Mention Florida to any number of Brits and they immediately think you mean Orlando and all the razz-a-mataz of theme parks and attractions. Anyone of a certain age who has experienced the artificial delights of central Florida with young children won’t necessarily consider returning for a relaxing beach holiday.
But if you look beyond Mickey and his friends you can find idyllic beaches of powdery silver sand, awesome sun rises and sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico and an abundance of wildlife just waiting to be spotted.
Sanibel and its little sister, Captiva, are barrier islands situated just off the west coast of south Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. They are reached by a causeway, that links the islands with the city of Fort Myers. (You can fly into Fort Myers airport by connecting through any number of American ‘gateways’ such as New York, Washington or Atlanta. Or you can fly directly into the larger airports of Tampa, Miami or even Orlando if you don’t mind a drive on arrival. Typical drive time from Tampa is 2½ hours and it is nearly all freeway.
Hiring a car is a must in Florida in order to get around. Being the USA the roads are fast and very good but distances can be longer than you think.
As soon as you come off the 3 mile causeway (Toll $6) from the mainland you notice that the pace of life has slowed down. Much of Sanibel & Captiva is a wild life reserve and to preserve the environment street lights are kept to a minimum. There are no traffic lights, neon signs, bill boards or fast food joints and many roads are paved with shells.
On arrival the first thing to do is ditch the car for a few days and use pedal power. Most hotels offer free bike rental but there are many outlets where you can hire bikes of shapes and sizes. Billy’s Bike Rentals on Periwinkle Way are one of the oldest and largest on the island – visit www.billysrentals.com for information.
The island has 25 miles of cycle paths and drivers are incredibly courteous towards cyclists. The speed limit for cars is only 35 mph so you won’t have to put up with traffic roaring past you. Get up early and cycle to one of the many restaurants that offer a home cooked breakfast. The Lighthouse Café at the south end of the Island boasts the World’s Best Breakfast and you will soon see why. Plates loaded with pancakes, eggs and bacon will give you bags of energy to take a detour on your way back. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for cycle rides, before it gets too hot. You may be lucky and spot dolphins who often swim up into the canals that criss cross the island, or a lumbering tortoise negotiating the sidewalk around the wildlife refuge.
Shelling is another laid back activity that is popular with islanders and visitors alike. The beaches are covered with new shells after every tide and no-one will leave without some mementos to take home. To find out about the wide variety of shells to be found visit the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum on the Sanibel-Captiva Road (www.shellmuseum.org) or take an early morning boat trip with Capt. Mike Fuery, Sanibel’s resident shell expert. Mike knows them all and will take you to deserted beaches to find some real beauties (www.sanibel-online.com/fuery). His trips can be combined with a stop for breakfast or lunch at the unique Cabbage Key, a private island only accessible by boat, helicopter or seaplane.
Sanibel is internationally known as the home of the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the best spots for schmoozing with birds and nature, either by driving, walking or cycling the 4 mile Wildlife Drive or getting onto the water in a kayak. During the winter months flocks of migrating birds make the area a bird watchers dream whilst resident alligators, raccoons and manatees are often spotted. Learn about the delicate ecosystem sustained by the mighty mangrove trees and wetlands.
You won’t find MacDonald’s or Burger King here but you will experience locally run restaurants with individual menus using local produce. Likewise with shopping, no designer Malls or Outlet opportunities but an array of individual boutiques and galleries strung along the main street, Periwinkle Way. Yes, prices are more expensive so if shopping is your bag, then head over the causeway for a day of retail therapy. Just 15 minutes drive will bring you to Tanger Outlets in Fort Myers, home of all the big designer names at factory prices. If you have longer to spare, just an hours drive out of town is Miromar Outlets, the size of a small town and a shopper’s paradise.
After getting your fix of commercialism it’s a relief to drive back across the causeway into the peace and tranquillity of ‘the islands’. As dusk falls join the small crowds that gather along the shoreline to watch the incredible sunsets and gasp at the colours that appear. Look back to the mainland and the necklace of twinkling lights that are Fort Myers and Naples and soak up the silence of Sanibel.
For more information, visit American Sky.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky.
Images courtesy The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel