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She Sells Sea Shells Sanibel Island

“Shelling?” I kept asking my landlocked Canadian self, when I was told that this is one of the most popular things to do on Captiva Island, one of Florida’s Gulf Coast barrier islands just north of Fort Myers. I found it hard to believe that in today’s fast-paced world of digital multi-tasking, on-demand everything and short-attention-spans-everywhere that people would actually engage in something this, well, analog. Regardless, I would soon have the chance to find out if shelling on Captiva Island was really a thing or just a clever marketing ploy to talk up its beaches: Henk and I were headed to ‘Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa, one of Captiva’s largest and most storied properties, which was to be our home for the next few days while we explored this Florida island.

Why the name ‘Tween Waters?

'Tween Waters Resort on Captiva Island
‘Tween Waters Resort sits between the Gulf of Mexico on the left and Pine Island Sound on the right

Like Captiva Island itself, the ‘Tween Waters Resort lies sandwiched between two bodies of water: the Gulf of Mexico to the south west, and Pine Island Sound to the north east. With such easy access to the ocean on both sides, it’s no wonder this narrow strip of land first began attracting sport fishermen in the mid 1920s, and eventually led to the opening of the ‘Tween Waters Inn in 1931. The resort has been welcoming guests ever since, and after speaking with Tony Lapi, who has worked here for 48 years and is now Chairman of the Board of the resort’s management company, we began to understand why this particular place is so popular.

'Tween Waters marina side panorama at dusk
‘Tween Waters marina on the Pine Island Sound Bay at dusk

For starters, ‘Tween Waters offers a bit of everything in terms of accommodations, as we learned while touring the property with Tony: for guests who are looking for a more private cottage-y experience, there are charming crayon-coloured historic bungalows scattered around the property offering full kitchens, living areas, separate bedrooms and screened porches for sitting out and enjoying the evening breezes. Named after many of the creative individuals who have taken their inspiration from Captiva Island like author Anne Lindbergh (Charles’ wife) and political cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, these bungalows reflect the historic roots of this place, and have a unique, characteristic appeal to them.

Purple Cottage at 'Tween Waters Resort Captiva Island
One of 19 unique cottages at ‘Tween Waters Resort

FUN FACT: It was actually “Ding” Darling who encouraged the original owners of the property to name the resort the ‘Tween Waters Inn, and three of Ding’s original drawings are proudly on display in the resort’s Old Captiva House Restaurant, as well as on placemats in the Shipyard Restaurant.

Ding Darling illustrated placemat 'Tween Waters
One of ‘Ding’ Darling’s illustrations is even on the placemats in the Shipyards Restaurant

‘Tween Waters also offers a selection of studio and multi-bedroom suites in their 2 and 3-story buildings, for guests who may be planning longer stays on the island or are looking for more space with kitchen facilities. And of course there are traditional guest rooms, with beachy decor and views overlooking the the pool, the bay or the beach. And it is their private beach, as Tony explained, that is one of the reasons why guests love it here, whether they come for the sun or the shells.

Guest Room at 'Tween Waters Resort Captiva
Our guest room overlooked the beach and the Gulf of Mexico, just across the road

An Uncrowded Beach: Perfect for Shelling on Captiva Island

It’s hard to believe that beaches as untouched as the one just a few steps from ‘Tween Waters still exist, which may be partly due to the fact that Captiva and its sister island Sanibel are only accessible by a narrow causeway from the mainland. Fewer visitors certainly makes for better beachcombing, but it’s not just a lack of hunters that makes the shelling on Captiva Island so good: the orientation of both of these islands positions them perfectly to catch the shells swept in by the waters circulating in the Gulf of Mexico.

Aerial view of 'Tween Waters Island Resort from Marina side
The colours of the Gulf and the Bay can be very different

The ever-changing color of the water isn’t hard to look at here, either. On the day we arrived, the Gulf was a brilliant blue-green giving true Caribbean island vibes, and Henk and I couldn’t resist walking along the edge of the water to admire the views and enjoy the sand, the sea and the sun, with only a handful of resort guests relaxing under umbrellas nearby. This beach wasn’t about beach volleyball or parasailing or jetskis. It was just a beautiful stretch of sand with blue sky above and blue water stretching out to the horizon.

Before long, I couldn’t help myself and started looking for shells where the water lapped the sand, and almost immediately I spotted one that was perfectly intact, with curves and details that looked like one of the shells on the ‘cheat sheet’ that I had picked up when we checked in.

Seashell from Captiva Island
My little beauty! Is it a “Nutmeg”?
shell chart Captiva Island
Serious shell hunters are looking for the elusive Junonia (upper right)

I bent over to pick it up and admire its shape and colour more closely, beginning to understand how this shelling thing could have some appeal. The expressions the ‘Captiva Crouch’ and the ‘Sanibel Stoop’ also started to make sense as I bent over more and more frequently to look for and examine the shells in the sand.

Shells on the beach in Captiva Island

Pretty soon my hands were full and I realized I should have brought a container, like the more seasoned shellers I saw returning to the resort with their own mesh collector bags bulging with treasures. Clearly I was the shelling rookie here.

Manatees in the Marina, Maybe?

Crossing back over the road, Henk and I went to check out ‘Tween Waters marina on the opposite side of the property overlooking Pine Island Sound, where we got a very different vista than the wide-open Gulf. This leeward side of the island looked out over other islands and also came with its own perk – the opportunity to see wildlife. Chatting with the staff on the docks, they told us that early in the morning is a good time to see manatees in the Bay, and there are always plenty of pelicans, egrets and other birdlife around during the day. Case in point was the beautiful great blue heron just hanging out on the end of the dock, who is such a regular visitor here that he is practically the marina’s mascot.

Great Blue Heron 'Tween Waters marina

Beyond just a great birdwatching spot, the marina is also where guests come when they want to get out onto the water. There are kayaks and paddleboards available for rent, and several fishing and shelling boat cruises available to book. But I think my favourite thing was something a little more quirky: the ‘Tweenies Tiki floating bar that can tour 6 people around the bay. It may not be built for speed like a waverunner, but it felt like it fit in more with the laid-back ‘Captiva vibe’ I was beginning to sense here.

'Tweenie Tiki cruise bar
How fun would this be?

Time to Explore Captiva Town

Having gotten a bit of a feel for the resort, Henk and I wanted to check out Captiva Island’s ‘downtown’, a collection of upscale private homes, vacation properties and cute retail businesses, most of which are located on Andy Rosse Lane.

The Bubble Room Emporium Captiva village
Cute boutique in Captiva village

Here you’ll find several ice cream shops, cafes and restaurants, unique gift shops and art galleries, and even some fun photo ops.

Boops by the Bubble Room goodies
DEFINITELY make time for a dessert at Boops by the Bubble Room cafe!
Jane at Jungle Drum Gallery in Captiva village
Jane can’t resist a giant chair, this one at the Jungle Drum Gallery

We made the mistake of driving to the village even though it was only a mile away from ‘Tween Waters, and realized in hindsight that we should have taken the bicycles available at the resort, since there was almost no place to park. Our problem was solved, however, when we discovered the Green Flash Waterfront Restaurant which had both a parking lot and a great waterfront deck where we could have some late afternoon drinks.

Green Flash restaurant Captiva Island
The Green Flash restaurant on Captiva Island

FUN FACT: The ‘Green Flash’ after which the restaurant is named refers to an optical phenomenon that occurs at sunrise or sunset when the sun is just barely above the horizon. A flash of refracted light appears as a greenish ‘spot’ just above the sun. Henk and I have yet to see one, but we’ll keep trying!

While enjoying our cocktails we also got some pretty amazing photos of birds that seemed happy to pose for us as they bobbed along in the calm waters or did some fishing by the shore.

Pelican at Green Flash restaurant Captiva Island
Great White Heron at Green Flash restaurant Captiva Island

Dolphins and Sunsets Right From Our Balcony!

Back at ‘Tween Waters, Henk and I decided to take a moment to enjoy our west-facing balcony overlooking the ocean and wait for one of the reputedly spectacular Captiva Island sunsets. Before that could even happen, we spotted a pod of dolphins playing in the water right off the beach, leaping out of the water as they swam parallel to the shore. It was a thrill to see this scene playing out right in front of us, and if that weren’t enough, our front-row seats to the show that followed more than delivered on the promise of an amazing sunset.

Shooting the Sunset at'Tween Waters
Shooting the sunset right from our balcony at ‘Tween Waters

It made us glad we had pushed off dinner until later, so that we could enjoy what was right in front of us, because as sunsets go, they don’t get much better than this.

Sunset view from room at 'Tween Waters Captiva Island

Dinner at Mucky Ducks

Mucky Ducks is a casual pub-style restaurant right on the beach at the end of Andy Rosse Lane in Captiva town, and its prime location makes it a really popular place to watch the sunset. The restaurant has picnic tables set up on the sand outside to deal with the overflow, and it can be hard to get a seat here even if it’s just for drinks. So it worked in our favour that Henk and I arrived after the sun was down, as the restaurant and the parking lot had emptied out quite a bit and we were seated almost immediately.

Exterior Mucky Duck Captiva
Mucky Duck’s outdoor tables are a huge draw at sunset

It’s hard not to smile at the interior of the Mucky Duck, with webbed footprints on the floor leading the way to the bathrooms, funny artwork all over the walls and a pretty impressive collection of police badges everywhere (we even recognized one from a Canadian city!).

Interior Mucky Duck Captiva

The food here is casual too with plenty of comfort food staples, and there are usually a couple of specials that change daily as well, like the angel hair pasta with shrimp that I had, which was great. Washed down with a local craft beer it was the perfect way to end our first day on Captiva, and left us wondering what more this visit had in store for us.

Day Two Day Trip: Boat Cruise with Captiva Cruises

The Gulf Coast of Florida is dotted with dozens of small islands, and a boat cruise out of McCarthy’s Marina in the village is a great way to see some of them and spend a day out on the water. So the following morning, Henk and I headed back to town to join a Captiva Cruise to Cabbage Key aboard the Lady Chadwick.

Captiva Cruises image from website

Bob Rando, our captain and owner of this family-run business showed himself to be an entertaining and informative guide who gave us some history on the geography of the islands and the people who have lived on them, right back to the Calusa Indians.

DID YOU KNOW: The Calusa inhabited many of these Gulf Islands as far back as 12,000 years ago and were known as the ‘Shell Indians” because of their extensive use of shells for crafts, weapons and tools. They also built up these islands by constructing large shell mounds, one of which is on Cabbage Key. But these maritime people who lived off the sea were also fierce warriors who successfully thwarted the Spaniards’ attacks in the 1500s until they were eventually taken down by European diseases in the 17th century.

A Dolphin Escort!

Our Captiva Cruise destination was Cabbage Key (named for the Cabbage palm trees on the island), about 60 minutes out from shore, but not long after getting out of the marina, we were treated to a visit by more dolphins, this time shadowing our boat and putting on quite the acrobatics show right next to us.

Bob explained that these particular dolphins are a resident population that doesn’t migrate thanks to the abundant food supply in the shallow waters here, and there are more than 300 individuals that have been identified by marine biologists. These dolphins certainly seemed pretty happy here and responded to our clapping and cheers with synchronized swimming moves that many Olympians would envy.

Cabbage Key and Jimmy Buffet’s Cheeseburger in Paradise

The outer islands off Florida’s Gulf coast attract all kinds of residents, from the very wealthy who build ultra-private tropical escapes, to off-grid recluses who just want to be away from people altogether. Somewhere in between were Rob and Phyllis Wells, who came out to Cabbage Key in the 1970s and decided to buy a remote, low-key resort property dating back to the 1930s that they could make their own. With kids in tow, the Wells family made this off-shore island their permanent home, and almost 50 years later that effort was rewarded not just with a successful business they could hand down to their children, but a place on America’s National Register of Historic Places.

Cabbage Key Restaurant from the water
The Cabbage Key Restaurant from the docks

Growing up on an island with one ship-to-shore phone and having to take a boat to school everyday was “an experience that will stick with you forever”, explained Rob Wells, who has taken over the business from his parents, and who joined us to chat while we enjoyed a lunch of fresh red snapper. His parents’ work ethic has stuck with him too, it seems, as Wells puts in as much time as you would expect running a business where almost everything at the resort needs to be brought in, and all the garbage needs to be brought back out. But it is obviously working.

Today Cabbage Key is a huge draw for hundreds of local boaters and visitors like ourselves, who stop in for a meal at the restaurant and to experience a bit of that island community vibe first-hand. Some in-the-know visitors who really want to immerse themselves in that island vibe can also book overnight stays at the resort’s rooms or private rental cottages.

Overhead view arriving at Cabbage Key
Overhead view arriving at Cabbage Key

Many visitors here are Parrotheads, following in the footsteps of Florida-loving Jimmy Buffet who came here and apparently was inspired to write the song ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ afterwards.

But one thing is certain: everyone who comes to Cabbage Key enjoys checking out the quirky bar and dining room covered in dollar bills that are taped to the walls, ceiling and even piano, with names and messages on them – a tradition that began when fishermen flush from a good catch would tack notes on the walls with their name on it as a kind of informal ‘bank deposit’ that they could use at a later date to pay their tab when the fishing wasn’t so successful.

FUN FACT: Rob told us that every year, about $20,000 in bills falls off the walls and ceilings which he donates to local charities, just one way he ‘pays it forward’ to his community.

Cabbage Key bar notes

Whatever the reason that brings visitors here, Cabbage Key is definitely a unique place that has kept some of Old Florida’s quirkiness alive and well for generations, and that alone makes it a great day-tripping destination. (Their signature frozen key lime pie is a nice bonus, too!)

Cabbage Key Jimmy Buffet's bill and photo in bar
A photo of Jimmy Buffet behind the bar at Cabbage Key (with a dollar bill he left behind)

Back to Meet and Mingle at ‘Tween Waters’ Happy Hour

Returning back to ‘Tween Waters after our boat cruise, our timing couldn’t have been better as we were just in time for the weekly Meet and Mingle gathering by the pool where the resort provides free drinks and nibbles for all its guests. It’s a nice touch provided by the management and a great way to meet other people staying at the resort, with live poolside entertainment, and the chance to engage in a little casual conversation with some of the other guests before heading to dinner.

Dusk at pool 'Tween Waters
Tuesday evenings are Meet & Mingle time by the ‘Tween Waters pool

Fine Dining at Crow’s Nest Steakhouse

Henk and I were really looking forward to our dinner at the Crow’s Nest, having toured the restaurant with Tony when we first arrived at ‘Tween Waters. The restaurant opened in 2023, and the view alone is worth booking a reservation here, especially at sunset, given that the restaurant’s second-story vantage point provides beautiful views overlooking the beach and the Gulf. In fact, ‘Tween Waters even went to the trouble and expense of burying the hydro lines that run across the front of their resort just so that the wires wouldn’t mar the views!

The Crow's Nest Restaurant decor at 'Tween Waters
The view from the Crow’s Nest

That same attention to detail went into the restaurant’s interior decor, which has an upscale nod to a nautical theme with blues, whites, brass and wooden touches throughout.

The Crow's Nest Restaurant Bar
The bar and the decor at the Crow’s Nest

But the real draw at the Crow’s Nest is the food. Our dinner began with cocktails at the bar while Henk and I were waiting for our table, and we were treated to a nice bit of showmanship from the bartender who was mixing up a Smoked Old Fashioned for another guest that he was infusing with torched wood smoke. The manager was extremely apologetic for the delay in seating us, but Henk and I had adopted ‘island time’ since arriving on Captiva and insisted that we were in no rush to hurry the evening along.

Once seated, we decided to go for the classic steakhouse experience, including caesar salad mixed fresh table-side, which was delicious, followed by a perfectly cooked rack of lamb and filet with a port wine demi-glace. With shareable sides of loaded baked potatoes and asparagus with bernaise sauce, our only complaint was that neither Henk nor I had any room for dessert. Which was a shame, because if our meals were any indication, they probably would have been amazing.

Sunset Number 2 at 'Tween Waters Resort Captiva
One final sunset before saying goodbye to Captiva Island

A Captiva-ting Stay

Our visit to Captiva Island and ‘Tween Waters had been a short but completely unhurried one, highlighted with walks on a beautiful beach, waterside drinks with feathered friends for company, a boat cruise that took us to a world away from the one we know, and stellar sunsets that had us looking for green flashes and leaping dolphins. I was beginning to realize that the Captiva Island experience was less about shell-seeking and more about slowing the pace of life, and making time to do nothing but walk a beautiful beach where you might just might happen to find a pretty little work of art perfectly crafted by Mother Nature.

On Captiva Island, seeing sea shells by the seashore IS definitely a thing. But it’s about a lot more than that, too. In the words of some others who have left their mark here, ‘it doesn’t get any better than this’.

Bricks at 'Tween Waters


You need to cross the Sanibel Island Causeway from the mainland to get to Captiva Island, and that causeway is still under construction following the damage wrought by Hurricane Ian in 2022. So be prepared for long delays, especially if you try to arrive around 9 in the morning when many people who commute to work Sanibel and Captiva are also en route. If you can, try to time your arrival later in the morning. Leaving the island is less of a problem, although I would probably avoid rush hour just the same.

Causeway to Sanibel and Captiva Islands

There is basically one narrow road that runs through the centre of Captiva Island and you are not allowed to park on the shoulders. This is strictly enforced, especially during those spectacular sunsets.

Parking in Captiva town is also extremely scarce with only a few spots available at businesses. Street parking is prohibited entirely. There are a few spots at the Alison Hagerup public beach at the north end of town but it is pricey ($15/ hour), as is the parking lot at the McCarthy’s Marina in Captiva ($20 for the day). But boat cruise passengers have priority here, so you may not always find a spot.

If you have access to a bike through your hotel or rental, cycling is a great alternative to driving into Captiva Village, but be sure to cycle with traffic not against it. There are also bike rental places in the village, as well as golf cart rentals (but remember you do need a driver’s licence even for a golf cart.)

Like Captiva Island, Sanibel is known for its shelling. Here you will find the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum that has recently re-opened its main floor to visitors after repairs caused by Hurricane Ian.
And if you didn’t have any luck find the shells of your dreams, there’s actually a real store on Sanibel Island called She Sells Sea Shells!

PINTEREST_Tween Waters

Special thanks to Visit Fort Myers and ‘Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa who hosted Henk and I on our visit to Captiva Island.

Jane with Hat Tanzania

Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.

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