The Florida magic beyond the king­dom

Florida of­fers more than just theme parks. But there’s room for Mickey too

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - JIM BUCHTA

For more than a mo­ment, I found magic in Or­lando.

As I stood in the glow of Cin­derella’s Cas­tle on a crisp Novem­ber night, fire­works filled the sky and the songs of child­hood pealed when Tinker Bell, a hu­man sprite in bright green tights and Day-Glo wings, popped out of a tur­ret and zip-lined to­ward Tomorrowland like a car­toon­ish flare.

Thou­sands of stunned park-go­ers clapped fu­ri­ously as the light show dimmed — a per­fect end to my first day in Florida with two neph­ews, a great-niece and Grandma Mary.

I’d promised the kids a trip to cel­e­brate their teen birth­days, and for them — Min­nesotans who love to swim and had never seen the ocean — Florida was an ob­vi­ous choice. But how do you hit the state with chil­dren, even those who have edged into their teenage years, and not visit Mickey? We couldn’t. So I booked two days at a Dis­ney re­sort — and a week on Sani­bel, a tiny is­land in the Gulf of Mex­ico. For me, Dis­ney was a per­func­tory, though thrilling, pre­quel. I wanted the kids to see what Florida looked like be­fore Walt Dis­ney sprin­kled his pixie dust on 30,000 acres of swamp­land.

But would the kids share my pref­er­ence for Florida’s real-life vs. Dis­ney world?

I wasn’t so sure when those fire­works tugged at even my heart. I grew more skep­ti­cal when we spent the next day at Dis­cov­ery Cove, a kind of Wis­con­sin Dells-meets-Club Med where the kids could snorkel in a man­made la­goon with­out any of the risk of a real reef.

When the kids were young, Grandma Mary made sure they learned to swim, but the un­der­wa­ter world of the Gulf was go­ing to be some­thing dif­fer­ent. To pre­pare, we had taken snor­kel­ing lessons in a Twin Cities swim­ming pool be­fore our Thanks­giv­ing-morn­ing de­par­ture. Our trip to Dis­cov­ery Cove was meant to fur­ther bol­ster their con­fi­dence.

The at­trac­tion, run by SeaWorld, is sur­rounded by ho­tels and high­ways, but it was a per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to the ocean. We snorkeled in the Grand Reef with tame rays and con­fetti-colored fish, and floated be­neath warm wa­ter­falls and over un­der­wa­ter caves on the Wind-Away river. In a breezy aviary, trop­i­cal birds nagged us for treats and landed on shoul­ders to beg for more.

Mid­day, our group met with a nat­u­ral­ist and learned about the lives of dol­phins. I sat on a man­i­cured shore as the kids and Grandma Mary waded into the wa­ter and one by one, had their dol­phin ex­pe­ri­ence. They be­gan with mam­mal-to-mam­mal kisses be­fore the kids and Grandma Mary took turns hold­ing on tight as a dol­phin swam with them across the la­goon.

By 6 p.m. we were on the road to Sani­bel Is­land, which is only a 3 ½-hour drive from Or­lando, but seems a mil­lion miles away. In moon­light we crossed the 3-mile-long bridge from Fort My­ers to Sani­bel, a bar­rier is­land that’s 12 miles long and 3 miles across at its widest.

Find­ing our va­ca­tion ren­tal wasn’t diffi- cult. The is­land has only two main roads and not a sin­gle stop­light, but also 25 miles of bik­ing and walk­ing paths that wind through a wildlife refuge and lead to hid­den beaches and other places cars can’t reach.

Twin­kling sand dol­lars

“This isn’t like Dis­cov­ery Cove,” my nephew Bray­den said the next morn­ing. He was the first to wake and we walked along a board­walk to the beach, where the tide was still re­ced­ing, littering the beach with clumps of slimy seaweed and a few rot­ting fish.

Bray­den dipped his toes into the cool, cloudy wa­ter, and I imag­ined him won­der­ing why we’d left Or­lando.

Soon, Au­tumn, Justin and Grandma Mary joined us and we scoured the tide-soaked beach for bone-white sand dol­lars that twin­kled like stars at twi­light.

As the morn­ing waned and the sun warmed, the kids ven­tured far­ther from that safe place where the sand meets the surf, and it wasn’t long be­fore all three of them were neck-deep in the ocean for the very first time, al­ter­nat­ing leap­ing and div­ing like the dol­phins we hoped we’d see in the wild.

Later, we vis­ited the Bai­ley-Matthews Na­tional Shell Mu­seum, at the sug­ges­tion of my neigh­bour who spends part of the year on Sani­bel. When I told her I was wor­ried there might not be enough ac­tion on the is­land for our teen trav­el­ers, she told me not to worry — there was plenty of ac­tion on the beach to keep them en­ter­tained.

“Shells lead par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent lives,” she’d said.

At the mu­seum, we learned the is­land is one of the most pop­u­lar shelling des­ti­na­tions in the world be­cause of its un­usual

east-west ori­en­ta­tion and south­fac­ing beaches that scoop up the shells as they get rolled along by the waves and cur­rents of the Gulf of Mex­ico.

A short doc­u­men­tary showed a her­mit crab us­ing its suc­tion­cupped “foot” to slip out of its bu­gle-shaped shell and scoot across the bot­tom of the ocean be­fore spar­ring with an­other her­mit crab for the just-va­cated shell of a sea snail, an un­der­wa­ter rit­ual that hap­pens when her­mit crabs out­grow their shells and go in search of big­ger quar­ters.

We started our days on the beach in front of our condo, where the waves de­liv­ered fresh piles of shells. We roamed, zom­bielike, with our heads tilted to­ward the sand, scan­ning the beach for trea­sures in a pos­ture that lo­cals call “the Sani­bel stoop.”

The drive-throughs and strip malls of Fort My­ers were just a few min­utes away, but we never left the is­land. We be­came cast­aways. We lived in our bathing suits, swapped break­fast for swim time and had pic­nic lunches on the beach.

Bore­dom, for­tu­nately, was never an is­sue.

About half of Sani­bel is un­de­vel­oped, thanks in part to Ding Dar­ling, a well-known car­toon­ist of his day and a part-time res­i­dent, who helped spare Sani­bel from the kind of de­vel­op­ment that was rapidly work­ing its way across much of Florida.

To­day, re­stric­tions keep de­vel­op­ment to a min­i­mum. There are no build­ings taller than a palm tree, and the J.N. Ding Dar­ling Na­tional Wildlife Refuge pro­tects nearly the en­tire north­ern perime­ter of the is­land. One day, we boarded an ope­nair tram that mo­tored slowly along Wildlife Drive into the “Juras­sic Park”-like heart of the refuge.

Sev­eral pink roseate spoon­bills swooped by, and we stopped to watch a green ibis wade into the shal­lows and pause be­fore ex­tend­ing its wings to cre­ate a shady spot in the wa­ter where small fish were lured be­fore be­com­ing lunch.

We learned about man­grove trees, which thrive along Tar­pon Bay, a mas­sive es­tu­ary where a tan- gle of fresh­wa­ter streams and ocean wa­ter mix. At a black man­grove tree, we plucked a leaf and licked it, tast­ing the salti­ness of the plant’s own de­sali­na­tion sys­tem.

Down the road, our nat­u­ral­ist pointed to an al­li­ga­tor, 5 feet long at least, that was sun­ning it­self in the tall grass along the path. Its moist eyes glis­tened, and we no­ticed that a bite-sized chunk of its tail was miss­ing — an­other re­minder that we weren’t in Dis­ney any­more.

The next day, we char­tered a fish­ing boat on Tar­pon Bay, fully stocked with bait, snacks and drinks.

We spent the day weav­ing our way through a pre­his­toric maze of bay­ous and man­grove thick­ets, mo­tor­ing past shal­low oys­ter beds and into calm bays where we caught fish with ex­otic names bet­ter suited to celebri­ties: Jack Crevalle, Lady­fish and Dou­ble Snooks. When the fish weren’t bit­ing, cor­morants and gulls that were an­gling for the plump shrimp we used for bait kept us en­ter­tained. In the brack­ish, cof­fee-colored wa­ter we watched for dol­phins and man­a­tees, and planned our next-day ex­cur­sion to one of sev­eral un­de­vel­oped islands that are nearby, ac­ces­si­ble only by boat.

We picked Cayo Costa (“key by the coast”), which is mostly a state park and has only a few off-the-grid houses.

With a fully stocked cooler and our beach chairs and um­brel­las, we boarded a small ferry boat at a ma­rina on Cap­tiva, a small is­land off the tip of Sani­bel. Mid­way through the half-hour boat ride across Pine Is­land Sound, the cap­tain goosed the throt­tle, and a pair of dol­phins rode our wake, twirling and div­ing as we ap­proached the tiny is­land. The teens, who had by now come to rel­ish Florida’s nat­u­ral beauty, were giddy.

Then the cap­tain nudged the bow of the boat to­ward the de­serted beach, an­chor­ing sev­eral feet from shore.

One by one we climbed down a lad­der into the shin-deep wa­ter. Cast­aways for a day, we found a se­cluded sand dune be­tween a scrubby pine for­est and the sap­phire surf, where we un­packed our pro­vi­sions. Grandma Mary parked her beach chair and um­brella along the edge of wa­ter. Au­tumn spread a towel on the sand and watched a her­mit crab clum­sily re­treat to the wa­ter while the boys snorkeled in the choppy surf, hop­ing to see a st­ingray glide across the wrin­kled sea floor.

Like that green ibis we saw ear­lier in the week, I stood in the surf, shaded for a mo­ment by a pass­ing cloud, and mar­velled at this magic king­dom.

PHOTO BY JIM BUCHTA, TNS

Au­tumn Sh­win­tek and Bray­den and Justin Buchta toss a ball along the shores of Sani­bel Is­land.

PHOTO BY JIM BUCHTA, TNS

Cin­derella’s Cas­tle glows dur­ing the fi­nale of the nightly light show in the Magic King­dom.

PHOTO BY JIM BUCHTA, TNS

Justin Buchta on a board­walk on Sani­bel Is­land.

Bow­man’s Beach on Sani­bel Is­land is rou­tinely named among the best beaches in the na­tion.

Learn­ing about dol­phin be­fore a 30-minute swim with the dol­phins at SeaWorld’s Dis­cov­ery Cove in Or­lando.

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