If you're in a hurry, you don't belong on Sanibel.
That friendly admonition has been a pearl of wisdom on this leisurely Gulf Coast island for decades. In the 1970s, when a high-school buddy and I used to take day trips across the remote Alligator Alley from Miami, the narrow, twisting, two-lane roads on Sanibel and Captiva islands were always seemingly in danger of eroding into the Gulf of Mexico — a prospect that made the notion of speed unthinkable.
Almost 30 years later, the islands look a little more polished: The thoroughfares are more substantial and, in 2007, a new, higher causeway (a $6 toll) was built that didn't require a drawbridge to accommodate the passage of taller sailboats underneath. Old Florida homes now share space with expansive Spanish Mediterranean estates and vacation rentals in gated communities with tennis courts and pools.
Yet Sanibel still moves with the tantalizing slowness. All those warning signs along the road for gopher tortoise crossings aren't some theme-park novelty. Wildlife — and the solitary beaches — are still the area's signature claims to fame.
"It's pretty much the same as it was," says Michael Gulnac, 62, a native of nearby Fort Myers, who has lived in the area almost all his life. Gulnac owns The Island Store, an outlet for groceries, sandwiches and household items on Captiva Island since 1940.
The building, which housed a local boarding school in the 1920s, sits across Captiva Drive from the iconic Bubble Room restaurant (bubbleroomrestaurant.com), where khaki-clad "Bubble Scouts" still deliver entrees and enormous desserts against a backdrop of toy trains, twinkling colored lights and movie memorabilia as they have for roughly three decades.
Like the restaurant, the islands haven't changed much, despite Hurricane Charley's devastation in 2004 and the recession.
"It's still quiet," Gulnac says, "and it's still a great place to go."
From Central Florida, the trip south on Interstate 75 to the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel is a reasonable 4-hour hop. On the way to the beaches, it's worth the time to stop at the Winter Estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford (edisonfordwinterestates.org), along tree-lined McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers.
The view from the porch of Edison's Seminole Lodge guest house — and the occasional welcoming breeze — was enough to inspire poetry from Harnie Monkhouse, a guest at the lodge on the Caloosahatchee River in 1916:
Have you ever dreamed a dream of heaven
Where the Garden of Eden grows?
Well, come down with me to the Florida Coast
Where the Caloosahatchee flows
Edison's retreat, built shortly after the inventor bought the property in 1885, attracted plenty of famous guests, including President Herbert Hoover and Henry Ford. The founder of Ford Motor Co. was persuaded to build his own retreat next door in 1916.
In addition to original period furniture, the estates now showcase mango trees, orchids, royal palms, 13 varieties of bamboo (which Edison researched as a filament for the electric light bulb) and a massive banyan tree given to the inventor by American industrialist Harvey Firestone. There's also a museum that documents Edison's work, but looking into the windows of the estate and Edison's office, next to a lovely moonlight garden, offers perhaps better insight into his Florida lifestyle.
Water and wildlife
If quiet is still the best word to describe Sanibel and Captiva, there's no better place to find it than the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/dingdarling). The Sanibel park has more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes and hardwood hammocks that offer feeding, nesting and roosting areas for more than 220 species of migratory birds.
Visitors can survey the refuge on a structured 1 hour, 45 minute tram tour or explore at their own pace on the 5-mile Wildlife Drive, which offers hiking access to the 4-mile Indigo Trail or a pair of more manageable 1/4-mile trails that feature a view of nearby Pine Island Sound. The refuge also offers opportunities for fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing, bicycling and, of course, bird-watching.
On a self-guided excursion on a recent visit, even an amateur naturalist could spy roseate spoonbills, ospreys, flamingos, Ibis and egrets, among other attractions. Despite muggy weather typical of a Florida summer afternoon, the raindrops offered suitable solitude for watching sea turtles at play from one of the two-story observation towers.
When the drizzle turned into a downpour, it was time to visit an indoor attraction. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (shellmuseum.org) in Sanibel offers more on conchology than one might ever need to know in a way that's quirky, if not intentionally so. Where else can you learn that mollusks have poor vision? Or gaze into a pair of giant glass cases to check out a model of a state fair populated by people made out of shells. In the gift shop is maybe the best novelty bumper sticker ever ("Go to shell!").
Of course, there's plenty of opportunities to do your own shell collecting.
Although Sanibel and Captiva have evolved, there are still unspoiled beaches perfect for building mansions of sand or toting a bucket to fill with Atlantic kitten paws, angel wings and other elegant-sounding trinkets. At Bowman's Beach or Blind Pass, it's still possible to look around and imagine the island the way it was.
Hurry? Not here.
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If you go
The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
What: Sanibel and Captiva islands, off southwest Florida just west of Fort Myers, encompass a crescent-shaped 16-mile strip of land along the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf side beaches are excellent on both islands and famous for seashells, including coquinas, scallops, whelks, sand dollars and other deeper-water mollusks. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to the study of shells.
Getting there: From Orlando take Interstate 4 west to Interstate 75, then go south to Exit 136 in Fort Myers. Take Highway 884 (Colonial Boulevard) west to McGregor Boulevard. Take San Carlos Boulevard south to Fort Myers Beach and the Sanibel Causeway. There's a $6 toll to cross the causeway to the islands.
Online: fortmyers-sanibel.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times