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Weekend planner

Treasure island Sanibel has a wealth of shells, fishing, wildlife

By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / February 23, 2005
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SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. -- There's no better way to learn about a new place than to get to know the natives. On our first visit to Sanibel, we were lucky to meet Charlie Sobczak, not quite a native but a 20-year resident, real estate agent, fisherman, and author of several self-published books set on Sanibel and neighboring Captiva. We were even luckier when he offered to show us some of the island's hidden gems, often overlooked by tourists.

Sanibel is in the Gulf of Mexico, connected by causeway to Fort Myers, about 20 miles away. Roughly 12 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest, Sanibel is still recovering from the wrath of last season's hurricanes. Friends said the most startling change in the topography is the virtual disappearance of the tree canopy that shaded the central thoroughfare, Periwinkle Way, and hid most of the buildings from view. Those tall Australian pines, not native to the area, were uprooted by the thousands. On Captiva, a smaller island connected by causeway to Sanibel's western tip, the damage was even more severe.

Last month, we saw several massive banyan trees, their tops lopped off, propped up with boards in the hope they would reroot themselves. The air was filled with the smell of tar paper and the zit-zit-zit of nail guns on new roofs.

Retailers are struggling, Sobczak said. "We have some 1,500 rooms on Sanibel and Captiva not being occupied. That means those people are not going to restaurants, not booking fishing charters, not shopping for gifts." Many retailers depend on winter business to carry them through the summer, he said. "What will happen when summer comes, God only knows. It's not going to be pretty."

Follow Periwinkle Way west, and you leave the shops and galleries behind. At what locals call the "quiet end" of the island is the West Wind Inn, a rambling, two-story gulf-front resort, where all the rooms have either a kitchenette or refrigerator and microwave (many lodgings on the island include kitchen facilities). On the beach in front of the inn we found ourselves joining dozens of shell-seekers in the bent-at-the-waist, head-down posture known locally as the "Sanibel stoop." The beaches on Sanibel and Captiva are considered some of the best shelling beaches in the world, and we filled our pockets with pastel scallops, crown conchs, and alphabet cones.

A visit to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, said to be the only one of its kind in the world, makes for more informed shelling. The building is a double octagon, inspired by "sailors' valentines," collections of shells in octagonal glass-topped shadow boxes. In addition to viewing shells in incredible colors from all over the world, visitors can learn how the Calusa Indians used shells for tools, utensils, and ornaments; trace the history of shells as a form of money; and check out the darker side of shells in a display on poisonous and disease-carrying species.

Popping in for dessert at the Bubble Room. Page E5.

The islanders are very protective of Sanibel's natural resources; some 65 percent of the island is conservation land. Visitors can drive, walk, hike, bike, canoe, kayak, or ride a tram through the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This 6,300-acre tract is home to more than 230 species of birds, 50 types of reptiles and amphibians, and 32 kinds of mammals. We spotted an anhinga, a ducklike bird that swims underwater to catch fish, perched in the mangroves with its wings outstretched to dry.

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation maintains more than 1,800 acres, with 4 miles of nature trails. Injured animals may end up at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife. Though the recovering animals are not allowed visitors, the clinic presents educational programs on wildlife safety and habitat preservation.

But to truly appreciate Sanibel, get off the beaten path, as we did one afternoon with Sobczak. We started and ended at island cemeteries.

Along a bicycle path off Middle Gulf Drive, a tiny cemetery holds members of the Reed family, who lived on Sanibel at the turn of the last century, and the body of a stranger, labeled "unknown male," that washed ashore near the lighthouse at the east end of the island in 1961. The graves are marked by rectangles of landscape timbers, covered with stones and shells. There is something eerily personal about the site.

Sobczak highly recommends the island's 23 miles of bike paths: "They're paved, they're set back from the road, and there are no hills," he said. "Much better for your back than picking up shells."

Some 10 miles away, on Captiva Island, we visited a gulf-front graveyard that Sobczak called possibly the most expensive cemetery in the world; the site, he estimated, is worth at least $5 million. We could smell the ocean as we stepped on the gravelly mix of sand and crushed shells. The sun trickled through palms and sea grapes. Among the hundred or so graves we were particularly touched by headstones for three Carter babies, including twins, who all died in 1910.

The cemetery is next to Captiva's Chapel by the Sea, built in 1904, a boxy white church that still hosts a lot of weddings. With some effort, you can spot small bungalows with the same unpretentious architecture nearly hidden among the mansions and upscale condos.

Sobczak said he likes to visit the cemeteries because they recall the islands' homesteader days, when inhabitants were explorers who lived off the land.

Back on Sanibel, we took a walk into the Bailey Tract of the Ding Darling refuge, a little-used parcel of trails, where the fragrance of jasmine fills the air. Sobczak said he has seen red-shouldered hawks, anhingas, herons, pileated woodpeckers, indigo buntings , and even bobcats here -- but few humans.

Along with shells and wildlife, fishing draws visitors to Sanibel. In 2003, Field & Stream magazine listed the waters around Sanibel and Captiva among the country's top fishing destinations. There are some 50 species, and the season runs year-round. The Sanibel-Captiva Causeway and the pier by the lighthouse are popular spots for surf casting. The Bait Box on Periwinkle Way is a good place to start for licenses and equipment. Sobczak treated us to some grouper he had caught. We took it to the Lazy Flamingo, where the chef prepares "your catch" fried, grilled, or mesquite grilled and serves it with french fries and salad.

It was also thanks to Sobczak that we participated in one of Sanibel's sillier traditions -- the New Year's Day Polar Bear Swim, in which a jovial and self-congratulatory crowd braved the 78-degree air temperature and 68-degree water temperature of South Florida to take a dip in the ocean. We challenged them all to come to Boston next Jan. 1 and join the L Street Brownies -- now that's a swim worthy of polar bears.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ealbanese@globe.com.

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