We could make a lead-pipe argument that Sanibel Island is the best-liked location in the boating industry. The place hosts more events for the nation's top recreational-boat manufacturers than any other spot. Regal used the place to make an impression on its dealers last November, three months after Monterey did the same, which was shortly after Rinker and Formula. This is a telling tidbit when you realize that the goal at these events is to showcase the boating experience in its most positive light.
But let's clarify the location. These heavy hitters converge specifically on the Sanibel Harbour Resort, which the mail carrier would tell us is on the westernmost tip of Fort Myers — and a causeway apart from Sanibel Island proper. Realistically, however, the resort is so remote from the city and so nautical in nature that the only views from an 11-story condo are of back bays in one direction and of smaller islands and channels in the other.
The Gulf waters around the islands and at the foot of the resort are so enticing that from that same balcony, the boats using it look like charged-up kids on a giant playground. The people heading out from Sanibel Harbour's marina carry varying interests with them — some with tubes, some with shoulder bags filled with magazines and sun hats. At least half, though, are carrying rods and live bait, which explains why the marina rents high-end Daiwa and Shimano rigs at the dock entrance.
"I had a tarpon nearly pull me out of my friend's ActionCraft two nights ago, just over there," says Erik Sorensen, pointing to the northern end of the channel. "But when the lights of the resort are on, we'll sit just outside the docks and use catfish tails to hook up snook."
He nods toward the resort's docks. Underneath is Crayola-green water, packed near the top with thousands of baitfish. "I've seen a 50-pound snook hooked right there," says Sorensen.
It's hard to believe today that boating barely came up in conversations 80 years ago. The island was known for farming — cattle and tomatoes, mostly. (The spot where the posh resort now sits was once a rooming house for cattlemen.) Three hurricanes in the 1920s wiped out the agriculture and opened the eyes of locals to another cash cow: tourism.
Aside from its year-round beach weather, Sanibel Island has one particular natural phenomenon working in its favor. It spreads east-west, or perpendicular to the Florida coast. Tides from the Gulf run in a north-south direction, pushing and pulling into the island's beaches. The result? Literally tons of little feeder fish and seashells get swept near or onto the island. This makes it a bonanza for beachcombers and tarpon anglers.
The island is so well known for its shells that it is home to a shell museum, which rubs against a casual two-lane road. Along most parts of the road, only patches of sea grapes separate a truck and boat trailer from the water. All roadside businesses exude the island aura, with establishments like the Mermaid Kitchen, Lazy Flamingo, Tahitian Gardens and Lime Tree melding into the sandy landscape.
The tropical aura isn't the chief reason Sanibel is so popular within boating's inner circle. There's more to it — rooms and restaurants practically on top of the marina, and easy boat access to protected water. But the atmosphere does explain why the island is a favorite in the larger scope of the nation's recreational boaters.
First Impression: A mix of posh and laid-back makes Sanibel the definitive location for tropical boating.
Something You Have to Do: Take the Captiva Cruise (captivacruises.com) from McCarthy's Marina over to Cabbage Key and the famous Dollar Bill Bar, named for the currency patrons tape to the walls. Along the way, you're bound to see dolphins jumping along the stern — a very cool experience, no matter how many times you've seen dolphins.
Trivia: At one time in the mid- to late-1900s, the Sanibel/Captiva area provided 80 percent of the nation's Key limes.
Trailering Here: Hauling a boat here is much easier than you might think, with multilane roads leading from I-75.
Local Flavor: Just ordering the red snapper with pineapple mango salsa at The Tarpon House makes you feel like you're on an island.
Bedding Down: Rooms at Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa overlook a maze of smaller islands and one memorable sunset, yet in the morning boaters can practically roll out of bed and onto their boats at Sanibel's 13-slip marina. There's also a 40,000-square-foot spa and fitness facility on the 85-acre property.
Distance From Tampa: 132 miles
Best Contact: sanibel-resort.com
The best bet for living on the beaches of Sanibel Island (and having immediate access to a boat in the water) is a seasonal condo. We found a quaint two-bedroom, two-bath unit with 1,260 square feet of living space, and with canal docks on one side and the Gulf beach on the other. It was listed for $679,000 at mysanibelrealestate.com.