"I found one." "And another one!" Collecting comes naturally to kids. And, along the beaches of Sanibel Island, there's no shortage of perfect seashells to make up a cool collection, quickly!
Located on the southwest side of Florida near Fort Myers, Sanibel is, in fact, known as one of the best places in the world to collect shells. There's even a term for it – "Sanibel Stoop" is the common sight of people bending at the waist to pick up a seashell. Try it yourself with a family holiday escape from southeast Michigan to this sunny spot.
The Sanibel vibe
Unlike other areas of the state, you won't find any theme parks in Sanibel. The draw of this 12-mile long island centers on its natural wonders – and residents do everything they can to preserve the area's beauty (think of it as the Mackinac Island of Florida).
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For example, one road, the Sanibel Causeway, feeds travelers into Sanibel from the mainland, and the island itself has no traffic lights. During rush hour, police officers direct traffic. A local ordinance prohibits buildings from being higher than the tallest palm tree. A road sign along the main drag hails northern visitors to "Please wipe snow off shoes before entering."
Getting back to nature
Probably the best place to start is at The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which boasts more than 30 educational exhibits, including hands-on areas that answer all your kids' questions about seashells. In 2013, the cost is $9/adults, $5/ages 5-16 and free/4 and under.
Make your next stop the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge that stretches over 6,400 acres or two-thirds of the island, offering canoe trails, interpretative trails and even a bird tower. Kayak and boat tours are available, along with bicycle rentals. There's a $5/car entry fee (as of 2013).
To get to know the island better, sign up for a tour that departs from the refuge. With Tarpon Bay Explorers Nature Tours & Rentals Refuge Tram Tour, you can go on a 90-minute narrated tram tour that follows the wildlife drive and includes stops along the way (it's $13/adults and $8/ages 3-12 in 2013).
Or try the Tarpon Bay Explorers Nature & Sea Life Cruises, which set sail near the refuge. These cruises offer families a chance to see local wildlife like pelicans, dolphins and manatees. Various cruise options are available, including a 90-minute program ($23/adults and $15/ages 3-12 in 2013).
Celebrate the season without a snowflake in sight by walking through the shopping districts in Sanibel and nearby Captiva Island (just to the north). Captiva's village area has nightly entertainment, visits from Santa and holiday parades. Be sure to find out what's happening at Captiva Island during the holiday season.
Area hotels also put up holiday displays and have activities available to help you get in the holiday spirit.
Time to hit the beach!
Pencil in plenty of beach time – more than 50 miles of soft, sandy beaches await you in the Sanibel area. Local favorites include Bowman's Beach, Gulfside City Park, Lighthouse Park Beach and Tarpon Bay Road Beach. Public parking is about $2/hour.
An easier way to get around than a car is spinning your wheels on a bike. Bike paths abound on the island and rentals are easy to find. In fact, some hotels have bikes available for guests, either for rent or free.
Once you've hit the beach, be sure to hunt for those seashells (there are more than 400 different species, thanks to Sanibel's east-west position in the Gulf of Mexico). Here are some tips on spotting them:
- Visit during the winter months.
- Go out early in the morning.
- Take your time! Encourage your kids to sit down on the beach and work their way through the piles of shells.
- Get your feet wet. Many cool shells are located just within the surf.
- Pack polarized sunglasses that cut down on glare and make it easier to find seashells in the water. These inexpensive shades are available at discount drug stores.
- If you find a critter still lurking in a shell, throw it back into the water. It's illegal in Sanibel to keep a shell with a live creature inside.
- Note: You're welcome to take home as many shells as you want!
To plan your visit to Sanibel Island in Florida, visit the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau website.