Sunset over Captiva Beach, Florida

A magical sunset at Captiva Island, Florida. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Captiva Island

Southwestern Florida's Sanibel and Captiva Islands lure families with beautiful beaches and a range of quality resorts, plus plenty of places to enjoy the natural estuaries, salt marshes, mangrove swamps, and undeveloped sands of Florida.

Captiva and Sanibel Islands elevate the classic pastimes of beach-strolling and shell-collecting to new heights. Shells—conchs, whelks, scallops, and scores of others—wash up on the shores of these barrier islands by the waveful because of their east-west orientation. You can keep anything that doesn't have a live critter inside. Captiva Cruises is a great way to get out on the water with the wind in your face and dolphins plying your boat's wake. Try the Cayo Costa Beach & Shelling Cruise, where you'll hit undeveloped park beaches perfect for swimming and shell-collecting.

Paddlers delight in the Great Calusa Blueway, a nearly 100-mile long system of marked kayak trails. One section snakes through the scenic bays of Sanibel and Captiva islands, while the other takes you through Estero Bay to Bunche Beach in south Fort Myers.

At the 11,000-acre Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, near Naples, a two-and-a-quarter-mile boardwalk cuts through towering bald cypress thickets. Ferns feather the ground, birds chirp, and ponds bloom with water lettuce. On your journey, keep an eye out for the nesting endangered North American wood storks, as well as alligators and deer.

The footpaths through the 6,400-acre J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, just 15 miles southwest of Fort Myers, are framed by salt myrtles, cabbage palms, sea grapes, and other native trees. There's also a four-mile scenic drive, but a guided kayak trip is the best way to explore the refuge. Paddling through the mangroves along Commodore Creek, you'll see pelicans, osprey, and herons and learn about the sea squirts, seahorses, barnacles, and oysters that live in the estuary.

Ride a swamp buggy—a school bus converted into a tourist-mobile, with comfortable seats, open sides, and shade—at Babcock Wilderness Adventures, northeast of Fort Myers. Rumble through flatland, swamp, and prairie as your naturalist guide tells you about the 90,000-acre Crescent B Ranch and its wildlife. You're likely to pass alligators, turtles, bison, and, of course, cattle. At the tour's end the guide just might haul out a baby 'gator for you to touch.

Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park sports over a mile of white-sand beach on a barrier island, where loggerhead turtles come ashore to lay their eggs each summer. From June through October on Wednesday mornings, rangers lead walks to search for nests or hatchlings.

Tip: The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel showcases shells from around the world.

Recommended Side Trips: Everglades National Park, Fort Lauderdale, Sarasota, Tampa, St. Petersburg/Clearwater

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