An estimated 150 people gathered at dawn around the base of the Sanibel Lighthouse exactly 5 months after Hurricane Ian broke one of its legs and devastated Sanibel Island with its vicious, unprecedented force. The occasion for the February 28 early awakening? The light tower has been relit, now with a temporary prosthesis, after standing dark for 153 days.
It was an emotional moment when the guiding beam flashed on once again. The circa-1884 lighthouse has stood as a symbol of island resilience. Now, it has become a beacon of optimism as the island sees retail operations, services, and even a few iconic attractions coming back to life.
Four Beaches Open, Visitors Still Asked To Stay Away
Most iconic on an island famous worldwide for its seashell-collecting, four public beaches have officially opened: Tarpon Bay Road Beach Park, Blind Pass Beach Park, Bowman’s Beach Park, and Gulf Side City Park (aka Algiers Beach). The Alison Hagerup Beach, aka Captiva Beach, will reopen on March 10. Lighthouse Park Beach, where the lighthouse now shines, opened only for a few hours on February 28. Its permanent opening date has not been set.
The city of Sanibel warns visitors to swim and otherwise use beaches at their own risk. Hurricane debris, uneven terrain, and red tide blooms are among hazards they may encounter in the sand and waters. It continues to advise visitors to wait until recovery is further along to visit the island.
Top Attractions Open In Phases
On February 1, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum partially reopened. Its new ground-level aquariums gallery was destroyed, but the museum has made accessible, until full construction mode kicks in, its original second-floor Great Hall of Shells with vignettes to demonstrate the role of seashells in history and culture. The museum has engaged islanders in its new temporary exhibit — In the Wake of the Flood: Community Photographs of Hurricane Ian and Its Aftermath. Although no firm date has been set, the post-hurricane shell museum experience is expected to shut down sometime this spring. Final completion date for construction has been estimated at more than 6 months.
The first phase of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge opened February 1. Tarpon Bay Recreation Area, home to recreation concession Tarpon Bay Explorers, has now opened its Gift & Nature Store, boat ramp (non-motorized vessels only), kayak and paddleboard rentals, and limited kayaking tours. Hours are limited and will expand as demand demonstrates need.
The concession’s narrated tram tours of Wildlife Drive will resume when the drive reopens, which is predicted for early or mid-April. The observation tower on Wildlife Drive, “Ding” Darling Visitor & Education Center, and some of the refuge trails will reopen at the same time, including the segment of Indigo Trail between Wildlife Drive and the Wildlife Education Boardwalk. Most of Indigo Trail, Calusa Shell Mound Trail, and the trails of Bailey Tract may take up to a year to reopen.
The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) has opened its gift shop but does not currently have any animals and has not resumed its wildlife walks or other programs yet. The Sanibel Boat Ramp has reopened with limitations.
Sanibel Restaurants, Shops, And Lodging
Restaurants continue to open on Sanibel Island, most notably Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, popular for its connection to islander Randy Wayne White’s murder-mystery bestsellers and for its New York Times-lauded Yucatan shrimp.
Stores and boutiques, too, are coming back, including the long-loved Tower Gallery co-op. A handful of other retailers, however, have temporarily relocated to a Fort Myers shopping center.
Although you can find a good number of vacation rentals on both Sanibel and Captiva islands, the resort picture on Sanibel remains bleak. One predicted reopening, West Inn Island Resort expects about 100 of its rooms back up, but not until January 2026.
Note: The city has lifted the curfew from Sanibel, but police are still stopping late-night traffic to verify resident or resort guest status.
West Inn comes under the umbrella of Sanibel Captiva Beach Resorts, which also includes ‘Tween Waters Resort, the first island resort to reopen after Ian. Its flagship Old Captiva House now serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but that will change April 1 when the resort opens two newly-built restaurants that were underway pre-Ian. The Shipyard will likely serve breakfast and dinner, and host nightlife activities; while upstairs, the reimagined Crow’s Nest becomes a high-end steakhouse with sushi, whiskey, and views of the gulf.
Iconic beachfront Mucky Duck pub, too, has reopened. RC Otter’s Island Eats is to reopen in March, but its sister restaurant, Keylime Bistro, opened a spinoff on Gasparilla Island to the north in Boca Grande while it rebuilds its Captiva restaurant. It should open in September, along with a couple of other restaurants under the same ownership — Cantina Captiva and Sunshine Seafood Café and Wine Bar.
King of Captiva accommodations, the gated South Seas Island Resort undergoes massive reconstruction with its hotel rooms expected to start reopening September 1. Highly respected Offshore Sailing School, once berthed at South Seas, has temporarily moved operations to the ‘Tween Waters Marina. Other popular boating charters such as Captiva Cruises and Captain Brian on the Water are back afloat.
App Created For Residents And Visitors
The Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, which hopes to come back home to its colorful, gingerbread welcome center in April, has developed a free interactive tool for guiding residents and visitors to the businesses that are open on Sanibel, Captiva, and the mainland. The Wander map also gives you up-to-the-minute news on what beaches are open and what roads and bike paths to avoid because of recovery construction and closings. Billy’s Bike Shop on Sanibel, which reopened on President’s Day, maintains the map’s biking updates. Look for the app on the Apple Store, Google Play, or online.
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