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If you’re stuck trying to decide if you should vacation on Sanibel Island or Marco Island, it might seem like a difficult decision. Both spots are well-known vacation areas in Southwest Florida that attract numerous visitors each year. However, each one offers a unique experience that can align to your specific vacation goals.  

Both Sanibel Island and Marco Island offer distinctive experiences in terms of activities, beaches, dining options, and more. Sanibel Island is known by many as a shelling and wildlife destination, while Marco Island’s reputation is often tied to the nearby Ten Thousand Islands and its tourist offerings. 

It’s tough to go wrong with either spot, so it’s worth taking a glimpse at what each island offers. This will help you decide which one will be best for your next vacation.

How Far is Sanibel Island from Marco Island?

Many people ask, “Is Marco Island near Sanibel?” Sanibel Island and Marco Island are only 40 miles apart by boat or about 65 miles by car.

Despite the close proximity, many visitors feel like the two destinations are worlds apart. Marco Island and Sanibel Island are both Gulf of Mexico barrier islands off the Southwest Florida coast. Both islands are connected to destination cities like Naples and Fort Myers through a series of causeway bridges and highways. This might be where the similarities end, though.

is captiva or sanibel better

Is Captiva or Sanibel Better?

What makes Sanibel Island and Marco Island so different even though they are relatively close? And is one better than the other?

For starters, Marco Island is more developed.  You’ll see high rises towering over the shore and wide, groomed beaches on Marco Island. You’ll find golf courses, exclusive shopping, and fine dining on Marco Island. In fact, some view Marco Island as an extension of nearby Naples.

On the other hand, Sanibel Island is much more natural. In fact, you’ll find that nearly 60% of Sanibel Island is covered by nature reserves. There is only one main street on Sanibel Island, which makes the island feel like a small and exclusive tropical escape. Sanibel Island is more relaxed with bike paths, opportunities for birdwatching, and shelling.

Sanibel Beaches vs Marco Island Beaches

Since you’re considering these two areas, it’s likely that the quality and type of beaches available will be a major factor in your decision. 

As noted above, Sanibel Island is known by many as a worldwide shelling destination and its many beaches are to thank for it. More specifically, the unique east to west positioning of the island in relation to the Gulf of Mexico gives it an advantage. This leads to more shells naturally washing up on its shores. 

While you’re likely to find many shells at any of Sanibel’s 6 public beaches, a couple that stand out include: 

  • Gulfside City Park Beach- This beautiful sandy beach is covered with countless shells to collect. Parking costs $5 per hour, but is well worth it once you leave with loads of shells. The walk from the parking lot to the beach itself is a scenic stroll thanks to the surrounding greenery and wildlife. 
  • Bowman’s Beach- Similar to Gulfside Beach, parking is $5 per hour and you’re going to find a boatload of shells here. While you’re on the beach here, it’s highly possible for you to encounter dolphins and manatees in the nearby water. Additionally, if you need a break from shelling, you can stretch your legs by strolling through some of the many hiking trails available along the beach. 

is marco island worth visiting

Is Marco Island Worth Visiting?

While Marco Island’s beaches are worth visiting, it’s worth noting that there are only two public beaches available. This is certainly much fewer than Sanibel’s 6. Regardless, the two beaches and some of their features are included below:

  • Marco Beach- This beach covers much of the South portion of the island and has multiple access points. You may want to arrive early as parking spaces and beach spots can be snatched up quickly. In addition, crowds can gather quickly, but typically aren’t a problem with lots of room on the beach.
  • Tigertail Beach- The bigger of the two beaches, Tigertail Beach is situated on a lagoon rather than directly on the Gulf. This gives it a unique feel that may be to your liking. There are paddleboards, kayaks, and other aquatic equipment nearby available for rent. If the sight of some high rise buildings in the background will bother you, be aware that there are a few that are visible from the beach.

Ultimately, the beaches on both islands are a treat for any visitor, while Sanibel Island certainly offers more choice and room to stretch out. 

Is the Water Clear in Marco Island?

While the water clarity can depend on the weather, we must say that Marco Island has very clear water along its shores. You can feel comfortable and safe on Marco Island, Sanibel Island and other beaches in Southwest Florida.

Activities on Sanibel Island vs Marco Island

If you are going to be staying in a vacation rental, you are going to want lots of things to see and do. Fortunately, both islands are jam-packed with adventures for the entire family or the vacationing couple.

A couple of the popular things to do on Sanibel Island include:

  • Visiting the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This federally recognized wildlife preserve covers approximately a third of the island, and for many is the main reason that they choose to visit. Numerous species of birds, reptiles, insects, and more can be seen here on a regular basis. 
  • Stopping by the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum– This attraction is solely in place to showcase the history of shells and mollusks and the island’s role in it. You don’t have to be a shelling enthusiast to appreciate the knowledge and sights that you’ll encounter here. You can even participate in a guided beach walk led by museum staff!
  • Taking a sunset cruise- If you visit Sanibel Island and don’t watch the sunset, you’re definitely missing out. One of the best ways to view the sunset is on an evening sunset cruise. There are multiple providers on the island that offer a truly unique experience. 

Things to do on Marco Island include:

  • Naples Sightseeing Tour- Head out to sea and watch dolphins at play, and also manatees if you are lucky, and the variety of seabirds.
  • Take an Everglade Airboat Tour- The nearby Everglades are certainly a sight to behold. From Marco Island, most of the tours are a bit of a drive, but well worth it once you’ve gone through the experience. 
  • Go to Naples and Shop- Nearby Naples has a variety of outlet and designer shops that can scratch that shopping itch that you might have. 

beach island atmosphere

Island Atmosphere

If you want a low-key, laid back atmosphere, then Sanibel Island is for you. It is quite unlike many other places in Florida due to its secluded location. If you’re looking for an even more intimate and private environment, nearby Captiva Island has it. The islands are connected by a bridge and just a short drive or bike ride away from one another. 

On both Sanibel and Captiva Island you won’t see any high-rises that you’ll find in other popular Florida beach spots. There are almost no fast food joints essentially guaranteeing you’ll experience an authentic dining experience throughout your entire trip. There are also no traffic lights on the island and over 22 miles of award-winning bike trails. You’re likely to feel like you have escaped somewhere completely different. 

Marco Island has a laid back ambience much like its counterpart. Although you’ll find a few high-rise buildings that can cloud your view of the water from time to time, you’ll still enjoy your time there.  

Dining Options on Sanibel Island vs Marco Island

When it comes to dining, there is something for everyone on both Sanibel Island and Marco Island.

On Sanibel Island, you’ll find a wide variety of cuisine, including many restaurants that offer dishes that feature seafood inspired by the local environment. At the Island Cow, you can even bring your own freshly caught fish to be hand-cooked and prepared by the chef! As noted above, you won’t find many chain restaurant options, ensuring that no matter where you turn, you’ll find a unique dining experience. There are even great things to do on Sanibel Island at night.

If you’re staying on Sanibel for an extended period of time and want even more options, hop on over to Captiva Island and you’ll find even more great choices. 

While Marco Island has a couple more chain, fast-food restaurants, you’ll still be satisfied with the amount of exclusive dining options on the island. There are a number of places on the island where you can grab a great burger, steak and more.

Sanibel island vacation

Plan Your Sanibel Island Vacation With Royal Shell

We’d be lying if we said we aren’t a little biased toward Sanibel Island. After all, we’ve been providing exceptional vacation rentals on Sanibel Island for over 25 years. Because of everything that the island has to offer, we choose to live and work in the area. It’s our passion to help more and more people experience all of Sanibel and Captiva Island. When you stay in one of our Sanibel Island villa rentals or any other type of property, you’ll find pristine facilities and unmatched luxury. 

We can help plan every aspect of your Sanibel Island vacation. From providing the best shelling tips to helping with a restaurant reservation, Royal Shell is ready to go to work for you.

To learn more about our available properties, contact us today or check our available properties now. We’re ready to find the perfect vacation rental property for your dream vacation on Sanibel Island. 

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