Sanibel Island – Living in an Island Paradise
Just off the West coast of Florida, less than 25 miles from Fort Myers and nestled in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you will find one of the area’s most naturally luxurious and inviting destinations. At just over 33 square miles (12 miles long and 3 mile wide), it is a nature lover’s dreamland. Over the centuries it has welcomed visitors from all walks of life, from pirates to presidents, yet has remained largely unchanged and unchanging.
“What is this island paradise?” you ask. It’s Sanibel Island, and it’s calling to you.
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Island of Legend and Adventure
Sanibel Island has a long history filled with mystery and adventure. The island itself was formed over 6000 years ago, rising from the storm-tossed seas. Originally, it is believed that Sanibel and its sister island, Captiva, were formed as a single larger land mass. Over time, however, storms and natural erosion led to their separation – resulting in a pair of barrier islands that we know today.
Sanibel’s earliest known residents were the Calusa Indians, and their history can be traced back more than 2500 years. The Calusas were the first inhabitants to tame the island, harvesting the abundant fruits and vegetables that grew wild under Sanibel’s summer sun and farming the surrounding waterways for the seafood and shellfish that were so important to their diet.
The Calusas were fierce warriors and master builders. The discarded shells from their seafood bounty were used to build the mounds that protected their huts from the annual rains that often flooded the island. The shells were also used to build their ceremonial and burial sites, some of which can still be found on the island by intrepid day trippers.
Spanish Explorers and the Fountain of Youth
The first know European to set foot on Sanibel Island was the famed explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. He and his men discovered the island in 1513 during their ill-fated search for the Fountain of Youth. Ponce de Leon and his crew would battle the fierce Calusa Indians for the next ten years, but to no avail.
In 1523 Ponce de Leon was mortally wounded and he and his crew abandoned their fight to seize the Island. The Spanish never succeeded in establishing a permanent settlement on the Island, nor did they find the Fountain of Youth. But they did give the island a new name. In honor of the Queen of Spain Ponce de Leon christened the island “Santa Isybella.” The name stuck, but would ultimately become transformed into simply Sanibel.
The Buccaneer Coast
By the late 1700s, the Calusa Indian population had largely diminished and the island had caught the attention of pirates. Jose Gaspar, a notorious buccaneer, is said to have used Sanibel Island as a base of operations in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1821, Gaspar jumped to his death while avoiding capture by the United States Navy. There is a persistent rumor that his treasure still lies buried on the barrier islands, though it has yet to be found.
In 1845, Florida was finally admitted in the Union as the 27th state. Sanibel Island was still largely unsettled, but following the end of the Civil War the military was able to secure the island an make it safe for settlers. The U.S. government soon designated the island as a lighthouse reserve, and in 1884 the Sanibel Lighthouse was lit for the first time. It remains a working lighthouse to this day, and is one of the island’s best-loved tourist attractions with locals and snowbirds flocking to the surrounding beach and fishing pier.
Pioneer Settlement and Famous Visitors
As the 19th century rolled into the 20th, Sanibel Island remained something of a well-kept secret. Access to the island was only possible via boat or mainland ferry (a situation that remained unchanged until the 1960s when the Sanibel Causeway was built), and this kept settlers and homesteaders to a minimum. By the turn of the 19th century, hardly more than 40 families called the island home, and the population barely topped 100 people.
Still, word of Sanibel’s unrivaled beauty soon reached beyond the island and before long the rich and the famous were coming to holiday in one of the undisputed jewels of Southwest Florida. World famous industrialists and inventors (Henry Ford and Thomas Edison), Presidents (Teddy Roosevelt) and adventurers (Charles Lindbergh) all came to marvel at the natural beauty of the barrier islands.
One of the most influential visitors to the island at this time was Jay Norwood ‘Ding’ Darling, a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist and conservationist. Ding fell so much in love with the flora and fauna of Sanibel and Captiva that he began to campaign for the preservation of the barrier island’s fragile ecosystem.
In 1945 the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling Natural Wildlife Refuge was founded. Consisting of more than 6300 acres of mangroves and estuaries the refuge is home to more than 300 distinct species of birds, 50 species of reptiles, and 30 varieties of indigenous mammals. The refuge remains one of the most visited and beloved of South Florida’s many attractions.
Preserving the Natural Heritage for Future Generations
When Sanibel Island formally incorporated as a city in 1974 one of the guiding principals of the local government, as well as the residents, was to preserve the natural order of the island. Land use restrictions adopted at the time continue to guide island’s growth and development today.
The Sanibel Causeway, built in 1963, remains the only land access to the island. Construction of new businesses and houses is strictly regulated, and the height of buildings and signage is greatly restricted to prevent the obstruction of the island’s natural skyline. Roadways are designed to respect the natural habitat, and travelers often find themselves under a canopy of swaying palms as they make their way to one of the island’s four-star resorts and restaurants.
The residents of Sanibel Island take the beauty and integrity of their island paradise very seriously, and they are united in preserving its natural heritage for generations to come.
Vital Statistics and Livability
Sanibel Island is a small and fairly exclusive community. While the island is a popular tourist destination it still has a fairly small population of permanent residents. New home construction is kept to a minimum; so housing opportunities are largely restricted to the island’s classic beach and historic beach homes. Condos are a popular supplement to the existing housing market, and are the most readily available of housing options on the island.
The Sanibel School is the only school on the island proper. It serves local students from kindergarten to 8th grade. The school is a National Blue Ribbon Award winner, and has been singled out has having an impressive curriculum with an emphasis on both scholastic and environmental programs. Island students graduating onto high school are bussed into Fort Myers to continue their education at one of the many local high schools or private secondary schools.
Now, let’s break down some of the basics of living on Sanibel Island:
- The population of the island is estimated at 7,402 permanent residents.
- The cost of living is roughly 60% above the state average.
- The average household income is $137,180.
- The average home price stands at roughly $760,000 (due to the nature of the island home prices vary greatly, ranging from approx. $500,000 for an inland single family home to more than $2M for a beach front elevated home).
- The average age of Sanibel Island’s residents is 66.4 years.
- The total number of local businesses is approximately 640.
- The Percentage of the local population (aged 16 and up) in the workforce is 37.3% (Sanibel Island is largely a retirement destination, hence the limited contribution to the workforce).
Living on Island Time
Sanibel runs on ‘island time’. The pace of life is relaxed and laid back, and that’s the way the islanders like it. The island is one of the true gems of Southwest Florida, and it has much to offer visitors and new residents alike. From Bowman’s Beach to Periwinkle Place, from the Schoolhouse Theatre to the Historical Museum and Village there is plenty to do and see. But it all happens on ‘island time.’
When the hustle and bustle of big city life becomes too much, and the brutal Northern winters have lost their dubious charm, Sanibel Island offers a uniquely beautiful and tranquil haven. If you find yourself yearning to escape to a true island paradise Sanibel may just be the relocation destination you’ve been dreaming about.