Best Camping on Sanibel Island: Periwinkle Park and Campground
The posted – and memorable – 7 1/2 MPH speed limit on crushed-shell streets takes you through dressed out mobile/modular homes and a tidy RV Park on your way back to the primitive tent campsites. Palm trees and native flora are plentiful in and around the slips which aid in privacy. Our site even had a resident two-foot green iguana that kept us company our entire stay.
A central park with pond is home to tropical rescue birds of all types: budgies, macaws, cockatoos, love birds, and an African grey parrot. Ride your bikes to purchase a quarter's worth of food and feed the exotic ducks, geese, and swans, plus a local ibis or two. Regularly scheduled bird shows give residents and seasonal guests a close up encounter with these exotic creatures.
Best described as seventy-five percent modular homes and twenty-five percent RV, Periwinkle Park & Campgrounds does host a number of electric and non-electric tent-only campsites. These are tucked along the Periwinkle Drive edge of the campground.
Forewarned: Not much privacy between campsites, no wi-fi, no dogs, and you will hear local traffic and trucks delivering to the shops next door. However, the owners run an otherwise quiet, orderly, and clean campground with $2/10lb bag of ice, propane, cheap laundry rates, and a seemingly endless supply of hot water in the showers. They even give you a golf-cart escort to your site when you first check in.
Seven Great things to do on Sanibel Island
1. Awesome Seashells
The real draw for most campers is the world-class shelling just half a mile from Periwinkle Park Campground. An easy walk or cycle gets you beachside and shelling the famous Gulf shores in no time. Winter months bring storms, and thus the best time to shell on Sanibel. Sanibel and Captiva Islands consistently rank as one of the top destinations in the world for shelling.
"Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough" ~ Emily Dickinson
Like most other popular activities the best time is the early morning, before the crowds pick up. Otherwise look to start shelling about an hour before low-tide. Sanibel Island's building height restrictions combined with no street parking effectively throttles severe overcrowding of the beaches. That being said, the public beaches resemble the Jersey Shore anywhere within 100 yards of the entrances during the Christmas/New Year break.
TIP: Do yourself a favor and walk a little extra, and you'll have some more space, better shelling, and a clear view of the gorgeous Gulf waters. Or better yet, plan to visit before or after the holiday rush.
2. Sanibel Island Bike Rental
Don't think twice about getting bicycles. In most instances, it is a true time saver as well as just great family fun! If you are looking for convenience and have more money than time, then Billy's Bike rental at $40/wk is your choice. Just half a mile from Periwinkle Park Campground gets you to their front door and you'll be on your way.
If you have more time than money, then take a stroll two miles west to Finnimore's Bike & Beach Rentals. The super friendly staff will get you all set up at just $30/wk and you'll have gotten a pleasant first-hand introduction to the local shops on the way. When you glide past Billy's on your way back to camp with that extra Hamilton or Jackson in your pocket, you'll be even happier. Don't want to walk? - call ahead and arrange bike delivery right to the campsite.
A dedicated bicycle/pedestrian path runs the full length of the 14-mile long Sanibel Island from the Lighthouse Beach on the east end to Bowman's Beach on the west. What's more, parking is $5/hr at any of the public beaches while the abundant bike parking is free which will save you more cash.
Really, the whole island is set up to accommodate cycling so take full advantage knowing that the island is flat – really flat – so with relatively little effort you can get anywhere on the off-street pedestrian paths. Strictly enforced laws grant the right-of-way to pedestrians and cyclists which makes getting around even easier and safer.
3. The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
Considering Sanibel's economy has been built on the back of its world-class shelling, it's no wonder that the island is home to the world's only museum devoted entirely to mollusks.
The main floor of the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is what you might expect- impressive collections of local shells (including the prized junonia) as well as spectacular shells from all over the world including record-holding specimens. Other exhibits range from displays showing how the shell form influenced architectural design to the shell’s role in jewelry and currency.
Educational opportunities abound. Participate in an information scavenger hunt and earn some prizes. Two films that run in the main floor theater cover the complex biology of these fascinating animals. We highly recommend the live tank talk on the lower level. Hosted by the resident zoologist, it is so completely entertaining, you'll want to stay for a second showing. Who knew mollusks could be so funny? Turns out they do a great deal of mollusk research and have plans to break ground in 2019 for the new mollusk aquarium and museum expansion.
TIP: Consider the family membership to the museum- it includes the North American Reciprocal Musem (NARM) benefits which gets you free admission to the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in nearby Fort Myers plus over 1000 other museums across North America.
EXCITING UPDATE: The new Living Collection Gallery (aquarium) filled with living mollusks including two touch tanks opened in 2020!
4. Ice Cream Stop - Pinocchio's Original Italian Ice Cream
We at Campfire Delight admit we have a certain 'weakness' for ice cream and pie and have even been known to substitute these delicacies for a meal when the time seems right. Sanibel Island was no exception.
If you share our passion then Pinocchio's Original Italian Ice Cream on Periwinkle Drive needs to make your list for a refreshing dessert. Once you get past the unfortunate use of Papyrus in their logo (never a good thing) and the long line (always a good thing) there are a variety of handcrafted, small batch flavors to delight every member of your team. Sanibel inspired favors like Sanibel Krunch, Dirty Sand Dollar, Wedding Bells, Gator Stew, Berrywinkle on Periwinkle, Flying Pig, and Couch Potato are some of the more exotic but the freezer also has classic flavors like Cookies & Cream, Double Chocolate, and Heath Bar Crunch. No matter your choice, our recommendation is to make a meal of it and get your selection served up in a crisp, handmade waffle cone and call it a day.
What makes Pinocchio's truly exceptional is that all of their delicacies (ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, sorbet, sherbet and Italian custards) are handmade on-site daily. The serving sizes are generous and the staff friendly.
5. J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Like everything else Sanibel Island, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is best experienced at a slow pace, either by foot, bicycle, or kayak. The slower pace and level of immersion allows you to see things that you'd probably otherwise miss, and it's how we suggest that you take in the Ding Darling wildlife refuge.
Start with a visit to the free Visitor & Education Center and explore the educational displays and interactive exhibits. Fill up your water bottles and either bike or drive the 4-mile one way Wildlife Drive for excellent wildlife viewing ($5/vehicle or $1/biker over 15 years old). Note: Wildlife Drive is closed Fridays.
You might not realize it but the refuge actually takes up better than half of the landmass of Sanibel Island's north facing edge. The Indigo Trail - with its flat and well groomed surface – is a shorter introduction into the parks interior which is perfectly suited as a hike or bike.
If you are a birder, then Ding Darling is a must see location. Depending on the time of year you visit, there are no fewer than 250 species on the park's bird checklist. You can be assured of adding a few to your life list and experiencing them up-close and personal.
6. Lighthouse Beach Park (East End)
In what turned into a surprising favorite, the Lighthouse Beach is the closer of the two public beaches to Periwinkle Park Campground at just two easy-peasy miles. Bring along a few camp chairs, a beach blanket, and some snacks and tuck yourself back into the shade of the sea grape trees for a beautiful afternoon shelling and playing in the San Carlos Bay waters. If you happen to be there during the winter months, you might even be treated to a visit from the wintering bottlenose dolphins fishing just off shore.
Bike or hike to avoid the hassle and $5/hour parking fees and then enjoy the aforementioned Pinocchio's Original Italian Ice Cream guilt free on your way back to camp. (see map below).
7. Bowman's Beach (West End)
Like most of the beaches on Sanibel Island, Bowman's Beach at the west end of Sanibel is best enjoyed in our never-to-be-humble opinion either early in the day and at low-tide for the best shelling, or late in the day for a magnificent sunset. If you go mid-day expect large crowds (think Jersey Shore or Myrtle Beach) within 100 yards of the access points.
While it's a longer trek from Periwinkle Park Campground, we'd still highly suggest riding your bikes and planning stops along the way at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge or the National Shell Museum. Plus you'll have ample opportunity to experience some roadside wildlife attractions like gopher tortoises and various lizards that wander out of the bordering refuge, but watch for ant hills if you stop on the side of the bike path.