“If you had told me we would be here to celebrate the occasion in eight months, I would have drank a sip of what you just drank,” quipped John Lai, President and CEO of the SanCap Chamber, at the celebration Chamber Visitor Center reopened June 6 – after Hurricane Ian devastated the building and the rest of the Sanibel and Captiva Islands on September 28, 2022.
Immediately after the storm, the earliest forecasts for the island’s recovery called for a period of more than a year, as the Category Five storm with high storm surge had inundated the Sanibel Causeway, which connected the islands to the mainland, in several places. Thanks to government support and the all-island offensive, the bridges were able to reopen within 30 days and the companies began the arduous road to recovery, reopening shortly thereafter.
Fast forward to June 16, and the schedule now reaches another high point when the city of Sanibel opens the last of its major beaches and one of its most popular. As the Chamber is fond of saying, “Not perfect, but still heavenly,” the islands now offer many reasons to visit, including to support the ongoing rebuilding of one of Florida’s most popular tourist destinations.
1. Lighthouse Beach Park
Sanibel Mayor Richard Johnson made it official with an announcement at the chamber’s reopening. The much-anticipated reopening of the beach had a date. Islanders and visitors alike craved access to the recreational and beach offerings of Lighthouse Beach Park on Sanibel’s east end. Most importantly, they eagerly awaited an up-close look at the iconic lighthouse that survived the storm and the loss of a leg – a symbol of the island’s resilience.
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 to Sanibel Island, the colorful island-style cottage has restored its state-of-the-art digital displays and redesigned its space for maximum reception, tranquility and information. VISIT FLORIDA named the SanCap Chamber Visitor Center one of 13 official Florida Certified Tourism Information Centers in the state. The Wander Map App is a valuable free resource for keeping track of what’s open on the islands.
3. Restaurants reinvented
Several restaurants on Sanibel and Captiva have reopened locally. Some have moved, remodeled and reopened (or will soon). The island’s only French restaurant, Bleu Rendezvous, with French-born chef Christian Vivet in the kitchen, lost everything to Ian, who was uninsured. Vivet and his wife Mari decided to stick it out and move to a new, intimate spot on Sanibel, and loyal fans rejoiced.
Hurricane Ian destroyed former Mexican restaurant 400 Rabbits, but Rosalita’s Cantina opened its third restaurant in the US to satisfy local hunger for margaritas and fine dining south of the border. It feels so authentic that there’s even a votive light station where you can buy heavenly favors in exchange for a contribution to the Catholic Church across the street.
On Captiva, Tween Waters Island Resort was the first resort to accept guests after Ian in late 2022. Now it’s making headlines with two new restaurants since the storm. In the works before Ian, The Shipyard opened in June. Formerly “The Crow’s Nest,” The Shipyard has expanded the bar, brightened the rooms, and shifted the focus from a fireplace and dance floor to windows overlooking the Gulf across the street. It’s a breakfast favorite (spice it up with artichoke chorizo benny with chipotle hollandaise) but also serves lunch and dinner with a focus on seafood and sunset views. All-new and upscale restaurant Crow’s Nest, figuratively and literally, is soon set to reopen as a high-end steakhouse with whiskey and sushi bars on the top floor.
4. Return of accommodation
Near the lighthouse, the Tarpon Tale Inn joined the Island Inn to bring Sanibel’s hotel inventory to 28 on June 2. The small, eight-room Tarpon Tale nonetheless demonstrated a strength that other properties on the island could follow. Seahorse Cottages, another small inn, has reopened near the lighthouse. Sanibel Island Beach Resort plans to return in September. Sundial Beach Resort has reopened its well-used, premier pickleball facilities. On Captiva, the island’s largest resort, South Seas Island Resort, hopes to open about 25 rooms by the end of the summer. The marina and Starbucks store have already fully returned.
5. Natural Attractions
Known for its good nature, Sanibel is a sanctuary island largely inhabited by small sanctuaries, natural attractions and the magnificent presence of the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The sanctuary has currently reopened its Visitor and Education Center, 4-mile Wildlife Drive, Bailey Tract hiking trails and Tarpon Bay Recreation Area. Tarpon Bay Explorers offers limited paddle boat rentals in the recreation area, as well as 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 resumed live animal demonstrations on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 11 a.m. Captiva Cruises and other private charter services offer dolphin and wildlife viewing tours Get an up-close encounter with observing island creatures in their habitats.