CHARMED BY SOUTHWEST FLORIDA
DEPENDING ON HOW IT WORKS ITS MAGIC ON YOU, SANIBEL ISLAND IS IN THE SHAPE OF A SLICE OF GRAPEFRUIT OR A WIDE GRIN. SOMEHOW, WHILE LOOKING INTO THE GULF OF MEXICO FROM SANIBEL BEACH, ONE CAN VIEW BOTH SUNRISES AND SUNSETS.
A true, old-style, natural paradise awaits you on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
I’ve become accustomed to seeing young people (and old) blissfully unaware of their surroundings and focused on the screens of their cell phones. So, when I saw many people on Sanibel Beach peering into the palm of their hands at 7:30 a.m., I naturally assumed the worst. Happily, I was wrong. It turns out folks were intently examining the seashells they’d harvested at low tide. The activity was free, without frills and captured their attention.
THE SIMPLE LIFE
Shortly after sunrise, birds began arriving. Birding is great on Sanibel Beach, with plenty of gulls, pelicans, sandpipers and the odd osprey to keep enthusiasts amused.
Activities include walking along the gently sloped beach, sunbathing and, of course, seashell collecting—reputed to be the best in North America.
People of all ages can be spotted at low tide crouched over in the Sanibel Stoop, trying to uncover the perfect seashell. In fact, if you find a rare junonia, you may get your picture in the local paper. In some areas, the shells are piled so thick you can collect a dozen in one handful. Everyone carries a sack in which to hold them. Although collecting is
encouraged, signs remind us that taking live shells is prohibited.
This place is a true, old-style, natural paradise. Back in the 1970s, the area separated from its neighbours so it could set its own rules regarding development. Two-thirds of the island will never be developed, as it is part of a wildlife reserve. No buildings higher than the highest native tree are allowed and neither are chain restaurants. Okay, there is an old-fashioned Dairy Queen, which was grandfathered in, but there are truly no other franchise restaurants—just mom-and-pop establishments ranging from very simple to high end. And the most common mode of transportation, for visitors at least, is the one-speed bicycle. And although your hotel can lend you a lock with your complimentary bike, I never saw a single one in use.
On board a trolley in the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, we observed migratory birds on a sandbar in the estuary leading into the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound. Among them were doublecrested cormorants, great blue herons, a roseate spoonbill, egrets, white ibis and a huge flock of white pelicans. The latter are the ultimate snowbirds, who visit here about the same time as hordes of Canadian travellers arrive in Florida.
Later, we ventured along paths that took us deeper into the mangroves to learn about three kinds of mangroves and the mangrove tree crabs, which, without a guide, we would have mistaken for large spiders, had we spotted them at all.
While we constantly noted leaping mullet fish, we never came across native alligators. However, according to our guide, a couple of visiting South American crocodiles had taken up residence in the Refuge. Road signs with the unusual “Gopher Tortoise Crossing” heading naturally piqued our curiosity.
A visitor to Sanibel Island inevitably makes his way to its sister island, Captiva. Here, tourists and locals also collect shells, employing the so-called Captiva Crunch to scoop up the precious collectibles that accumulate on the western-facing Gulf of Mexico side of the island. Not surprisingly, the country’s only shell museum is located on Sanibel Island.
We drove through Captiva island to embark on a Captiva Cruise to Cabbage Key, a tiny 404,685-square-metre island (key) one hour away by boat. From the dock, we carefully crossed the very shallow Pine Island Sound, so shallow that our guide causally mentioned that if we ran aground, they’d open up the bar while we waited to be unstuck by the Coast Guard!
Nothing untoward occurred, however we were occasionally entertained by pods of delightfully playful and curious dolphins. They love sounds and are attracted by the boat’s engine and any noise we cared to share.
Cabbage Key celebrates the Florida of 80 years ago when American novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart built her winter residence here. It is now the only inn and restaurant on the key. The ancient, white, wooden water tower is home to a couple of local ospreys, and, to our delight, the burrows of many gopher tortoises are found at the tower’s base.
Money doesn’t grow on trees, but at the Cabbage Key Restaurant it appears to be coming out of the walls and flutters down like dead leaves from the ceiling where banknotes from around the world hang like moths. This odd phenomenon began in the 1940s when a fisherman signed a dollar note and taped it behind the bar to prove he’d be good on his debt. The money, totalling tens of thousands of dollars per year, is collected and given to charity.
Southwest Florida’s Fort Myers and Sanibel area is a natural paradise. Appreciation of the area’s special charm and natural beauty began well over one hundred years ago, when Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs came for winter stays to appreciate the outdoors. Burroughs was as well-known as the other three, as he was a popular media star who sold millions of nature books while the others amassed huge fortunes in business.
At the Ford and Edison Estates near downtown Fort Myers, I was surprised to see how humbly these two American icons lived, considering their vast wealth. Even more surprising was the reason they came to Southwest Florida, which was to take part in adventurous camping trips on which they really “roughed it” far from the comforts of home and family.
Another magical moment occurred at the Butterfly Estates in the heart of Fort Myers, where we witnessed the careful breeding of local Floridian butterflies at a conservatory whose main goal is education. The interior of the conservatory features New Age music and electric fans humming together as the just-released butterflies frolic about, hoping to mate. It is a true lovers’ paradise, not just for butterflies but also for those who appreciate nature.
ABOVE: Cyclists take a break to enjoy the surf along the Gulf of Mexico. The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
ABOVE: White pelicans at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. © Carole Jobin BELOW: Enjoying a sunset on Captiva Island. The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel TOP RIGHT: Kayaking in Lee County. The Beaches of Fort Myers & SanibelOPPOSITE TOP: Money covers the wall and ceiling at the Cabbage Key Restaurant, Cabbage Key.© Carole Jobin