This Vibrant Florida Island Could Easily Pass As A Tropical Caribbean Getaway

The Florida Gulf Coast barrier island of Captiva is famous for its beachcombing — known among devotees as "shelling" — and its slow, laid-back lifestyle. But this tiny island also has an outsized presence in the art world. Famed modern artist Robert Rauschenberg reportedly fell in love with Captiva when he had to brake to let a sea turtle amble across the road, and he built a studio compound here in the 1970's that's now an artists' retreat. This island has been a sophisticated art town ever since. Given the tropical beauty and worldly vibe, you might even be tempted to double check your passport, thinking you've been transported to an exclusive destination in the Caribbean.


Captiva and her big sister, neighboring Sanibel Island, comprise one of the best beach vacation destinations in the U.S. But fair warning: You may never want to leave. Like Rauschenberg, a lot of locals first came to Captiva on vacation, and ended up moving there. That souvenir you buy? It might just be a piece of real estate.

Slide into island time on Captiva

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better island for a couple's retreat. With a 12-hole golf course, three pools, and  2.5-mi of private beach made for canoodling, the 330-acre South Seas Resort at the northern end of the island easily qualifies as one of Florida's most romantic getaways. Just make sure you're done golfing and beachcombing in time to catch poolside "dive-in" movie night.


One of the best ways to tap into the slow pace of island time is to live like a local, and tiny Captiva has over 200 short-term rentals, from condos to huge art-filled homes perfect for friend groups to beachy bungalows fit for families. Take a walk down historic Andy Rosse Lane, poking your head into shops and galleries. And a stroll through palm-shaded, picture-perfect neighborhoods of charming historic bungalows can be every bit as enchanting as a walk along the beach. 

Wherever you stay, make time for dinner at Old Captiva House at the 'Tween Waters resort, one of the most romantic Florida island restaurants and winner of a Travelers' Choice Award from TripAdvisor and a Diners' Choice Award from Open Table. How will you ever decide between lobster and corn chowder with saffron and the award-winning Cioppino?


Shelling is the favorite Captiva pastime

Captiva Island's geography positions it perfectly for shells from the Gulf of Mexico to wash ashore. How do you go shelling? It's easy: Hit any of the Gulf-side beaches at low tide, with a bucket and a scoop, and keep your eyes down as you wade through the surf, hunched over in what's known as the "Captiva crouch." You may score a lightning whelk, bay scallop, Fargo worm snail, or Florida fighting conch, just a few among 250-plus species found locally. Just don't forget to look up and gaze out at the water from time to time, as you may spot frolicking dolphins, or gliding manatees, right off beautiful Captiva Beach, which has won a Best Restored Beach Award.


Those tracks through the sand that look like they were left by a toy tractor? Those are actually the tracks of a mamma sea turtle emerging from the sea to lay her eggs in the dunes. More than 1,200 turtles nest on Sanibel and Captiva every year, producing 27,000 hatchlings. In order not to disturb their nocturnal habits and habitat, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation advises you to remove all beach furniture at the end of the day if you have rented a beachfront cabin, and to refrain from using lights on the beach at night, even your phone. The nesting season is long, lasting April through October, so you may see a turtle or two on your shelling adventure.