Sunday, May 06, 2001

Sanibel visitors savor beauty of Old Florida

Wildlife refuge among the sights

By David Caudill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Believe it or not, parts of Florida look much the way they did B.A.C. (before air conditioning). You can see some of that Florida on Sanibel Island.

        Lacking a boat, you reach Sanibel by a drive across a three-mile causeway from Punta Rassa on the state's southwestern coast, near Fort Myers. This drive can create a profound sense of relaxation that intensifies as the island comes closer.

        The relaxation starts after you pay a $3 causeway toll and roll away from the mainland. Quickly, an expanse of blue-green Gulf water surrounds the narrow roadway. The sun, especially if you've just come from a Midwest winter, looks impossibly bright. It glints off the water and makes the small sandy beaches lining the causeway an electric white.

        You come to a small drawbridge. Don't be antsy if you have to wait as it rises to allow a sailboat to come past. Look around.

    • Sanibel's accommodations fill quickly during the heavy tourist season from March to June and from September through mid-December. Make your plans early.
    • Information about many of the old-Florida-style places to stay on Sanibel can be found at
    • General information about places to stay is available at or from the Sanibel Visitors Center, 1159 Causeway Road, Sanibel, FL 33957. (941) 472-1080.
    • You can rent bikes and scooters from Billy's Rentals, 1470 Periwinkle Way (941) 472-5248.
        Gulls and brown pelicans are gliding past, floating on the breezes. Wind surfers are skidding across the chop just off shore. Farther out, fishermen and sailboaters are making their way to the open water.

        And that welcoming, warming sun beats down on your windshield. Put the windows down. Slap on a little sunscreen. Grab your sunglasses. Ahhh, Florida.

        Thomas Edison, a winter denizen of Fort Myers B.A.C. (It's surprising he didn't invent air conditioning.), said about this area, “There is only one, and 90 million people are going to find it out.”¦

        As in many things, Edison was correct. But the millions who have come to see it can't suppress the beauty of Sanibel. Well, maybe a little.
       ×SubHed A wildlife refuge

        Government has helped. No dwellings on Sanibel can be higher than three stories, which makes a difference when you're walking along the beach. And a national wildlife refuge accounts for a considerable portion — 6,000 acres — of the nine-mile long island.

        Sanibel's beaches are famous for their variety and quantity of seashells. This has led to a false malady called “Sanibel stoop.” The stoop is assumed by tourists as they bend to gather up or peer at a shell.

        Any visit to Sanibel is incomplete without a trip through the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It's your glimpse of predevelopment Florida.

        Ding Darling was a newspaper cartoonist for the Des Moines Register for more than 40 years, starting in 1906, an avid conservationist and chief of the U.S. Biological Survey in the mid-1930s. He was the driving force in securing Sanibel land as refuge.

        You can walk, bicycle, canoe or drive through the refuge, and you will see scores of bird species and maybe an alligator or two.

        In the last 30 years, Sanibel has been transformed from an almost quaint artist's retreat to a tourist destination. It's home to a couple of golf courses and several good restaurants. Captiva Island, just north of Sanibel and accessible by car, adds to the restaurant count and offers beautiful beach walking.
       ×SubHed Good for biking

        Bicycling is good on Sanibel because of several paved trails meandering beneath overhanging trees. The island is loaded with places to stay, from beachfront condos to motels to quaint cottages.

        Among those cottages, Gulf Breeze at 1081 Shell Basket Lane, is a great example of old-fashioned beachfront Florida vacation life.

        And for a couple of diversions a family can enjoy together, visit the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation at 3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road. It offers guided nature trail tours, a butterfly house and a natural history boat cruise.

        Also try the Sanibel Historical Village and Museum, 850 Dunlop Road, for a look at local artifacts and memorabilia in a 1913 Florida “Cracker” house. A store, tea room, post office and gas station from Sanibel in the mid-1920s have been moved to the site. Adults are asked for a $3 donation; kids are admitted free.

        It isn't air-conditioned.


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