By Tom Dwyer
As winter sets in, and the Hudson River starts to freeze, Hudson County residents dream of escaping to a tropical paradise. But getting there can be a pain, especially if you need to change planes or go through customs. That’s where Sanibel and Captiva Islands come in. Just two-and-a-half hours on a direct flight from Newark Airport to Ft. Myers, Florida, located on the Gulf Coast, a pair of welcoming and enchanting American islands await you. Rent a car at the Ft. Myers airport and it’s a quick and easy 30-minute drive to Sanibel and Captiva.
Local lore has it that rum-running pirates and CIA operatives once lived on these islands. But it’s the natural beauty and the gulf waters and its unique shell-covered beaches that make these islands magical. The residents have a deep love and respect for the wildlife and the land—from protecting the alligators on golf courses, to maintaining the renowned J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a 6,400 acre sanctuary that shelters 290 species of birds, 50 types of reptiles and at least 30 mammals. www.fws.gov/dingdarling In addition to its natural wonders and world-class sunsets, Sanibel and Captiva offer a variety of sophisticated but casual lodgings, restaurants and cultural events. The islands attract visitors from Europe and Canada as well as most states across America, with New Jersey rating in the top five.
In fact, my wife and I visited the islands twice last year. Our first decision was where to stay. The range of accommodations: condos, house rentals, hotels and motels, inns, timeshares and camping. Last March we chose the Casa Ybel Resort in Sanibel, with one and two-bedroom condo suites and fully equipped kitchens. The resort’s Thistle Lodge Restaurant is one of the island’s finest. www.casaybelresort.com It didn’t take us long to discover that biking is the way to explore the true beauty of these islands. There are 22 miles of flat and well-marked bike paths, and plenty of bike rental shops. If you’re feeling fit and want to see the islands in all their panoramic beauty, bike from the lighthouse at the tip of Sanibel to the Seven Seas Resort at the tip of Captiva.
Our most recent trip to Sanibel and Captiva was in December. (High season runs from Christmas week to the end of March. The population of the islands can triple during that period.) This time we wanted to experience more of the old-school (but still first-rate) Florida Gulf Coast inns. The Island Inn on Sanibel is the most historic lodging on the island. We stayed in a beach cottage just yards away from the Gulf waters. It was a blend of old-fashioned beach living (painted white wood floors, screened verandah) and modern conveniences (wide-screen TV, Wi-Fi and air conditioning). Their restaurant, Traditions on the Beach, offers a classic menu with Mediterranean-inspired dishes – and fresh fish right off the boat. There’s a superb wine list and the staff welcomed each diner like they were the one customer they couldn’t wait to see. The holiday décor at the Island Inn was charming. In fact, Sanibel and Captiva go all out with Christmas decorations, hanging lights on palm trees and just about everything else that doesn’t move. It’s a beautiful thing. www.islandinnsanibel.com
We packed the car for the short, scenic drive along the San-Cap Road, crossing a two-lane bridge into Captiva, a thin-strip of island with mansions tucked behind luscious gardens on both sides of the road. Both Sanibel and Captiva are world-famous for the variety of sea shells found on their beaches. (The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is a must. www.shellmuseum.org .) It wasn’t long before even novice shell seekers like us were in the Captiva crouch searching for the perfect treasure along the shoreline. Captiva also attracts the young and more hi-octane water sports athletes, like surfers, parasailers and kayakers. At the far end of Captiva, there’s the recently renovated South Sea Island resort, a 300-acre resort that offers tons of activities including: a spa, sailing, fitness center, tennis, fishing, shopping, golf. www.southseas.com
Our choice in Captiva was ‘Tween Waters Inn Island Resort. The view of the Gulf of Mexico from our beachfront terrace was stunning. The Olympic-size swimming pool was just the place to hang out, read novels and shake away the winter blues. A sea salt scrub at the spa smoothed away even more rough edges. We did miles of walking on the beach (word to the wise: bring a flashlight if you’re out after sunset.) We capped off the day with a gourmet meal at Old Captiva House. www.tween-waters.com
With both public and private golf courses on the islands it’s pretty hard not to find one that fits your handicap. Check out the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club www.dunesgolfsanibel.com South Seas Island resort www.southseas.com Sundial Beach & Golf resort. www.sanibelcollection.com and The Sanctuary Golf Club www.sanctuarygc.net The Sanctuary, an 18-hole course designed by Arthur Hills, is a private club but If you’re lucky enough to know a member, a visit to the Sanctuary is a must – even for duffers. The Sanctuary is a certified Audubon Cooperative – much of the design and planning involves strict protection of endangered species. Matter of fact, we did see an alligator sunning at the 14th hole. The Sanctuary is the nation’s only golf course that reports to the US Department of Interior because of its prominent role in conserving native plants and wildlife, and it’s won awards as a model of environmental stewardship.
Other Things to Do
Big Arts — Herb Strauss Theatre www.bigarts.org First-class exhibits, musical and dramatic performances and classes. A stop for visitors and residents alike.
Sanibel Sea School — If you have kids you must check it out www.sanibelseaschool.org
The Mucky Duck, located on the beach in Captiva. English pub with terrific food. Amazing key lime pie. The sunset from the patio is spectacular. www.muckyduck.com
The 75th Annual Sanibel Shell Fair & Show March 1-3rd 2012. www.shellabration2012.com
Captiva Cruises – A great day on the water. Look for dolphins. Take the half-day cruise to the tiny island of Cabbage Key, and have a burger in one of the coolest food shacks around. Save a dollar bill to tack on the wall —it’s a tradition. www.captivacruises.com
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill – a local best-selling mystery writer owns the place. www.docfords.com
Bailey’s General Store —full service grocery and hardware store. And the best iced coffee on the islands. Where people meet and greet. www.baileys-sanibel.com
The Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce staff can help you with any questions concerning visiting Sanibel & Captiva. www.sanibel-captiva.org