Travelogue: Travelogue: Sanibel Island, FL (May 2008)


For our first wedding anniversary gift to one another, we decided to honor the tradition of giving paper—only the paper would be in the form of an album composed from photos taken during a weekend trip to Sanibel Island in Florida!

We left early Friday morning—just after Aron wrapped up another 27 hour shift at the hospital. Though we left plenty of time to get to the airport, we neglected to factor in catching a cab during the morning rush hour. We split up, hoping that we wouldn’t happen to each catch a cab at the exact same moment; I grabbed one first and so was able to head the driver to Aron’s location before we got on our way.

From Newark, we flew into Fort Meyers (arriving at 1:30, just 3 short hours away) and picked up our rental car. The airport in Fort Meyers is quite a change from Newark—petite, clean, calm, and seemingly brimming with vacationers in their golden years. Once we got hold of the keys to our lovely economy vehicle, we quickly made our way across the bridge to Sanibel. Sanibel and Captiva are two barrier islands connected to Florida’s gulf coast by bridges—you drive through the larger, Sanibel, before coming to Captiva. Other smaller islands which exist beyond are accessible by boat.

The bridge to Sanibel is relatively new, and so the community, rather isolated for some time, did a particularly nice job of resisting a lot of the sorts of infrastructure one might see elsewhere in Florida—no building is taller than the highest palm tree, there are few neon signs, and even wave runners aren’t allowed too close to shore. Nearly half of Sanibel has been preserved as a wildlife refuge (J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge) which one can explore via car, bike, foot, or on kayak. Perhaps what Sanibel connotes to many is “shelling.” Apparently, the orientation of the island makes it ideal for sea shell collectors. At low tides, people can be seen up and down the shore in a “Sanibel sloop” that can’t be easy on one’s back. Our hotel provided an ample selection of books for identifying one’s finds—I would imagine most hotels do.

We had brought along a Garmin GPS tool, so we followed its directions to our hotel, Sanibel’s Seaside Inn. We had searched through the recommendations on Trip Advisor and Frommers before settling on this particular accommodation. We were surprised to find that most hotels on the island are quite expensive; despite the many claims to “Ye Olde Florida Charm,” these aren’t ye olde Florida prices. We really splurged (by our standards) on a room that neared $300 a night! It was particularly shocking considering that there wasn’t much available for much less and that the hotel had clearly been remodeled from a motel base. It would seem that the ideal way to stay on either island—and perhaps the most common—would be to rent a house and stay on a weekly basis. Nonetheless, despite feeling it was far overpriced, we were very happy with the Seaside Inn.

Part of a hotel group called the Sanibel collection, the inn features a nice array of amenities. Each room has a DVD player; wet bar; and kitchenette, with microwave, small refrigerator, coffee maker, and dishware. A continental breakfast is delivered by basket each day, and guests can use the inn’s bicycles, as well as its pool, its beach lounges and umbrellas. We found that there were also kayaks available for rental, shuffleboard stations, and barbeques.

After a late lunch at Doc Ford’s—we shared delicious grouper tacos with mango and papaya salsa—we spent most of our first afternoon lounging on the beach and collecting shells (which we decided to return to the water). Aron slept off a bit more of the long night of work and I caught up on some reading—we both really loved being back in warmer weather. In fact, though the island was very quiet and had clearly transitioned to summer mode (low-season), we had arrived during an optimal shoulder. It was sunny and hot, with water warm enough for swimming, but not yet muggy—nor were we ever assaulted by the mosquitos we’d been warned would be coming in droves in a matter of weeks. So as not to miss the sunset, we traveled through the island along the main road, Periwinkle Way, onto Captiva Island, to the Mucky Duck. We’d been told that the adjacent beach would be an ideal place from which to watch the sun descend into the water—something we don’t see as often as we used to in California.

When we pulled up, we were worried that parking would be a problem—the place was mobbed—but had some good fortune! Though we took a buzzer for an inside table, we learned that you can order drinks and appetizers from the bar and enjoy them outside. Much preferring to be out on the beach, we opted to order there and took our crab cakes and margaritas out to enjoy the live music and the view from the sand.

Figuring we’d already had a chance to sample the fare at the Mucky Duck, we left our car in their lot (shhhhh!) and walked down the road to check out some other menus. There aren’t a lot of surprises on the menus—the surf and turf staples are all-pervasive—but if you’re hoping for fresh fish, grouper in particular, you will never be disappointed in the options. With both places down the road featuring live guitar and similar fare, we opted for the one with the better looking patio—Aron had coconut shrimp while I had a grouper sandwich and we shared a key lime pie for dessert… the first of many.

The next morning, after breakfast on our porch, we checked out two cruisers—baskets and all—and headed off to the wildlife refuge. The island has over 23 miles of paved paths, and most guidebooks suggest using bikes to get around the island (particularly as parking can be a problem). On our way to the refuge, we passed parking lot after parking lot—all empty—and wondered a bit about the veracity of these claims, but we were there in an off-season and besides, we would have chosen to ride bikes regardless.

The first stop inside the refuge is the visitor’s center, inside of which one finds maps, volunteers, bathrooms, and lots of stuffed fauna. There are examples of all of the animals one might see inside the park, mostly birds, and lots of hands-on, teaching exhibits geared toward younger visitors. I thought a highlight was the bulletin board positioned just by the door, listing recent sightings. I was crossing my fingers for a river otter or a bobcat!

As it turned out, we saw some very lovely birds on our ride, but no river otters. Nonetheless, it was really nice to see such a different landscape, just minutes from the beach. After paying our $1.00 entry fee, we took the ride down Wildlife Drive very slowly, stopping at every clearing, approaching each bit of brush as silently as possible so as not to scare away any potential sightings and so as to listen for any crackling reeds.

After an hour or so, with bums a bit numb from the bumpy road (paved with shells and packed sand), we decided to pick up the pace and head for the exit. I think our only complaint about the refuge (despite a lack of visible otters) would be the same as that for the island’s bike paths in general—the road is shared with car traffic. As I mentioned, the four-mile, one-way route can be traveled on foot, by bike, or by car; so one never really gets away into nature. And our quiet creeping along was occasionally disrupted by the hum of an engine.
This only happened a few times as the park was relatively empty, but—again—the island apparently can get quite crowded, so I imagine this could be a problem.

After exiting the wildlife refuge, we continued down the road toward the northern tip of the island—we would turn around just before reaching Captiva. While on our way, we made our best sighting: a gopher tortoise! He was headed toward the road and, fearing that the yellow Gopher Tortoise Crossing sign might not save him from imminent peril, Aron picked up the little fella and turned him around to head him back in the other direction. In response, he did what his kind do best and began to dig himself into the grass—with surprising speed!

Hungry, and worn out from this recent act of heroism, we paused for lunch at the Lazy Flamingo—reputed to serve some very tasty grouper. It was delicious! I had a mesquite grilled grouper filet sandwich and we shared (another) key lime pie before a quick game of toss the metal ring onto the nail on the post (a fun little bar skill). We took a walk out to the beach across the road and hopped back onto our bikes. After riding the 10 miles back, we decided to go just a bit past our hotel to lighthouse point to see one of the island’s icons before finishing the day at the beach. What followed was a well-earned, lazy afternoon.

That night, for dinner, we couldn’t help ourselves—we returned to the Lazy Flamingo. It was, however, their other location (The Lazy Flamingo II). We knew that grouper would be the menu item of choice no matter what restaurant we chose, and we couldn’t imagine that we’d find a finer rendition. This time, I skipped the sandwich and had my filet over greens.

The next morning, after breakfast, we packed our bags, put on our suits, and got ready to spend our final day at the beach. Aron surprised me with a bottle of champagne, and we toasted to our first year of marriage. Though we put our bags in the car, we were still able to hang out at the hotel as long as we needed. It was a great morning. We did a little more shelling; I killed at a hardcore game of shuffleboard; and we found a fury little, brown bunny hanging out in the grass. And the wildlife sightings continued as we went on our way: passing by a golf course, I spotted something in the water. We
made a u-turn and went back to find four or five American alligators in the water hazards.

For lunch, we again violated our usual travel code of not repeating restaurants and returned to Doc Ford’s for more fish tacos and beer. It was a good thing we ate late. The airport restaurants were all closed by the time we returned our car and got to the terminal (I think it was only about 5 p.m.!). We had already gone through

security when we realized this, so went back outside the terminal where we had found a Starbucks. Of course, you can’t bring liquids back through security, so we had to down our lattes before returning to the gate. Comical, and not completely satisfying, but it would take a lot for us to feel anything but grateful at the end of such a nice getaway.

And the paper? We did make ourselves a beautiful photo album once we came home to honor the first anniversary tradition, in our own way.

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