundance of sea shells called to me. I had also heard that the island was free from chain restaurants and high rises, working hard to maintain the unspoiled views and ecosystems in the area.
It sounded like the perfect Florida getaway to me.
Since we live on the opposite coast and a lot further north, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy day trip for our family, so I hadn’t yet figured out how or when we would get there, when I got an invitation to a press trip to experience the area of Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva Island.
I was thrilled! The only downside would be to not get to experience the area with my kids. However, I decided to look at the trip as a scouting mission (while also enjoying some time away from the everyday duties of mom life) to figure out exactly where to go and what to do to have a spectacular vacation on Sanibel Island (and the surrounding areas) with kids.
Disclosure: Since I experienced this area on a FAM press trip, everything we experienced on this trip from accommodations to activities and food were completely hosted by the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel VCB. However all opinions are completely my own.
This post also contains affiliate links, which means if you click on a link and make a purchase, I may make a commission at no extra cost to you.
FAMILY TRAVEL GUIDE TO THE BEACHES OF FORT MYERS AND SANIBEL
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Fort Myers is a city in Southwest Florida known for its almost year-round sunshine, plentiful beaches, and proximity to nearby barrier islands like Sanibel and Captiva. These islands are popular spots to collect seashells. Due to their east-west orientation, they act like a scoop picking up lots of unique shells from the Gulf of Mexico.
WHAT TO PACK
The vibe in Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva is laid-back and casual. Pack items like cutoff shorts, sundresses, breezy tank tops, and flip flops.
Most activities in the area revolve around water, so don’t forget multiple swimsuits, sunscreen, hats, rash guards, and sandals.
If you’re interested in collecting shells, bring a mesh bag for collecting them.
Depending on the time of year, you may want to pack a light jacket or sweater for mornings and evenings. The day can start off cool, then become blazing hot by midday.
HOW TO GET THERE + TRANSPORTATION
Fly into Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW), then rent a car or grab an Uber to take the scenic drive over the Sanibel Causeway to reach the islands. It’s at least a 45 minute drive from the airport, and could be longer depending on traffic. Enjoy the long drive with the windows down and beach music blasting and take in the stunning vistas.
(If you’re traveling with kids, make sure you’re prepared for the long drive after your flight. Have snacks on hand and hit the bathroom before you leave the airport. You know the kids are going to be whining that they want to be on the beach already!)
I would highly recommend renting a car so that you can drive between Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva.
WHERE TO STAY
Families should stay at the South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island. It’s a sprawling property with hotel rooms, vacation rental homes, and villas that used to be a Key Lime Plantation. This is a 4 Star hotel, but you won’t feel out of place in flip flops and cutoff shorts. The vibe is warm, welcoming, and island casual. This is the type of resort families come back to every year for a quiet beach vacation.
Yes, this is one of the most remote places to stay, but that’s the draw for many families (check rooms and availability here). It’s secluded but there’s plenty to do on-property from water sports to private beach access. There are multiple pools and water slides. There are tons of restaurants to choose from, too!
Make sure to have a few meals at Harbourside Bar & Grill. It’s a casual restaurant overlooking the marina that serves a wonderful buffet breakfast along with a la carte options and meals. You’ll find the freshest of seafood for lunch and dinner along with some of the most creative cocktails with fun mocktails available for kids. There are 5 other restaurants on site including Scoops and Slices which will surely appeal to your kids.
I loved stopping in the Captiva Provision Company, a convenience store with a deli counter. It’s incredibly convenient to have nearby in case you need a bottle of water, a quick sandwich for lunch, or some local ice cream.
If you’re looking to stock up on food for your room, make sure sure you hit the nearby Walmart in Fort Myers for more affordable prices, or the Publix right before you reach Sanibel Causeway.
FAMILY ACTIVITIES IN FORT MYERS, SANIBEL, AND CAPTIVA
OSTEGO BAY FOUNDATION MARINE SCIENCE CENTER
Ostego Bay Foundation Marine Science Center may not be the biggest or fanciest aquarium in Florida, but you’ll be blown away by the knowledge, the passion for marine life, and the personal touch of your tour guides.
You can participate in a working waterfront tour to get the inside scoop on the shrimping industry. You’ll be able to get up close and personal with shrimp nets, stroll the loading dock, and see how shrimp are processed and unloaded. You’ll know more than you even realized there was to know about “Pink Gold,” the pink shrimp off the shores of Southwest Florida.
You’ll also get a chance to explore the marine science center where there are touch tanks, educational displays, and aquariums.
This is a great experience for kids who are interested in marine life. I would highly recommend waiting until your kids are a little older (at least 6) before you participate in this experience.
Though it sounds like you should be in the heart of New York City, Times Square is a spot to shop, eat, and hang out on Estero Island in Fort Myers. It’s just steps from Fort Myers Beach Pier, and a pedestrian-only walkway means it’s a fun spot to spend a few hours with kids. It’s the perfect place to grab an ice cream and dine al fresco.
HIT THE BEACH
Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva tourism and lifestyle basically revolve around the beach, so you would be crazy to miss out on the incredible shorelines.
Fort Myers Beach was a beautiful spot, though incredibly crowded when we were there (at least near the pier), but in exchange for the crowds you’ll also find a lot to do there (see TImes Square above). You can also fish off the pier and grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants nearby.
Captiva Beach is a quieter spot to spend the day, and I loved collecting shells there (more on that later). It’s renowned for its jaw-dropping sunsets. The only downside, in my opinion, it that it’s a bit remote and takes awhile to get there (unless you’re staying on Captiva Island).
Beaches on Sanibel Island include Bowman’s Beach and Lighthouse Park Beach.
I honestly could have spent hours at Mount House, a museum and archaeological dig site in a gorgerous outdoor setting. The site is dedicated to educating people on the Calusa Indians, also known as the Shell Indians. They used to create mounds out of mud and shells to form their communities, and I learned so much about their way of life from our knowledgeable tour guide. We even got to handle replicas of Calusa Indian tools and weapons made from shells. There are plenty of guided tour options and experiences available to choose from.
SANIBEL SEA SCHOOL
This was something our group didn’t get the chance to do, but the PR representative raved about the experience, so I thought I would share it here! Sanibel Sea School offers daily programs for families to learn more about marine life and eco systems in the area.
If you do nothing else in Sanibel and Captiva islands, go shelling! Wait until low tide or just after a storm to find the best collection of unique and colorful seashells to polish and take home. Make sure to bring a mesh bag for your shells as you comb the beach.
I enjoyed strolling the shoreline first thing in the morning, and noticed families out for a morning walk. The parents were clutching their coffees while the kids did some serious shell hunting. I was by myself since it was a press trip, but it made me really sad not to have my own kids with me. What a fun memory for families to make together!
I did, however, feel like a hero returning with lots of souvenirs that were FREE! My kids were so excited about the bag of seashells I brought home, and my oldest daughter is hoping to do some “crafts” with them. Now taking suggestions for what kinds of crafts to do with sea shells.
DO SOME ISLAND HOPPING
If you really want to get a feel for the Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva lifestyle, you absolutely must do some island hopping.
Charter a Boat. One option is to do a private charter, which is expensive, but 100% worth it if you’re willing to splurge a little bit for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We used Southern Instinct Charters, and Captain Ryan was the COOLEST captain and island tour guide around. He took us wherever we wanted to go, but also offered his professional insight and suggestions to give us the best possible experience. As someone native to Southwest Florida, he can show you all the secret and secluded spots in the area.
My absolute favorite memory from island hopping (actually, my favorite memory of my time in Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva) was watching multiple dolphins playing in the wake of our boat, breeching out of the water, practically begging us to get amazing pictures of them. It was the experience of a lifetime.
Cabbage Key: One of our stops was to Cabbage Key, the inspiration behind Jimmy Buffet’s song “Cheeseburger in Paradise” where we grabbed a bite to eat, tried one of their signature cocktails, and explored the island a bit. Cabbage Key is named for the sturdy cabbage palm trees that inhabit the island, and only has one inn and restaurant on the entire key.
You can get to Cabbage Key by private charter, renting a boat, or taking a ferry.
Cayo Costa: Our second and final stop was to Cayo Costa, a secluded island with incredible seashells and gorgeous views. It was our final stop because it was so incredibly relaxing that none of us wanted to leave! There were little tide pools that would be perfect for little ones to splash around in.
WHERE TO EAT IN FORT MYERS, SANIBEL, AND CAPTIVA
Mat Hatter is quite the interesting dining establishment with an Alice in Wonderland theme and top-notch food. Everyone seemed to be pretty dressed up, and it was a smaller, more intimate dining setting, so I wouldn’t bring young kids here. If you have a babysitter and want a romantic night away, definitely make reservations for Mad Hatter. You won’t be disappointed. It’s located on Sanibel Island.
DIXIE FISH COMPANY
Dixie Fish Company is just minutes from Ostego Bay Foundation and the working waterfront, so as you can imagine, the seafood is as fresh as can be. It’s an open-air restaurant with a laid-back vibe and an awesome view of the harbor. I’m normally not a huge fan of seafood or fish, but my catch-of-the-day had me licking my lips. Make sure you try their key lime pie, too! The crust was amazing. The food is awesome, and the atmosphere means you don’t have to stress about your kids being loud.
Doc Ford’s is a local franchise serving fresh seafood and specializing in rum. The restaurant is inspired by the Doc Ford novels written by Randy Wayne White. The food is amazing, and you can find plenty of options besides seafood if that’s not your thing. Ribs, tacos, and burgers are all available, and it’s a very family-friendly atmosphere.