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j.n. ding darling national wildlife refuge, sanibel, florida
Flickr/cletch

As winter maintains an icy grip on the East Coast for a few more weeks, we like the idea of following the birds south to sunny Sanibel. Just off the coast of Fort Myers in Florida, Sanibel has seen a resurgence in national and international tourism in recent years, thanks to its year-round sun and white, sandy Gulf beaches. It’s a quieter, more relaxing, and very affordable scene here compared to the hubbub along the state’s eastern coast — ideal for those seeking to stay active but low-key, all the while enjoying fine dining and great shopping. Here’s how to make the most of the area’s expansive nature and golden warmth.

Where to Experience Nature
Don’t miss the 90-minute narrated tram tour of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. One of Florida’s most treasured natural habitats, these 6,000 acres are home to many rare birds, raccoons, and otter. The narrated tour takes guests along the 4-mile scenic drive, snaking through the marshlands and offering glimpses of morning feedings. If you’re lucky, an alligator sighting might be waiting for you.


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Best Day Trip
Want to get off the island? Hop aboard Captiva Cruises and sail to Cabbage Key. A remote island purchased by the acclaimed author Mary Roberts Rinehart in the 1930s, Cabbage Key was fashioned into a tiny sanctuary with a small inn and an accompanying burger joint. The restaurant shot to fame after Jimmy Buffet wrote the hit song “Cheeseburger in Paradise” there, an ode to the island. On your hour-long boat ride to lunch, expect a few friendly visitors along the way — dozens of bottlenose dolphins are usually seen to playfully ride and jump through the ship’s wake.


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Where to Shop
There’s no central shopping “district” in Sanibel — which has one main, narrow road running the span of the island — but there are plenty of small hubs along the way. A stop in to The Village Shops center offers some of the finest regional crafts, including fine jewelry at William E. Wilson and fun homemade soaps at Sanibel Bath and Body. The local C. Turtles boasts upscale outfits and accessories, while the adjacent Wilford & Lee sells signature Florida décor, including palm tree lamps and sea shell accents.

sanibel beach moonset, florida
Flickr/Eric Richards

Best Breakfast
For a budget-friendly and delicious morning starter, head straight to the Over Easy Café, a small joint in the center of the island that serves up omelets ($7.99), French toast ($6.99), and homemade cinnamon rolls ($3.99). It’s best to arrive early, because come 10 a.m., this tiny eatery becomes packed.

Best Snack
If you’re in need of an afternoon refueling, head over to Schnapper’s Hots. Onion rings and hot dogs are a Sanibel favorite here.

Best Dinner
The open kitchen at Sweet Melissa’s Cafe gives diners the chance to decode what makes chef Melissa Talmage’s cuisine so delicious. Sophisticated offerings at this local café include intricately constructed plates of rabbit pate ($12), suckling pig confit ($15), and seared duck breast ($14 or $27, depending on portion size). Don’t forget to save room for the homemade ice cream, in rotating flavors!

Where to Drink
Skip the touristy Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille and head to the tropical-themed bar at Sanibel Sandbar for a drink. You find a fine selection of wines here, too, that the friendly bartenders are more than happy to help you choose from.

Where to Stay
With limited accommodations on Sanibel Island, your best bet is to find a rental in Sanibel Moorings, a resort situated near the causeway and right on the sandy beach. Short and long-term rentals in spacious condo suites are paired with a pool, rental bikes, and beach recliners, with enjoying the perfect weather in mind. Each of the condo suites are privately owned, so interior décor and amenities all vary with their own personal touches. The suites sell out quickly and start around $376 total for two nights, the minimum stay.

Sanibel dolphins - flickr pmarkham
Flickr/pmarkham

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