Shell Game on Sanibel Island

Score the perfect souvenir on Sanibel Island
Try a shell hunt during your next beach getaway to the Gulf.
Try a shell hunt during your next beach getaway to the Gulf.

Caroline C. Kilgore

The Gulf Coast beaches are considered the best in North America for shelling, and nowhere is this more evident than along South Florida’s Lee Island Coast, a fifty-mile stretch of white, sandy coastline studded with more than 100 barrier islands.

Sanibel Island—christened Costa de Caracoles or “Coast of Seashells” by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon—is the crown jewel. Taking advantage of an atypical east-west orientation, this twelve-mile-long, three-mile-wide island, roughly the size of Manhattan, acts like a scoop, depositing more than 400 types of shells—from lightning whelks and lettered olives to the more elusive junonia and lion’s paw—onto its shores. For the best shelling, stick to the gulf-facing beaches, such as secluded Bowman’s Beach on the north end of the island.

For a seashell fix that doesn’t involve straining your back with the “Sanibel stoop,” head to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, where you’ll find more than thirty exhibits devoted to mollusks from around the world. Afterward, stop in at Sanibel Seashell to stock up on any treasures you may have missed; the seventy-three-year-old, family-owned shop carries more than 10,000 kinds of shells. And if you happen to visit the island in early spring, check out the Sanibel Shell Show. You’ll be inspired by the personal collections on display and amazed at the seemingly endless crafting possibilities shells have to offer.