Most people who come to Sanibel and Captiva, twin barrier islands off Florida's Gulf Coast, share a single passion: seashells. This is, after all, the home of the "Sanibel Stoop," a posture folks assume while scouring the sandy shoreline for the more than 200 varieties of shells that wash ashore after storms. Streets here are named for shells, and the leading cultural attraction is a museum devoted to them. In fact, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is the only one of its kind in the United States, with a remarkable collection not only from Southwest Florida but also from around the world.
Even if you don't know a cockle from a conch, you're still likely to enjoy the sandy beaches (13 miles of them on Sanibel, including Bowman's Beach, a quiet stretch of white sand where barbecue grills facilitate the perfect picnic).
Sanibel is not just shore, however. Golf and tennis are popular, and because the island is flat, bicycling is a breeze - at a pace geared to, say, bird-watching. Countless birds (and more than a few alligators) attract visitors to the island's natural centerpiece, J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. At nearby Tarpon Bay you can paddle a kayak or canoe along marked water trails through mangrove forests and get a close-up look at more of that wildlife.
You're here for the seashells, so consult a tide table and plan to arrive at Turner Beach, which extends on both sides of the Blind Pass Bridge that links Sanibel and Captiva, about 90 minutes before low tide. (That may indeed mean getting up before dawn.) The next two hours offer the best shelling of the day; expect to get wet up to your knees as you search for lightning whelks.
Alligators and turtles and birds, oh my! For nature lovers, the 5,000-acre J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a treasure. There are trails for hiking, biking, and canoeing - all good ways to have Animal Planet-type encounters with more than 200 bird species, including such local favorites as white ibis and roseate spoonbills. Keep an eye out for armadillos, otters, and the resident crocodile. (The refuge is closed Fridays.)
Among the 25 or so miles of bike paths is Wildlife Drive, a four-mile loop "paved" with hard-packed sand and shells (you'll need fat tires on your bike) that leads through the Darling refuge. On Rabbit Road Trail, which borders a canal, look for marsh rabbits and alligators.