Why go to Florida in the summer? Likely to swim in a warm ocean, visit some new beaches or just experience tropical life. All of these are good reasons, especially when experienced in a part of Florida very different than the one that normally comes to mind.
On Florida's west coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, there is a hidden island, covered in green vegetation, where residents have refused to yield to the pressures of commercial development. These residents have established strict rules: Hotels cannot be built higher than three storeys, construction is forbidden on half of the island and fast food chains are banned.
This is Sanibel Island. The name is a take-off of its original -- Santa Isabella -- which was given to it by early Spanish explorers.
Sanibel Island, aside from the aforementioned anti-commercial perks, is likely best known for its long, white sand-covered beaches filled with seashells.
During the winter, this paradise is a popular destination for rich New Yorkers, which has consequently led to high prices for vacationers. But the summer is a different story, one that is more relaxing and easygoing.
When first arriving on the island, after getting off the long causeway from Fort Myers, the first impression you get is green. Everywhere you look, you see green. Homes and small buildings disappear beneath the tropical vegetation and all things commercial are very difficult to spot.
Everything slows down in the summer, including vehicular traffic, so don't even think about moving faster than the 30 mph speed limit. And if you do, beware of the island's police presence. Road signs warn motorists about the importance of the island's wildlife, so avoiding any road kill situations is also important.
But why even bother with a car? On Sanibel, bikes are the preferred method of transportation, with over 40 km of sprawling bike trails that don't share the road with cars. And, when a bike path does intersect a real road, cyclists have the right-of-way, a law that is respected to the letter. Coming from a big city where cyclists aren't as respected, it is amazing to see that biking on Sanibel Island is a very safe way to get around.
Obviously, it is hot here, but it is a tropical heat that you get used to. And that heat, conveniently, is what makes winter visitors flee as summer arrives and allows for the slower, quieter and easygoing pace in the summer.
Because of the smaller number of tourists in the summer, prices for hotel rooms, condos and houses -- that can be sky-high in the winter -- drop significantly. For example, a lovely two-bedroom condo in a complex with a pool near the ocean runs for $700 per week in the summer.
On Sanibel Island, life moves slowly. Long days at the beach are made more luxurious by a climate that, most of the time, cooperates. Collecting seashells is popular, and shell enthusiasts can often be seen on the beach, hunched over, looking for a rare find. That pose is called the "Sanibel Stoop."
Known for its shells, the island is considered to be one of the most seashell-rich places in the world with over 300 varieties of mollusks washing up on its shores. The rarest is Junonia, and finding one of these will get your picture published in the local newspaper, the Island Reporter.
Another natural attraction on the island is J.R. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which provides a chance to see exotic birds such as the Roseate Spoonbill. Alligators can be spotted in the park, and they, too, must be treated with respect. Kayaking lessons are offered in the mangrove swamp (the one place in the park without alligators as they don't like salt water).
But despite its reputation as a hidden oasis, Sanibel Island isn't cut off from the rest of the world. A trip across the bridge will land you back in the part of Florida known for shopping and restaurants of all types. Miami and Tampa Bay can be reached in about three hours.
Everything written here also applies to the autumn, when the heat is a bit less intense.
Americans call this time of year "Florida's best kept secret." Sanibel, for its part, is definitely another one of these best-kept secrets.
IF YOU GO TO SANIBEL ISLAND IN THE SUMMER
Sanibel Island is 20-km long and 5-km wide. During the winter, its population hits 30,000 but in summer it drops to 6,000. It neighbours Captiva Island, which is smaller and home to many luxurious houses. While summer is hurricane season, American meteorologists are very good at predicting hurricane trajectories and the island features an excellent evacuation plan.
Driving takes about two days or fly direct from Toronto to Fort Myers with Air Canada.
The Shell Museum, shellmuseum.org. J.R. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, fws.gov/dingdarling.
For destination information, visit the Fort Myers-Sanibel tourist office at tr.im/sanibel2 and visitflorida.com. For condo and house rentals, see sanibelholiday.com, sanibelonvacations.com and Tr.im/remax.