Since Hurricane Ian hit with a vengeance, recovery on Sanibel Island, Florida, has progressed with the speed of the near-category-5 winds that decimated it on September 28, 2022. Upon the recent announcement that the Sanibel Causeway will reopen to all vehicles on January 2, 2023, I’ll bring you up to speed on the status of tourism on my home island of Sanibel. We’ll also explore Sanibel’s sister island, Captiva, and nearby Fort Myers Beach, which suffered more devastation than Sanibel — over $90 million in total damages by some estimates.
The announcement of the imminent removal of checkpoints on the causeway — which currently allow only island residents, business owners, workers, and registered restoration workers — came much earlier than initially anticipated. A month ago, the chamber of commerce was predicting a 6-month time frame for reopening. In the meantime, however, a number of businesses that reopened on Sanibel and Captiva, the latter of which was affected to a lesser extent, were pushing for the return of visitors.
Captiva Island Resort And Businesses Open
On November 25, ‘Tween Waters Island Resort thumbed its nose at Hurricane Ian’s attempts to destroy the 2023 tourism season with its long-running, well-loved tree-lighting tradition. Known for its joyful holiday decorations, the resort even replaced a tall palm tree at the entrance so that a life-size Santa could once again climb a ladder to the top.
“Seeing that Santa on his ladder brought more than smiles to people around the country, it renewed the islands’ comeback commitment,” said John Lai, president and CEO of the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce.
The full-service resort opened its rooms, beach, and pool areas to the public on December 17 after housing restoration workers for 2 months. Its flagship restaurant, Old Captiva House, reopened on November 28. Vacation rental agencies have also reopened their offices and offerings on Captiva Island.
Beach Restoration And Reopenings On Sanibel Island
At a chamber of commerce meeting early in the month, Sanibel officials announced that they would be grooming the public beach accesses, a practice that the island employs only in emergencies to avoid disrupting bird and sea turtle habitats. Currently, public beach access is closed and not expected to reopen by January 2, 2023.
City officials emphasize that even once the causeway opens to the public, a 9 p.m.–6 a.m. curfew will remain in effect.
During the Sanibel City Council’s meeting on December 20, Mayor Holly Smith said the reopening of the causeway isn’t for tourists and reminded the public of the following:
- Beaches and beach parks, including the Sanibel Lighthouse, remain closed. Sanibel is not open to beach visitors, and the mayoral proclamation, extending Sanibel’s local state of emergency, prohibits non-residents from being on the beach.
- The fishing pier and boat ramp are closed.
- Most businesses are closed.
- There is not much to see or do — as of now.
- Residents/contractors with re-entry passes should continue displaying them on their dashboards to assist police.
Administration at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge announced recently that Wildlife Drive is undergoing repairs from storm surge washout and will reopen at the end of January or early February. Some of its trails will reopen at the same time, and its concession at Tarpon Bay Recreation Area plans to recommence kayak rentals and limited tours by mid-February.
A number of eateries are back up and serving post-hurricane menus. They include Cielo, Jerry’s Restaurant, Sanibel Deli & Coffee Factory, Sanibel Grill, The Shack of Sanibel, and Traders Restaurant. Other restaurants plan to reopen in the coming weeks, like MudBugs Cajun Kitchen, Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grill, and the Great White Grill.
The only Sanibel resort currently accepting reservations remains Island Inn, with limited capacity.
By all accounts, expect heavy traffic to the island once the causeway fully reopens.
Hope For Fort Myers Beach
Before Ian’s nasty swipe, Fort Myers Beach was preparing for what its chamber of commerce was celebrating as a “renaissance.” Besides an ongoing revitalization of its Times Square core, from the gulf-front Fort Myers Beach Pier to newly redeveloped Bayside Park, a new Margaritaville Beach Resort was scheduled to open by September 2023.
While Ian leveled most of those dreams — wreaking havoc on the pier, Times Square’s pedestrian mall, and 97 percent of the town’s structures — hope still remains. Despite supply issues, Margaritaville spokesperson Robert Kisabeth reported, “We are back to full construction, and we will open in 2023, between September and November.”
Bob Raymond, mayor of Fort Myers Beach, predicted 5 years to rebuild. However, a few restaurants have already reopened, including Bayfront Bistro, Yucatan Beach Stand, and Wahoo Willie’s Tiki Bar & Grill near Times Square, as well as Coste Island Cuisine at DiamondHead Beach Resort, which recently opened a limited number of suites. Pink Shell Beach Resort, too, has a limited availability of guest rooms for displaced residents and others.
“I think the tenacity of the people on the island, the tremendous desire for the return of a sense of community, has been so inspiring and has motivated the pace of recovery,” said resident Barbara Hill, an artist who grew up on Fort Myers Beach and had since returned for retirement.
Fort Myers Beach opened its bridges relatively early in the recovery game, but non-residents must cross back over the bridges by 8 p.m. Beach access is open to foot travel, and the town and residents have been working steadily to clear the sand of debris. Parking spaces at the beaches, however, are not yet available.
Pine Island, Downtown Fort Myers, And Elsewhere
In the same vicinity, the historic, artsy town of Matlacha on Pine Island was decimated. Most businesses remain closed. The same is largely true for St. James City, but the Bokeelia area is coming back on the island.
Downtown Fort Myers and areas of south Fort Myers and Cape Coral suffered from surge that came from the Caloosahatchee River. Most of downtown Fort Myers and Cape Coral have recovered. Fans of the tiny island of Cabbage Key, home to a historic inn and restaurant, will be happy to know it survived well and is already back open.
As the islands of Sanibel and Captiva continue to make progress after Ian, check out these articles: