Sanibel – one of Florida’s premier vacation islands – reached by a three-mile causeway from Fort Myers – seems to have survived this year’s hurricane season fairly well.
Vestiges of the season and last year’s hurricane Charley can still be seen in various places. But Sanibel is open, working, and best of all is gorgeous and gloriously sunny and warm.
There are many resorts and all sorts of condominiums to rent on Sanibel, as well as a scattering of hotels. Closely attached to Sanibel, a few miles farther north is the island of Captiva, which has the same topography, and has one very large resort. That resort, South Seas Plantation, is still closed due to hurricane damage. I think it will reopen in January, 2006. Happily, there are no high-rises on these two islands, which keeps them from the sad overcrowding on most of Florida’s beaches.
We just spent a week in Sanibel as the guests of Millbrook friends, and we picked the perfect week, with sun everyday, and temperatures that were coolish in the morning and evening, and hot during late morning and early afternoon. We had been in the area only once before, in 1989, staying in Captiva, at a cottage colony called “Tween Waters Inn,” in a tiny cottage with a screened porch and a squeaky screen door. Believe it or not, it’s still there, but a large resort (but only two stories high) has been built up around the brightly painted little cottages, which remain.
The beaches have been the historic draw here, and shelling on the beach has become a huge cottage industry – as well as the butt of all sorts of jokes. Adorning T-shirts, wall hangings and all sorts of souvenirs are either shells or people with bent heads and shoulders roaming the beaches for shells. (I did my share, it’s catching.)
One of the draws of this western Florida barrier island is the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It was named after a conservation pioneer, who was also a political cartoonist. Signing his cartoons “Ding,” he earned two Pulitzer prizes and the undying thanks of all who visit this island. At least he has earned the thanks of those of us who realize how fragile our coastline ecosystems are. More than one-third of Sanibel is in the wildlife refuge. A visit there is more than worthwhile. We got up early one morning and drove, or rather crawled, through 6 miles of the refuge, getting out to walk as many times as we thought we saw some bird or wild life. It was a great pleasure to spot egrets of all sorts, cormorants, little blue herons, two or three baby raccoons, and my very favorite: the roseate spoonbills, with their gorgeous bright pink under wings. The very first bird we saw turned out to be a wood stork, which we found out after we got back and looked at the bird book we’d forgotten. It is possible to walk or bike through the area, and there is much more bird life at other times of the year. Watch out for alligators.
Calusa Indians lived in Sanibel for over 2000 years. During the 1800’s European explorers and settlers began to inhabit the island. A hurricane in 1926 destroyed their agricultural pursuits, and now tourism is the backbone of the islands.
As you can imagine, the wide sandy and shell-covered beaches are what most people go to Sanibel for, along with the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf was calm and peaceful while we were there, with only slight signs that it had been roiled up by many hurricanes this season.
Anyone with no interest in going indoors in this kind of atmosphere would miss a couple of the attractions of Sanibel. One is the good shopping areas, and I don’t mean the souvenir shops. But the best reason to get in out of the heat is the Sanibel Library. It is probably the best library I have ever been in.It is said to be in the top 5% of libraries in the country. (and that with a yearround population of only 6000 people. ) A recent addition has almost doubled its size, and the new addition is being put to excellent use. As is the case with many buildings on Sanibel, the main library is on the second floor, with covered parking underneath. The architecture is first rate, the building is very unobtrusive in the landscape. There is a glass elevator, two extremely attractive meeting rooms, and 16 brand new computers in the email section. Each computer is named for an island. ( It took us a while to figure out the connection between “Captiva”, “Ireland” “Ellis” and “Alcatraz.”) Anyone with a library card or a driver’s license can use one of the computers for an hour at a time, for email or for searching the web. The library’s collection of Videos, CDs, and DVDs is the most extensive I have ever seen. They have virtually every series that has ever been on PBS or HBO, plus all the movies you can think of, new and old. Obviously they have a huge collection of books, and all searching is done on computers scattered among the stacks. They have a very large magazine and newspaper section, as well as several areas with comfortable chairs for patrons. One of the unique features are the two outdoor screened-in covered porches, each with three rocking chairs, facing the everglade-like mangroves and water, for readers who do not like cool air-conditioning. Now that’s what I call thinking of everything! Once I discovered the library, I gave up walking on the beach and just went to the library almost every day. (It was pretty hot on the beach.)
Yes, Sanibel is open for business, with very few places looking in need of repair. This was not the case in Naples, where we went for a day to see old Naples. Sadly, thousands of huge banyan trees have been uprooted and many streets are still closed.
These areas need your tourist dollar this winter, so if you are thinking of a trip to Florida, you can certainly enjoy the distinction and relaxation of Sanibel as we did.