One of the treasures of Florida’s Gulf coast is Sanibel Island. Located in southwest Florida, close to the cities of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, Sanibel is separated from the mainland by the San Carlos Bay and is accessible only by causeway or boat. Sanibel is commonly divided into East Sanibel and West Sanibel, which leads us to ask: which side of Sanibel Island is the best?
The east side of Sanibel is the best if you enjoy being close to the action and the fun. However, the west side of Sanibel is the best if you prefer to have a more mellow time and don’t mind feeling a little detached from the world. Choosing a side is like picking a favorite child – it can’t be done!
So what’s the difference between the east and west sides of the island? Which side has better lodging, dining, shelling, or swimming? Can you explore the whole island in a day? Discover the answers to these questions and learn a whole lot more about Sanibel in the following sections.
Sanibel Island: Florida Charm at its Finest
Sanibel Island is a small, sandy island located just west of the cities of Cape Coral and Fort Myers. The island is relatively small, with a total land area of about 17.21 square miles. It is vaguely shrimp-shaped, with its long, curving shoreline providing gorgeous white sandy beaches that are perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and beachcombing. There’s no “official” dividing line between east and west Sanibel, but Rabbit Road is a good dividing marker, so that’s what we’re going to use here.
The east side of Sanibel is closest to the mainland. A causeway connects Sanibel to the mainland; the causeway does have a $6 toll to enter and is unmanned.
If you do not have a Sunpass transponder, you will have to pay an extra $3 to cross the causeway. However, even if you’re just visiting, we’d recommend grabbing a Sunpass Mini at your local Publix: the transponder only costs $4.99, so if you’re visiting for a few days, it will pay for itself.
You’ll find the tolls more than worth it. Sanibel has maintained its quaint charm over the years by keeping real-estate developers off the island. In addition, more than half of the land area of Sanibel and neighboring Captiva are nature preserves, most notably the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
The developed areas are kept quaint and charming through force of law; new construction is limited in scope and size, and the only chain restaurants on the island are a Subway and a Dairy Queen that were both in place before the regulations were applied.
East Vs. West Sanibel: Places to Stay
Most of the hotels and lodgings on Sanibel are on the island’s east side. As a result, you’ll find dozens of hotels and luxury resorts on the east side of the island. This abundance means that you have a wide assortment of options at a variety of price points, but it also means that the east-side beaches tend to be a little more crowded, especially during busy times.
The west side of the island has a quieter vibe. Lodgings on the western side of the island are more refined and private. One of the finest places to stay at is the Blue Dolphin Cottages – this resort is low-key, simple, and right smack on the beach. Mitchell’s Sand Castles is another popular lodging on western Sanibel.
Winner: You can’t go wrong staying on Sanibel, but we’d recommend east Sanibel for variety and a more fun-loving experience and west Sanibel for a more mellow and relaxed experience.
East vs. West Sanibel: Dining
While there’s nothing quite like sunning yourself on the fine sands of Sanibel, people can’t live on sunshine alone. So what is there to eat on Sanibel? The answer is that there’s plenty on east Sanibel but nothing to speak of on west Sanibel. That said, don’t fret if you’re planning to stay on west Sanibel. It’s a short drive to the fabulous options on the east side.
Phenomenal Florida Fun Fact: Legend has it that Sanibel was given its name by Roderigo Lopez, first mate to the legendary pirate Jose Gaspar. According to the legend, Lopez found the island so beautiful that he named it after his lover, whose name was Sanibel.
East Sanibel’s dining options range from the fabulous Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, where you can get a world-class Mojito and some fabulous seared tuna, to The Mad Hatter Restaurant, which serves gourmet dishes like goat-cheese pillows, duck breast, and crab cakes.
Winner: East Sanibel.
Insider Tip: While it’s technically on Captiva and not Sanibel, one of our favorite restaurants is The Bubble Room. This iconic restaurant is loaded with fun and kitschy artifacts from days long past, from toy trains that run the perimeter of the restaurant to old movie flyers, toys, lighted tops, and… well, you really need to see it for yourself. The atmosphere is fun, and the food is excellent.
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East vs. West Sanibel: Beachcombing
Beachcombing is great – who doesn’t like finding a cool shell, some neat driftwood, or even a shark tooth? The best shelling and beachcombing on Sanibel is found on the far eastern tip of the island on Lighthouse Beach. The currents and waves tend to push debris, including shells and other fun finds, toward this part of the island. You can also admire Sanibel Lighthouse, a super-cool historical landmark.
Winner: East Sanibel. However, there is great shelling at Turner Beach, which is just across the bridge on Captiva Island.
East vs. West Sanibel: Swimming
Swimming in the Gulf of Mexico is like hopping into a warm bathtub, with the pleasant addition of sunshine and sea air. Perhaps the most popular beach is the aforementioned Lighthouse Beach. Easy to access from the mainland, expansive, close to town, and great for beachcombing, Lighthouse Beach is an excellent choice for swimmers.
If you like your swimming a little less hectic and crowded, you’ll find Bowman’s Beach on the west side of Sanibel well worth the drive – it’s about 20 minutes from the causeway, but it’s quiet, secluded, and absolutely stunning. So if you want to swim between bouts of relaxing in your lounger or sprawling on a towel, Bowman’s Beach is for you.
Winner: This one is a tie. Truth be told, you can’t go wrong at any beach on Sanibel.
East vs. West Sanibel: Diving and Snorkeling
Scuba diving is popular in Southwest Florida, but surprisingly, Sanibel is not known as the best place for diving. That said, there are several artificial reefs within a few miles of shore that are easily accessible through charter operators. In addition, there are several dive shops and dive operators in nearby Fort Myers who will be happy to take you to one of the fine dive sites near Sanibel.
So how about snorkeling? While you can snorkel at any beach on Sanibel and have a great time, the best beach for snorkeling on the island is definitely Bowman’s Beach. This beach is great for shelling, but also for strapping on your flippers and mask and taking in the fantastic underwater sights!
Winner: West Sanibel. You’ll find good snorkeling all over the island, but Bowman’s Beach has a reputation as one of the best snorkeling beaches.
East vs. West Sanibel: Fishing
Floridians love to fish. There’s nothing like casting a line and reeling in a huge tarpon, a swordfish, or even a shark! So, where’s the best place on Sanibel to fish?
Of course, you can fish just about anywhere on Sanibel. People fish from bridges, at the roadside, and from the beach. But perhaps the best place for fishing on Sanibel is on the east side of the island, at the Sanibel Fishing Pier. Anglers love to drop their lines in from the pier and often reel in superb catches like redfish, snook, and snapper. People have even caught sawfish at the pier!
Winner: East Sanibel. You’ll have fun fishing no matter where you cast your line, but the best fishing is at the pier.
East Sanibel vs. West Sanibel: Which Is Better?
So which side is better, east or west? The answer really depends on what exactly you’re looking for. East Sanibel is probably best for you if you want a traditional Florida vacation experience. There are tons of hotels, an assortment of restaurants, and lots of activities. Plus, you’re moments away from the amenities of Fort Myers.
If, however, you want a more relaxed and mellow experience, west Sanibel is the place to go. With fewer touristy spots and a more natural, rugged feel, the west side of Sanibel is beautiful and charming without being super rowdy about it.
Sanibel Island is well worth visiting, whichever side you decide to go to. East Sanibel is fun and energetic. West Sanibel is relaxed and beachy. The sprawling, sandy shorelines, the fun local color, and the absence of major chain restaurants and shops and massive high-rises give the island a unique and lovable vibe. Whether you come to east or west Sanibel, you’ll find yourself wanting to stay on this island paradise forever.