Shellicious Sanibel Island
A Snowbird’s Paradise in Old Florida
When the weather howls, many RVers head for warmer climates. One of the least explored snowbird destinations is Sanibel Island, a subtropical barrier island in Southwest Florida with lots of warm emerald waters and gorgeous sunsets perfect for RVing. This sultry paradise also boasts some of the best shelling in the world, so we’re Sanibel bound.
Laid-back island life is enchanting, but the costs of transporting motorhomes to most islands make RVing prohibitive. Not so on Sanibel Island. In 1963, the 3-mile-long Sanibel Causeway replaced the ferry and, for $6 (round trip), RVers can drive their rigs right onto this charming bit of sand. (A short bridge connects Sanibel with next-door Captiva Island.)
When the Sanibel Causeway was built, islanders feared rampant development would spoil their piece of Old Florida. They established the Sanibel Comprehensive Land Use Plan, and today more than half of the island is preserved in its natural state. There are also restrictions limiting building height and chain businesses. The result is an island surrounded by azure Gulf of Mexico waters and filled with colorful tropical birds, mangroves and swamps, and manatees and dolphins that are a hop away from development and an international airport, yet a world away. Sanibel is a place to slow down, take a deep breath, and say, “Ahhh.”
We pull the motorhome onto the island and head straight for Periwinkle Park & Campground, the island’s only RV park. Like many RV parks in Florida, Periwinkle reserves a number of sites for permanent residents, but they offer 80 full-hookup sites for travelers like us, including big-rig and smaller sites. The sites are grass- or sand-topped and some feature concrete patios. There are also showers, a laundry room and game room, but the real charmers are the bird aviary and duck pond, a 30-year project of owners Dick and Jerry Muench. A series of cages house smaller birds and colorful parrots and macaws. There are also big aviaries for cranes and hornbills. There’s even a large cage with fuzzy brown and ring-tailed lemurs. The pond, which is filled with a colorful show of wild and resident ducks and swans like mallards, ruddies and shovelers, features a coin-operated feed station where, for 25 cents, we create feathered frenzies tossing grain to the birds.
There are only two main island roads — Periwinkle Way/Sanibel-Captiva on the east side and West Gulf Drive facing the Gulf — and traffic can get pretty jammed up, especially on the south end where most of the businesses are located. Also, parking is limited, so we opt to park the motorhome and use our dinghy vehicle. It’s a great decision because the roads on tiny Captiva Island, our first stop, are not RV-friendly with lots of tight turns, narrow lanes and dead-end streets.
Dolphins and Cheeseburgers in Paradise
We’re up early to meet Captain Tom Jones of Captiva Cruises for a half-day, narrated sail on the 62-foot Lady Chadwick to Cabbage Key, one of the many tiny islands that dot the waters. As soon as Jones pulls the double-decker boat away from McCarthy’s Marina, wild bottle-nose dolphins begin surfing in the boat’s wake. They’re just a few of the 400 resident dolphins that ply the Intracoastal Waterway year-round. Our tour guide tells us that dolphins like to hear and see us, which is why they turn on their sides as they cruise alongside. He says dolphins respond to shouting, clapping, whistling. Regardless of whether or not this is true, before long, the 30 or so passengers are whooping it up as dozens of pink-nosed dolphins streak through the water.
As we sip sodas and Bloody Marys under the boat’s shady cover, we spot osprey and cormorants diving for breakfast in the shallow waters. While there’s water as far as the eye can see, the average water depth is about 5 feet and Jones carefully navigates through the narrow channel. “If we run aground and have to abandon ship, just stand up,” our tour guide jokes.
We cruise through Pine Island Sound, passing historic fishing shacks on stilts and a number of low-lying barrier islands, including Pine, Cayo Costa, and North Captiva. In the 1920s, a hurricane punched a hole through Captiva Island, creating Redfish Pass and North Captiva. Within an hour or so, we pull up to Cabbage Key, a small dollop of sand dotted with mangroves and several vacation homes, including Cabbage Key Inn, the former home of playwright and novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart.
The restaurant is casual, with big screened openings and signed dollar bills covering the walls and ceiling. We order their juicy, signature burgers that reputedly inspired Jimmy Buffett to write the song “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” After lunch, we have just enough time to climb the historic water tower and explore the short nature trail before reboarding the Lady Chadwick for home.
Back on land, we stop at Captiva’s famous Bubble Room, an eclectic restaurant with three floors and five dining rooms with kitschy, over-the-top decorations (trains, antiques, circus collectibles, Mickey Mouse, twinkly lights, celebrity photos, Christmas decorations and more) and legendary cakes. We buy giant pieces of their signature Orange Crunch and White Christmas Coconut cakes to enjoy later.
On Sanibel, we scout out the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the most comprehensive museum in the Northern Hemisphere dedicated to shells. We start with the 30-minute, “Mollusks on the March” video and learn that the island boasts 300 different types of mollusks both single-shelled gastropods (snails) and two-shelled bivalves. In the gallery, we find shells have been collected and used as money, jewelry, cookware and weaponry for thousands of years. There are beautiful examples of shells from Southwest Florida and around the world, including the giant goliath conch, the lightning whelk, the Atlantic triton’s trumpet and the horse conch. Before leaving, we buy a waterproof Sanibel and Captiva shell guide.
Birds and Shells Galore
The next morning, we meet Tarpon Bay Explorers for a 90-minute narrated tram tour of J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Darling was a cartoonist and environmental activist who served as the first director of the forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He organized a system of wildlife refuges like the 8,000 acres that makes up this refuge. As our tram navigates the 4 miles of paved roadway, tram guide and master naturalist, Don, points out different plants, including mangrove, wild coffee, and sea grape and birds like herons, osprey, eagles, cormorants, great and snowy egrets, and huge white-and-brown pelicans. “The waters are very shallow here,” Don tells us, “and rich with fish and nutrients so it attracts thousands of birds. It’s a veritable buffet for birds.”
Like many, Don is a volunteer. With only six staffers, it’s the 250-plus volunteers, including a number of RVers, who sell tickets, drive the trams, staff the gift shop and lead refuge tours. They also offer four RV sites for volunteers, something that might be fun for us to do in the future.
We stop frequently to walk along boardwalks snaking through mangrove swamps to overlook ponds and lakes. Dozens of ibis pick up small fish with their curved beaks; brown-black anhingas and cormorants sit in low-hanging trees drying their outspread wings; flocks of comical pelicans march in unison like soldiers. We hungrily snap photos and wonder at the beauty all around us.
The tram isn’t the only way to experience the refuge. You can walk, bike, or drive your car through. (The refuge drive is closed to cars on Fridays.) Biking is especially popular and, with 22 miles of paved trails, you can explore nearly everywhere on the island, including the refuge, on two wheels. (Bike rentals available.)
After a quick lunch, armed with what we learned from our tour guide and a map from the Education Center, we spend the afternoon leisurely driving the refuge and taking more pictures.
It’s late, but we don’t feel like cooking. Instead, we heed the recommendation of a local and head for Traditions on the Beach at the historic Island Inn overlooking the Gulf. The Inn has been hosting guests since 1895 and part of the restaurant, including the bar’s wood-plank floor, is more than 100 years old. Even some of the shells displayed in the restaurant’s lobby were collected by guests in the early 1900s.
Traditions on the Beach itself is a step back in time. It’s a supper club that harkens back to the 1950s-’60s, complete with a dance floor where couples sway to songs like “As Time Goes By” by a live jazz-swing combo. The Mediterranean-themed food features fresh, local ingredients and the creamy crabmeat manicotti, ultra-rich lobster ravioli and silky tiramisu leave me in a happy food haze.
The next day, we spend the morning at the Sanibel farmers market stocking up on provisions. Sandwiched in a courtyard between Old Florida wooden clapboard buildings, this market has it all — fresh vegetables, local meats and fish, handmade pasta, artisan cheese, single-origin chocolate, and freshly baked breads, pastries and cookies. Judging from the happy crowds, it’s a favorite among residents and visitors alike.
We’d booked a naturalist-led kayak tour through the waters of the refuge with Tarpon Bay Explorers. However, the weather is unseasonably cool and, when we get to the launch point, the wind is whipping the waves. A few brave souls hit the water, but we opt to wait out the weather at Sweet Melissa’s Cafe. The grilled romaine salad and uber-fresh local mussels in sweet-savory tomato-saffron broth are so good I want to lick the bowl.
Armed with our shelling guide from the museum, after lunch we head for the beach. Storms and strong winds bring millions of shells to the beaches of Sanibel and the museum staff suggested choosing a beach facing the current wind direction. We drive to West Gulf Drive and pay for parking at one of the beach-access areas ($2 an hour). The beach is loaded with thousands and thousands of shells, especially bivalves like tiger and buttercup lucines, white-as-snow Atlantic surf clams, white-and-yellow cockles, and orange-gray-and-yellow zigzag scallops. Before long, we’re doing the “Sanibel Stoop,” walking in the classic bent-over position of shell hunters.
Despite walking a ways, we’re not finding the more interesting snail-type shells. That is, until we meet a crazy man wading thigh-high in the surf.
The wind is stiff, and this man, dressed in shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, stands in the chilly surf. Each time the waves retreat, he plunges his arm into the water. We watch perplexed. After a few minutes, he rushes onto the beach toward us, his hands filled with beautiful twisty horse conches, pear whelks and king’s crowns.
“You want these?” he says grinning. He hands over his booty and then plunges back into the surf.
By the time we leave Sanibel, our suitcases are filled with so many shells, we can hardly lift them. Sanibel truly is shellicious.
For More Information
The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
888-679-6450 | www.shellmuseum.org
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Periwinkle Park & Campground
Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce
Tarpon Bay Explorers
239-472-8900 | www.tarponbayexplorers.com