If you think Florida is all about theme parks, outlet malls and high-rise hotels, you need to head for Sanibel and Captiva islands. They’re guaranteed to give you a whole new outlook on the Sunshine State.
Linked to the mainland by an enormous causeway, these two chic pieces of paradise have little in common with more touristy areas of the state. Their rich history dates back more than 2,500 years to the Calusa Indians and Ponce de Leon, the man thought to have named Sanibel “Santa Isybella” after Queen Isabella.
Ponce found the island in the 1500s while he — like the rest of us — was looking for the Fountain of Youth.
What he discovered instead were the Calusa Indians, who were none too pleased to see him! But rather than succumbing to the Spanish forces, the Calusa fought back — hard.
After years of wild battles, Ponce was struck a fatal blow in the chest by an arrow. His men retreated and the Calusa thought they’d had a big win. Ironically, while the Spaniard’s advanced weaponry and manpower had failed to vanquish them, European diseases soon did. Thanks to yellow fever, tuberculosis and measles, the Calusa were virtually extinct by the late 1700s.
It’s thought that the islands — sometimes called the Buccaneer Coast — then became home to bands of pirates, the most notorious of whom was Jose Gaspar. Legend has this buccaneer had a nasty habit of kidnapping women and holding them prisoner on the island now known as — yup — Captiva.
No one will have to kidnap you to keep you on Captiva or its lovely neighbour, Sanibel. Both are a testimony to how beach-front destinations can do it all right. Hotels are smaller, the sand and water are both pristine, and no buildings block the skyline. In fact, no tower can be higher than the tallest palm tree — and they measure!
It’s a blissful alternative to the busy-ness of other sun and surf destinations, particularly wonderful for nature lovers.
The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one of the top bird-watching areas in the U.S. and a great place to expand your life list. Though barge-style tours are available in this more than 2,590-hectare preserve, it’s far better to take a guided kayak paddle in the mangroves. Gliding silently through the sometimes narrow channels between the trees, you’ll be able to get up close and personal with the frogs, birds, fish — even the occasional ’gator — along the way.
If shells are your thing, Sanibel and Captiva are the place. A quirk of the tides makes shells roll in to these beaches — and not roll right back out. The real keeners in the shell collecting world get up at 4 a.m., strap on their headlamps and get the pick of the crop before they become chipped or marred. Many hotels even offer shell-washing rooms so you can clean up your “catch.”
Be sure not to take anything that still has a live sea creature inside as the penalties are expensive!
You’ll want to end your visit at Captiva on the beach — at sunset — with your camera. There, you’ll watch the blazing ball of light that keeps us all alive sink in pink and orange splendour behind the horizon. You’ll understand then why man’s first god was the sun, and why we worship it still.
BEST BEACHY BETS
1. KEY LIME PIE
Sure it’s full of calories but they don’t count if you’re on vacation. While every restaurant seems to have its particular version, the best I found was at the Timbers’ Restaurant & Fish Market on Sanibel. Well worth the calories.
2. STICK $1 ON THE WALL
Have the signature cheeseburger (so good that Jimmy Buffet wrote a song about it) at the Cabbage Key Restaurant Inn and Restaurant, and while you’re there, autograph a dollar bill and stick it to the wall. Your bill will join thousands of others put there every day by tourists taking part in a long-standing tradition, started by local fishermen. On a good day, they would tape up a bill behind the bar as insurance against a day when the catch might not come in. Don’t expect your buck back, however. It’ll stay there until gravity pulls a whole mass to the floor. The windfall is collected and donated to a local charity.
3. CHRISTMAS ALL YEAR
At the Bubble Room on Captiva Island, you can celebrate Christmas all year long by viewing the vintage toys and ornaments that decorate the restaurant. If you love old movies, you’ll be equally happy because the holiday stuff shares space with a huge collection of old film star photos and posters. It’s a strange mix, but it’s fascinating!
NEED TO KNOW
For all the Florida information you’ll ever need, see visitflorida.com.