By Kara Williams, on July 4, 2013

Beach bliss on Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is just a 40-minute drive from downtown Fort Myers. But with its long stretches of white-sand beach, buildings that are no higher than a palm tree, wildlife refuges, and decidedly laid-back vibe, this small isle is a world away from city living. In other words, if you’re looking for a peaceful beach destination for rest and relaxation, Sanibel Island is a brilliant place to simply bliss out on the beach. Forget racy nightlife, fast food, and cheesy souvenir shops. Sanibel Island is all about getting close to nature, enjoying the charm of locally owned lodging, and reveling in the quiet.

Since I live in land-locked Colorado, I’m drawn to the ocean whenever I’m at a beach destination, and I especially appreciate long stretches where I can take lengthy walks on the sand. Sanibel Island is especially fabulous for beachcombing because it’s one of the top shelling destinations in the world. The island’s east-west orientation and gentle waves provide ideal conditions for scavenging for all sorts of shells: sand dollars, scallops, cockles, and whelks. In fact, that bent-over position visitors take on when they’re scouring for shells is dubbed “the Sanibel stoop”!

Sanibel Island accommodations focus on cottages, condos, and bungalows on the beach; you won’t find high-end, luxury high-rises here – remember, no structures are more than three stories high. I fell in love with the retro, budget-friendly Gulf Breeze Cottages, where bright-white studio efficiencies and one- to three-bedroom cottages are accented in coral pink and turquoise trim. A literal stone’s throw from the beach, the small buildings are surrounded by palm trees, tall beach grass, and other vegetation creating a secluded enclave.

Kayaking among mangroves in a wildlife refuge

Though chillaxing with a book on the beach was a high priority for our short romantic trip to Sanibel, my husband and I did seek out some other things to do in the area and on the island. High on my list of recommendations: kayaking through J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge. Sign up for a guided tour or rent kayaks from Tarpon Bay Explorers to paddle through the mangroves along the Commodore Creek Water Trail. Here, we spotted a myriad of bird life: herons, ibis, cormorants, and osprey. While standing on the shore, we even saw dolphins frolicking in Tarpon Bay. Alligators and manatees also make their home in this rugged wildlife refuge – part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the U.S.

Viewfinder Tip: The driest, most pleasant weather on Sanibel Island is generally December to April, but that’s also when you’ll find the highest room rates.

Still other ways to explore the Gulf Coast waters around the island include pontoon-boat rental, fishing charter, or sunset sail. On land, the best way to get to know the intimate isle is by bike: rent your two wheels from Billy’s Rentals, then pedal along the network of 25 miles of paved, multi-use recreational trails. Key spots like the 19th-century lighthouse on the east end of the island (and nearby Lighthouse Cafe, recommended for breakfast), as well as the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the casual, family-friendly Island Cow restaurant, and remote Bowman’s Beach, are all found along the paved trails or just down flat, quiet roads.

Of course, as I noted, relaxing in a chaise lounge on a wide expanse of white-sand beach is a perfectly acceptable activity on Sanibel Island. After all, on an island with no stoplights and where the pace of life is decidedly slow, you may as well make like the locals and just enjoy its mellow vibe in quiet repose.

Where do you find your beach bliss?