“If you would have told me that we would be here 8 months from that day for this occasion, I would have wanted to sip whatever it was you were drinking,” SanCap Chamber President and CEO John Lai quipped at the festive June 6 grand reopening of the chamber visitor center — after Hurricane Ian had ravaged the building and the rest of Sanibel and Captiva Islands on September 28, 2022.
Immediately following the storm, the earliest predictions for island recovery foresaw a timeline of more than a year because the category-five, high-surge storm had washed out the Sanibel Causeway connecting the islands to the mainland in several spots. Thanks to state support and pure island drive, bridges reopened within 30 days and businesses began the arduous journey to recovery and reopen shortly thereafter.
Fast forward to June 16, and the timeline now hits another high note as the city of Sanibel opens the last of its major, and one of its most well-loved, beaches. As the chamber likes to say: “Not perfect, but still paradise,” the islands offer plenty of reasons to visit now, among them to support ongoing recovery of one of Florida’s dearest destinations.
1. Lighthouse Beach Park
Sanibel Mayor Richard Johnson made it official with an announcement at the chamber reopening. The most anxiously awaited beach reopening had a date. Islanders and visitors yearned for access to the Lighthouse Beach Park recreational and beachy offerings at Sanibel’s east end. But most of all, they anxiously awaited laying eyes, close up, on the iconic lighthouse that withstood the storm and the loss of one leg — a symbol of island resiliency.
Pro Tip: A barrier currently separates the structure from direct access to the lighthouse base, and the park’s popular fishing pier has yet to reopen.
2. Chamber Visitor Center
Located at the entrance of Sanibel Island, the colorful, island-style cottage has restored its state-of-the-art digital displays and refashioned its space for maximum welcome, respite, and information. VISIT FLORIDA named the SanCap Chamber Visitor Center one of 13 official Florida Certified Tourism Information Centers in the state. Its Wander Map App is a valuable, free resource for tracking what’s open on the islands.
3. Reinvented Restaurants
Several restaurants on both Sanibel and Captiva have reopened in place. A few have moved, reconfigured, and newly reopened (or soon will). The islands’ only French restaurant, Bleu Rendezvous, with French-born Chef Christian Vivet in the kitchen, lost everything to Ian, uninsured. Vivet and his wife, Mari, made the decision to stick it out and move to a new intimate space on Sanibel, and loyal fans rejoiced.
Hurricane Ian destroyed former Mexican restaurant 400 Rabbits, but Rosalita’s Cantina opened its third restaurant in the U.S. to satisfy local hunger for margaritas and fine south-of-the-border fare. It feels so authentic, there’s even a votive-light station to buy heavenly favors for a contribution to the Catholic church across the street.
On Captiva, Tween Waters Island Resort was the first to accept guests after Ian back in late 2022. Now, it makes news with two new restaurants since the storm. In the works pre-Ian, The Shipyard opened in June. Formerly The Crow’s Nest, The Shipyard expanded the bar, lightened things up, and changed the focus from a fireplace and dance floor to windows overlooking the gulf right across the road. It’s a favorite for breakfast (spice things up with the artichoke chorizo benny topped with chipotle hollandaise), but also serves seafood-centric lunch and dinner with sunset views. The entirely new and elevated — figuratively and literally — Crow’s Nest restaurant is slated to reopen soon upstairs as a high-end steakhouse with whiskey and sushi bars.
4. Lodging Returns
Near the lighthouse, Tarpon Tale Inn joined Island Inn to bring Sanibel’s hotel inventory to 28 on June 2. Small, with only eight rooms, Tarpon Tale nonetheless made a show of strength that other island accommodations promise to follow. Seahorse Cottages, another small inn, has reopened near the lighthouse. Sanibel Island Beach Resort plans a September return. Sundial Beach Resort has reopened its much-used, top-rated pickleball facilities. On Captiva, the island’s largest resort, South Seas Island Resort, hopes to open about 25 rooms by the end of summer. Its marina and Starbucks shop have already come back fully.
5. Nature Attractions
Known for its good nature, Sanibel is a sanctuary island largely occupied by small preserves, nature attractions, and the grand presence of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge currently has reopened its Visitor & Education Center, 4-mile Wildlife Drive, trails at Bailey Tract, and Tarpon Bay Recreation Area. Tarpon Bay Explorers runs paddlecraft rentals on a limited schedule from the recreation area, along with narrated paddle and Wildlife Drive tram tours.
The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) has reopened its Visitor Education Center Monday through Friday and has resumed live animal presentations on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 11 a.m. Captiva Cruises and other private charter services are offering dolphin and wildlife sighting tours for a first-hand experience viewing island critters in their habitats.