Is Sanibel Island open to the public after Hurricane Ian?
Are visitors welcome on Sanibel Island yet?
Is Sanibel ready for tourists?
Do the residents and businesses even want you there?
There are so many conflicting messages out there about this issue...if you are a member of any Sanibel Facebook group, you know exactly what I'm talking about...
People love Sanibel and want to come support it, but they are confused and conflicted about whether or not they should visit.
Not to mention, is the bridge to Sanibel open?
Are Sanibel Island beaches open?
We had many of these questions ourselves, so we decided to go visit for the day and get the real story from Sanibel residents and business owners themselves.
What we came to understand very quickly was that there is an important point to be made by those who say it is too soon to visit.
We have to admit that such a perspective was one that we couldn't fully appreciate until we saw the devastation with our own eyes and heard firsthand from those living and working on the island.
And yet, for those who love Sanibel and want to be a part of the recovery, we came away convinced more than ever that one of the best things anyone can do to help is to visit and support the restaurants and businesses that are working hard to survive.
Their future depends on the patronage of those who do not live there.
Here is what we learned when we visited the island in mid-January for the first time since the hurricane.
Is Sanibel Island Open to Visitors?
Now we get to the million dollar question...should you visit Sanibel yet after all the horrific devastation of Hurricane Ian? Are you even welcome there?
The answer is "It Depends."
It depends on what your purpose is, and what your expectations are.
What is your Purpose for visiting Sanibel after Ian?
We spoke with residents on our visit who said that it was very uncomfortable seeing all the vacationers leisurely riding their bicycles by their stuff.
They had just gone through the most horrific experience of their lives.
Now their years of memories and personal belongings are just heaped up in debris piles in front of what is left of their homes for vacationers to gawk at.
Now, we don't really think those cyclists we observed while we were on the island were intentionally gawking or rummaging through residents' personal belongings piled up beside the streets, but we can certainly understand how it could feel incredibly insensitive at best and, at worst, like a very personal violation and unwelcomed intrusion.
If your purpose is strictly for recreational pleasure, then we would recommend waiting a few more months.
For now, we can recommend Sanibel and Captiva for day-trips, but not family vacations.
Sanibel Businesses Need and Want Your Support!
On the other hand, (a very big and strong other hand) if you love Sanibel and want to come support the businesses and restaurants that are trying to recover and rebuild, then you are most welcome and wanted! (If you are thoughtful and caring enough to even be reading this, then I am sure that THIS is the camp you are in!)
Upon arriving, we headed to the east end to the entrance of Lighthouse Park which was inaccessible.
We knew what to expect. We had already observed what Hurricane Ian did to parts of Marco Island, parts of Naples, and especially Ft. Myers Beach. So, we were not surprised by what we saw as we crossed over the causeway bridge and made the familiar left turn onto Periwinkle.
We experienced first-hand (and it only makes sense) that the more familiar you are with a place, the bigger the emotional impact when that place is suddenly changed; marred, defaced, and injured.
It was a sobering and silent drive to the marina (which looked to be in great shape by the way) and then on to the barricades at the entrance of Lighthouse Park.
Along the way, we slowed down as we passed our traditional on-island breakfast stop, the Lighthouse Cafe. "Sad" just seems like too small a word.
On our drive west, we stopped in at Tutti Pazzi for lunch. We had actually not been there since it was Matzaluna's. (Tutti Pazzi is in the spot where Matzaluna's used to be, 1200 Periwinkle Way.)
From the outside, everything looked great. It had, no doubt, benefited from its elevated perch.
As we sat down at the bar, we were comforted by the familiar space that we had frequented so many times over the years.
While the space inside and the bar were familiar, the atmosphere was quite different from when it was Matzaluna.
The quirkiness of Matzaluna's decor has given way to a much brighter, open, and cleaner-looking setting.
There were a dozen or so guests already there when we arrived. Some were workers involved in the recovery efforts on lunch break, but most were either residents or other visitors like us.
We could not have felt more welcome. We could not have been made to feel more comfortable. We could not have been treated more kindly.
We struck up a conversation with the guys behind the bar and we mentioned that we were a little apprehensive about coming and wondered if they were aware of the controversy surrounding this topic that's being bantered about on social media.
It turned out that one of the guys behind the bar was Pasquale Russo. Pasquale and his wife Leanna are owners of Tutti Pazzi and they quickly put us at ease.
They made it crystal clear that they were happy to see us and that visitors are more than welcome.
Plus, their Carne Mi Amore pizza was amazing!
and the bread and olive oil with whole olives is a delightful new spin on an old standard
Pasquale encountered some skepticism over why he wanted to even open the restaurant so soon after Ian, when there certainly would not be enough customers to justify the cost of doing business.
There is no doubt, that such skepticism was sensible, but he felt the need to open and to provide a place for the residents to gather. The residents of Sanibel NEEDED a place to gather as neighbors once again.
After all they've been through, a place to relax, laugh, catch up and enjoy being together was so important.
Pasquale and Leanna have Tutti Pazzi ready and open for business. And they wanted us to know that the restaurants and shops on Sanibel need more than the support of residents in order to survive.
They all depend on tourists to stay in business.
That means YOU!
So many people have lost their jobs as well, and the more business Sanibel restaurants and shops get, the more people can get back to work to support their families.
There was a lot of optimism there at Tutti Pazzi. We heard stories of how resilient the Sanibel community is and how they they've been sharing equipment, tools, and resources to help one another with the restoration process.
What a beautiful thing!
Accommodations Available on Sanibel/Captiva
If you're looking for a place to stay, 'Tween Waters is open and looks to be in very good shape from what we were able to observe of the exterior.
The pool bar and cafe is open and serving guests and Old Captiva House is open for dinner.
Just be aware that at the present time there is no internet service available at Tween Waters, but our cell phone service was very reliable the entire time we were on the island.
A final recommendation if you go
Our last stop before heading back home was at our old favorite, Traders. And quite honestly, as best we can tell, Traders is already back in full swing.
We arrived at twilight and the parking lot was full as were the seats at the bar, but thankfully we were able to squeeze in at a small table near the band.
The service was great. The food was great. The live music was great. Everything was great!
Tips for Visiting Sanibel Island after Ian
1. Be Respectful
Consider the Golden Rule when visiting, and treat the residents with how you would want to be treated if you were in their position. Try to stay out of the way of construction workers and recovery efforts.
The safest place to hang out is Periwinkle Drive, where the businesses are very happy and grateful to see you.
2. Be Patient (Have realistic expectations)
If you plan a visit to Sanibel, you will need to have realistic expectations. As Pasquale said, "Please be patient." The island is not the same as it used to be.
We were shocked at the devastation on Sanibel and Captiva. So many places in rubble. It looks like a bomb went off. There are still debris piles lining the streets.
So in a word, it is very sad.
So be prepared for that (if one can ever be prepared to see something so tragic.)
The beach itself is totally different since Ian. Much of it has eroded. There are many gullies/inlets now cutting through.
But for us beach lovers, it is still beautiful, and since there are so few tourists on the beach, there are many more shells!
If you are expecting lush and green vegetation for your tropical vacation, then you are going to be disappointed. The vegetation of Sanibel got a horrific blow. Many palm trees are dead. Much of the plant life is gone. The majority is brown. And there is still a lot of debris in the trees and vegetation. It is not pretty.
But it gets better every day. It is dry season, after all, and much of the brown will turn to gorgeous green once the rainy season begins this summer.
If you are expecting all your favorite resorts, restaurants, shops, and biking paths, you will most definitely be disappointed. It is not the full-service resort town it once was.
It will be many months and years for many places to reopen, and sadly, many are closed permanently. It may be hard to find a condo or resort to rent, if you are planning to go for vacation. Currently, 'Tween Waters is the only full-service resort that is open to visitors.
Most of the biking paths are still not cleared of debris, though with time, they will return as beautiful as ever.
Jerry's Foods is open (see How is Jerry’s Foods Grocery Store after Hurricane Ian?) but Bailey's was hit hard by the storm surge. It will have to be demolished and rebuilt.
But if you realize all of this and have realistic expectations, and just love the still-beautiful islands of Sanibel and Captiva and want to help support them so they can recover and rebuild, then please do!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the Causeway Bridge to Sanibel Open?
The Sanibel Causeway and bridge is open. It opened to the public on January 2, 2023.
Are Sanibel Island Beaches Open?
Although the Sanibel Island beaches are technically "open," according to Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith, there are very few public beach parking lots open.
Many of the beach entrances are blocked off with fencing so that it is difficult to even get to the beach unless you own a condo or home on the beach.
To see all the open beaches and beaches opening soon, along with their scheduled opening dates, see our post Are Sanibel Island Beaches Open?
Is Sanibel Fishing Pier Open?
The Sanibel Fishing Pier is not open after the damage from Hurricane Ian. There is currently no scheduled opening date, but I'll keep you updated when I hear of one!
Photo of Hurricane Ian damage to the Sanibel Fishing Pier
What is Open on Sanibel and Captiva?
Check out our guide on all the accommodations, businesses, shops, services, activities, and restaurants on Sanibel that have reopened: What is Open on Sanibel?
What Restaurants on Sanibel and Captiva are Open?
We are keeping an updated list of all the open Sanibel & Captiva restaurants that would love your patronage. You can see it here: What Restaurants are Open on Sanibel after Hurricane Ian?
We actually referred to our own list when we went to visit!
Support Sanibel Businesses through Online Shopping!
Another great way to support the Sanibel shops, artists, and restaurants is to buy through their online shops! Many of these are not open yet in their brick-and-mortar location, so online sales will definitely help them recover and rebuild so they can open in the not-too-distant future!
You can check out the online shopping directory at Sanibel Island Online Shopping Directory (after Hurricane Ian)
Help Support Sanibel Recovery Efforts
Sanibel Island is special in our hearts as well as many others, who are heartbroken over the devastation that Hurricane Ian brought this friendly little island in SW Florida.
Living in southwest Florida ourselves, and Sanibel being our "home away from home," we wanted a way to help those impacted by Hurricane Ian to rebuild and come back stronger and more beautiful than ever, so that families can continue to be able to create wonderful lifelong memories in this little slice of paradise.
$5 of every shirt purchased will go towards SW Florida relief efforts at: F.I.S.H. of SanCap and Sanibel businesses that have been impacted by Hurricane Ian.
Click HERE to purchase. 💜 Thank you!