CAPTIVA ISLAND — In the sultry heat of this lush island, the salty, sweet smell of sea grapes casts a spell on visitors.
On sandy paths to the beach and on strolls down narrow shaded streets, you’ll smell those fragrant flowers and secretly wonder how much it would take to live here.
It’s no wonder The Wall Street Journal ranked Captiva one of the 10 best places in the country to own a second home. The asking price may be steep — say, $1.4 million for a three-bedroom place ... not on the water. But it’s tempting to dream about it here, where a grouper wind vane sits atop the clapboard Chapel-By-The-Sea and you can easily walk to the beach to see spectacular sunsets.
Even the dead are lavished in nature’s beauty. At the seaside cemetery next to the chapel, loved ones leave conchs and smaller seashells on tombstones, including one that says simply: “Sunsets on the beach forever.”
Captiva and its bigger sister just to the south, Sanibel Island, are more lush and tropical than just about anywhere in Florida. They’re home to thousands of coconut palms, heavy with green coconuts during summertime. Pink, purple and scarlet bougainvillea burst from yards and byways, sometimes intertwining with banana trees, dripping with bunches of sweet yellow bananas.
Double coral hibiscus competes with the pink, fragrant flowers of frangipani. The orange flowers of royal poinciana trees fill the skies and then bike paths and sidewalks when they fall, and trees along Captiva Drive burst with yellow orchid-like flowers that turn garnet before floating gracefully to the ground.
All that beauty prompts residents to name their homes as poets title their poems: Blue Heavens, Paradise Found, Aloha Baby, Captivating, Captured.
And who wouldn’t want to be captured here on these two barrier islands west of Pine Island and Fort Myers in Lee County?
Hurricane Charley hit hard here back in August 2004. But you wouldn’t know that now. Sure, The Australian pines that lined Captiva Drive were blown down, but that’s a good thing, says Lee Rose, communications manager for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.
“That was the upside to Charley — it took out exotic vegetation. We were really very fortunate with Charley. We had no storm surge. Most damage was to vegetation. ... It could have been worse.’’
Charley stormed through South Seas Island Resort on the north end of Captiva, ripping down trees and damaging units, but the resort is now better than ever, he says, with $140 million in upgrades since that awful day.
After Charley, one Sanibel resident predicted the islands would bounce back, be just as beautiful, maybe even prettier, because the fallen trees would allow more light to shine down.
She was right. Like Captiva, Sanibel, in anyone’s judgment, is a gorgeous place, where orchids thrive on palm trees in The Village Shops on Periwinkle Way, and royal blue, purple and pink bromeliads grow wild, even in parking lots. At every turn, you see color: a man on a bike with a pink beach float looped over one arm, another biker toting his blue beach chair.
Sanibel is the larger of the two islands, with about 33 square miles, almost half of it water and half designated a wildlife refuge. Its 6,400-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge encompasses the largest undeveloped mangrove estuary in the country.
Here, on a 4-mile walk, drive, bike or tram ride, you’ll likely see flocks of roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, ibis, great blue herons, little blue herons, hawks, osprey, frigates, kites and any number of the 220 bird species seen in the refuge.
We have all those here in the Tampa Bay area, of course, but not in the vast numbers you’ll likely see in the refuge. On our visit, we counted 25 brilliant-pink roseate spoonbills sunning on a sandy spit.
Darling was a popular political cartoonist-environmentalist who fell in love with the estuary when he wintered on Sanibel and Captiva in the 1930s, and he spurred President Harry Truman to make it a refuge in 1945. The refuge’s excellent visitor and education center shares his story and offers hands-on exhibits about sea turtles, manatees and shorebirds. Volunteers and staffers happily answer questions and loan out binoculars free of charge.
We asked if a crocodile we saw in the refuge years ago was still around and were directed to an exhibit of a skeleton of a croc named Wilma that lived in and around the refuge for more than 25 years, until she died in 2010.
“At a memorial service for her, we toasted her with Gatorade,” a worker told us, smiling.
The visitor center, which has free admission, features a movie about the refuge, a gift and book shop, a display of carved ducks, and replicas of manatees, birds and other wildlife.
But wildlife is everywhere you look. On our visit, we saw two adult manatees swimming with their calf in the warm waters of San Carlos Sound, east of the Sanibel Lighthouse. A crowd of swimmers and shellers followed them in the water, snapping photos with smartphones as the manatees splashed, swam and surfaced for air.
When one man looked as though he was about to touch one, several people on shore yelled out to stop him, since that’s against Florida law. Another day, we saw a mother manatee and her calf next to the dock of the house we rented.
In Pine Island Sound, off Captiva, we spotted dolphins every day — often in pairs, or four or five at a time — and we counted 32 night herons sunning on grass flats, alongside dozens of snowy egrets. We also saw evidence of sea turtle nests along the beaches, encircled by yellow tape to stop people from tromping on them.
Sanibel Island is known worldwide for its white, sandy beaches and for its massive number of shells. The island is unusual in that it juts east to west, so shells in the Gulf wash up on its shores “like onto a shelf,” as one person described it. You’ll likely find calico scallops, pear whelks, Scotch bonnets, lightning whelks, lion’s paws, figs, fighting conchs and lots of other treasures.
Some say the best shelling beaches are Bowman’s Beach in Sanibel; at Blind Pass, between Sanibel and Captiva; and on Turner Beach, just north of Blind Pass on Captiva. Captiva’s beach has great shells, too, especially at low tide and early in the morning before all the good ones have been scooped up.
While wintering in a beach cottage in Captiva back in the ’50s, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote “Gift From the Sea,’’ an ode to Captiva’s shells and to its beauty and solitude. It still sells in bookstores in Sanibel.
Shells are such a hot commodity here that Bailey’s General Store on Sanibel even puts a shell guide on its bags. If you don’t want to do the “Sanibel Stoop” to find them yourself, the Goodwill shop on Sanibel sells shells for 99 cents each.
Besides shelling, sunset watching is another popular pastime in Sanibel and Captiva. It seems everyone visiting or living here drops everything just before sunset and wanders west to see the sun set over the Gulf. A show of pink, salmon, scarlet, fire orange and even yellow blazes across the sky free of charge. Dinner and drinks can wait.
Sanibel and Captiva have distinctly different personalities, even though they have lushness, shelling and sunset watching in common. Sanibel is much larger, with 7,000 residents compared to 583 in Captiva, which is comprised of just 1.2 square miles of land and 9.2 square miles of water.
Both swell by the thousands in the winter and have become more popular even in summer, when it can be 92 in the shade.
“Summer and fall used to be our off season,’’ says the convention and visitor bureau’s Rose. “But visitation then has picked up.”
In Sanibel, visitors fan out to dozens of resorts, hotels, motels, condo complexes and rental homes. In Captiva, they stay in the upscale South Seas Island Resort, ’Tween Waters Inn Island Resort (between the Gulf and the sound as its name implies), or at a small inn, condos, cottages and rental homes.
Captiva has nothing like Sanibel’s mile after mile of places to stay along Gulf Drive.
Sanibel has miles of bike paths, at least three bookstores, boutiques and gift shops, bait shops and art galleries. Years ago, townspeople stopped a McDonald’s from building here, but the island does have a DQ and an Ace Hardware. It also has several longtime restaurants, among them a Lazy Flamingo at each end of the island; Matzaluna The Italian Kitchen on the main drag, Periwinkle Way; and Timbers Fish Market on Tarpon Bay Road. That’s just a sampling of the dozens of places to eat on the island.
Captiva, much smaller, has a handful of restaurants — from old stalwart The Bubble Room to recent arrival Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille within South Seas Island Resort, named for the main character in some of local writer Randy Wayne White’s novels. Sanibel has long had its own popular Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on Rabbit Road.
Captiva also has several shops, boutiques and art galleries, but not nearly as many as in Sanibel. Jungle Drums Gallery, on Andy Rosse Lane, is exceptional, with a wide array of sculptures, paintings, prints, jewelry and glassware, much of it reflecting wildlife found on the island.
When we first vacationed in Captiva 30 years ago, many homes were owned by people who lived in them year-round or at least in the winter. Now, it seems most are vacation rentals. Many of the old white beach cottages have been replaced by faux-Mediterraneans or other mega rentals. That’s happened on Anna Maria Island in Manatee County, too, making them less of a community and more like an attraction.
But some things — the boating and fishing for snook and redfish, especially — are, thankfully, the same. More people are boating and fishing these days, and now paddleboarders and anglers in kayaks are in the mix. But there’s room for all.
Indeed, it’s fun to see so many people on Captiva celebrating sunsets. Especially on the beaches bordering The Mucky Duck and South Seas Island Resort, dozens gather and applaud when the sun drops under the horizon and a rainbow of colors spreads across the sky.
Tips for the trip
WHERE TO STAY
Captiva and Sanibel offer all sorts of accommodations. To check out the array, go to www.fortmyers-sanibel.com and www.sanibel-captiva.org.
WHERE TO EAT
In Sanibel, try the Lighthouse Cafe and The Island Cow for breakfast, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille for lunch and Matzaluna The Italian Kitchen for dinner. In Captiva, we like RC Otter’s Island Eats for breakfast, and Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille and The Bubble Room for lunch or dinner. We also heard good things about Sunshine Seafood Cafe and Cantina Captiva, both on Captiva Drive. Their menus are all online.
The Bubble Room, chock full of antique toys, photos of old movie stars and just plain kitsch, is fun for kids and old time’s sake if you’ve been there before, but prices are steep, so we like to go for lunch. On our visit at lunchtime, the hamburgers and homemade potato chips were excellent, and we had very good service from a “Bubble Scout” (their name for servers) whose name tag said “Cupcake.” She had worked there 12 years, but was in no way bored with her job.
Some in our party doubled back in the evening for takeout desserts. Red velvet cake, Jamaican rum cake, butter crunch ice cream pie and orange crunch cake are popular, even at $8.75 a slice.
Be sure to visit J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel. For hours and other details, see www.fws.gov/dingdarling/Visitorinformation.
Biking and kayaking are good ways to enjoy the islands and water. For rental and tour information and bike trail suggestions, see www.sanibel-captiva.org.
For fishing guides, charters, boat rentals and a sailing school, also see www.sanibel-captiva .org and www.fortmyers-sanibel.com.
To learn about cruises from Captiva to Cayo Costa for shelling and to nearby Cabbage Key, Useppa Island, Boca Grande and Pine Island for lunch, see www.captivacruises.com.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Stop by the Sanibel Island and Captiva Island Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center at
1159 Causeway Road on Sanibel; (239) 472-1080.
Even in a beautiful, seemingly safe place like Captiva, bad things can happen if you don’t take good care.
During our recent visit, a German couple with an infant and toddler got disoriented in their rental boat during a thunderstorm and ended up trying to tie up on the dock of our rental house. They had spent the day at Cayo Costa and meant to go east to Cape Coral, but headed south to Captiva instead when the storm brewed up. We helped them out of their boat and tied it off so they could wait out the storm before heading out again.