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.
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.