September 20, 2020
Sanibel is an incorporated island city on the Gulf of Mexico in Lee County, Florida. It has a population of 7,400. The island is connected to much smaller Captiva Island on its north end by a short bridge over Blind Pass.
The combined islands are connected to the mainland by a long toll bridge and causeway to the mainland at Punta Rassa near Fort Myers.
There is a toll to get on the island, but leaving the island is free. The toll is $6.00 for cars, $2.00 for motorcycles, and free for bicycles.
Sanibel was an important settlement of the powerful Calusa Indian nation who dominated most of Southwest Florida in the years before European colonization.
For thousands of years, Captiva and Sanibel were one island. Hurricanes broke passes through from the Gulf to Pine Island Sound creating three islands: Sanibel, Captiva, and North Captiva.
The Spanish were the first European settlers on the island, and on an early map a harbor was shown on the island as "Puerto de S. Nibel." There are many theories about how Sanibel got its final name.
Along with nearby islands Captiva, Useppa, and Gasparilla, Sanibel is linked in the various legends of Jose Gaspar the pirate known as Jose Gaspar whose nickname was "Gasparilla."
Sanibel is also reputed to be a hideout for the pirate known as "Black Caeser," who was described as a former Haitian slave who escaped to become a pirate.
The first settlement in modern times was created by the Florida Peninsular Land Company in 1832, but it failed and was abandoned in 1849.
Settlers began to come again as a result of the Homestead Act of 1862, and a lighthouse was built in 1884.
Although quite a few pioneers became small farmers and homesteaded their 160 acres, the population remained very small for years because of the limited access to the mainland.
It wasn't until the end of World War Two that the population began to increase slowly. A few vacation homes were built that were occupied in the winter months, but stayed empty the rest of the year.
The only way to get to and from Sanibel was by car ferry from the mainland or by private boat.
The quiet days of Sanibel were about to end not long after Hugo Lindgren, a Swedish born investor, bought a large tract of land on the island. In the 1950s the population of Sanibel was only 250 permanent residents.
Mr. Lindgren believed a bridge to the mainland would enhance his investment. He spent money on feasibility studies, and fought intense opposition from environmentalists to get the financing and permitting for a bridge.
The causeway and bridge were completed in 1963 and immediately began to drastically change Sanibel. Developers and builders swarmed onto the island and quickly built condominiums, hotels, and residential subdivisions.
The City of Sanibel was formed in 1974 and the citizens quickly put a serious slowdown and restrictions on the development. The only tall buildings on the island were built in the period before the city was formed.
Most condominiums and hotels on Sanibel now are only two or three stories at the most.
The City also prohibited chain and fast food restaurants. There are only two on the island, Dairy Queen and Subway, that were in operation before the City passed the regulation.
Today the causeway provides easy access to the island and both Sanibel and Captiva have become tourist magnets.
The island is famous for its shelling beaches and wildlife refuges.
The term "Sanibel Stoop" refers to the hunched over position the shell hunters assume when discovering a great shell they want to pick up.
About half of the land area of Sanibel is preserved in wildlife refuges. the largest of these is the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
This 5,200 acre refuge was founded in 1976 and is one of the largest undeveloped mangrove systems in the country. The refuge is a popular tourist attraction, especially to bird lovers.
The refuge is a well known bird watching location because of the thousands of migratory birds that stop here.
Sanibel Island extends in a westerly direction once you enter from the causeway, and most of the actual town is on the eastern end near the causeway entrance.
Most of the stores and restaurants are located along Periwinkle Way, the main thoroughfare through the town. Most of the hotels and condominiums are on East, Mid, and West Gulf Drives.
These streets run parallel to Periwinkle along the Gulf of Mexico.
Periwinkle Drive and Sanibel-Capitva Road become very congested during tourist season and on weekends. Traffic creeps and crawls, but at least the scenery is beautiful.
A great place to learn more about the history of Sanibel is at the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village. In addition to several historic buildings, there is a beautiful Heritage Trail with a map so you can take a drive or hike that will give you a real sense of the town's past.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is a must visit for shell lovers. They have a huge collection of shells, and also offer close up looks of the mollusks that create the shell. You can even touch them.
Tourists also love to see the Giant Pacific Octopus.