Birds of a Feather

By staff June 1, 2004

When I visited Sanibel and Captiva this winter, I noticed they were doing the strangest thing. They were tearing up the road for a new sewer system. This meant the main road was one lane in several sections, with those guys holding those revolving "Slow" and "Stop" signs.

How bizarre for a town in Florida to be doing such a thing in the tourist season. If it happened where I lived, a crowd would storm city hall. People would be fired. You just don't perform any elective surgery during tourist season. It's the one element of civic affairs that everyone agrees on.

But not here. Not in Sanibel, not in Captiva. They relish it. I heard not one complaint from the locals. Why? Not only does it speak to the contrary, New England-like island soul of the place, but it is all being done in the name of Nature. The new sewer line will eliminate all the septic tanks, which means that the mangrove swamps and estuaries and marshes will be even more natural.

I can't think of another place in the country that has quite the same relationship to nature as Sanibel-Captiva. The islanders relish all its pleasures; indeed, many of them could be described as in nature's thrall. But this is not the nature of a golf course. It is much more up-close and interactive. Here the most popular sports are birding and shelling. In the way that money rules Palm Beach and hedonism rules Key West, nature rules Captiva and Sanibel. And like such places it lives in a world of its own.

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Nature was certainly kind to the islands. In a competition of Florida barrier islands, they would probably place first in natural beauty. They are lusher than the Keys and lack that scruffy look that some of the islands to the north have. The reason must be the latitude they fall at. Whatever it is, it's perfect for a spectacular range of trees and plants-oaks, pines, palms and more sea grape than you have ever seen in your life. Everywhere there is shade, and the prettiest kind-dappled sunlight filtered through the leaves, down to the shell drives and lanes that many people use instead of concrete.

Though Sanibel and Captiva lie just 30 miles from downtown Fort Myers, they remained off the beaten track well into the '70s. Since then, the path has definitely been beaten. Their home county, Lee, is one of the fastest growing in the country; and just miles away, on the mainland, things are being done to land and swamps that must bring a shudder to the heart of any islander.

I kept hearing a lot about Marco Island from the Captivians and the Sanibelians. They don't like it. Or rather, they consider it the anti-Captiva, what would have happened to them if they hadn't fought so hard.

The two places certainly are different. I imagine years ago Marco must have been much like its neighbors to the north, lush and green, with big patches undeveloped. Today it is thoroughly built up, with homes everywhere, its beautiful beaches lined with high-rise hotels and condos. I've been to Marco Island and I rather like it. I can see people going there for the weather, the luxury, the social life.

But I can't see them going to Marco for the spirituality. That is Sanibel and Captiva's niche. With so much nature staring one in the face, one's mind can't help but turn toward weighty matters. What is important in life? What is God's plan? Look at the bird on the wing-what secrets does he know?

The islands' most famous seeker after meaning was Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She and her husband, Charles, used to come to Captiva back in the 1930s, when it was more an expedition than a vacation trip. They would paddle through the mangroves, bird watch, have picnics on the beach-just as people do today. It came to be a special place in their marriage.

After the war, Anne returned alone. She was having a crisis, what today would be understood as the feminine version of a midlife crisis. She had five children demanding her attention, a moody and distant husband, plus the wounds she received when her husband's pro-fascist activities garnered both of them so much hatred. She was unhappy, depressed; and these were the days before Zoloft. She had to get away.

Then the strangest thing happened. She's walking on the beach like everybody else, looking for shells, and she starts to notice that in the design of each one, there is a lesson from nature. For instance, one shell might have two separate valves, yet fit into a greater whole. In this design she would see the dichotomy of marriage-separate but united-and draw solace from it. She realized that what she was going through was natural. She just had to understand it and accept it.

Anne collected a series of these thoughts into a book called Gift from the Sea. It was published in 1955 and stayed at the top of the best-seller list for years. It definitely struck a chord with its target audience of affluent but dissatisfied housewives; and though its message is quite timid by today's standards, it is looked back on as one of the major precursors of the feminist movement, and as the grandmother of today's self-help books.

But to me all the book's accomplishments obscure its larger meaning as far as Captiva goes. Here is this woman who desperately needs to get away before she goes nuts, so she goes off to this idyllic place. Once there, she discovers the answer to her problems. But it's not something that just occurs to her. It is something that is presented to her by the island. Only Captiva, with all its shells, could have revealed the secret. God knows what would have happened if she went to, say, Puerto Rico.

But she went to Captiva. And not only did she get a good rest, she became more spiritual and made millions. As far as vacations go it may be the most successful of all time. And it happened right on Captiva. 

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An experience like Mrs. Lindbergh's is a little too much to hope for, but today's visitor can still have a good time, both spiritually and physically. The aforementioned traffic aside, Sanibel has the air of a prosperous, low-key resort town. Like most barrier islands, it has a distinctive geography-a main road off which smaller roads branch and head down to the Gulf, in one direction, or the bay, in the other. Men and women who look like they might be retired doctors and college professors pedal their bikes. The only business being conducted is resort business-shopping, real estate. There are no high-rises, and the shopping plazas are discreet, even attractive. A tendency is developing toward the use of bright pastels in the signage, which disturbs me a little. It just isn't Sanibel.

Captiva is just to the north of Sanibel, over a little bridge. It is the deluxe version, put out to please a more discriminating market. It has its share of mega-mansions, to be sure, but they are hidden away down winding drives. Much of the housing stock remains gussied-up old beach houses of decades past. It is the custom to give the larger of these names, which are painted on signs out by the driveway: Osprey's Nest, Pair-a-dice. There is a tiny little downtown, which is suddenly becoming very upscale.

Both islands have plenty of places to stay, from a big family-oriented condo resort like the Sundial, to the ultra-deluxe South Seas Plantation. But the 'Tween Waters Inn offered me a free room if I paid my own bar bill and was out by Wednesday, so I decided to give it a try. Besides, the Inn best captures the style of the place, everyone would agree. It has been there since the early days and much of the islands' history happened there. Teddy Roosevelt visited, and the Lindberghs, of course. It is where the famous cartoonist Jay "Ding" Darling-more about him later-wintered for 30 years, till he finally broke down and built a house, which is at the end of a pier way out in the Gulf and today is the studio of painter Robert Rauschenberg.

The word for the 'Tween Waters Inn is eclectic. The buildings are a harmonious jumble of styles, from tiny bungalows circa 1920 to modern-day, condo-like suites. Even the clientele is eclectic. At dinner in the Old Captiva House, I marveled at the mix: prosperous country-club Republicans next to hip young people from New York. Aside from excellent food, the Old Captiva House is notable as the place where Mrs. Lindbergh would dine after a hard day of examining shells, and on the walls are some of Ding Darling's cartoons. His triptych lampooning local shellers may well be the perfect Captiva work of art.

Sanibel and Captiva have the odd distinction of being places where people come for the seashells. The beaches are nice but what really makes them unique are the shells that wash up each day. And not just one or two great mounds of the things that you've got to slog through. This occurs because of the way the islands lie in the prevailing current. It's very rare and only happens here and in Africa. As a consequence, the islands-particularly Sanibel, which has an east-west orientation-are a mecca for anyone seriously interested in seashells. Shells are so important that when somebody finds a junonia, they get their picture in the paper. A store called She Sells Sea Shells has two different branches. They even have a seashell museum, and it is well worth a visit. Don't miss the video; at 30 minutes it's a little long but you sure do learn a lot about seashells. I had no idea they were such randy little creatures. 

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Not surprisingly, the islands' biggest attraction is a nature preserve. And not just any nature preserve, but the second or third most popular of America's 535 national wildlife refuges, with more than 850,000 visitors a year. Founded in 1945, it's named after Ding Darling, who wintered at the 'Tween Waters Inn in the late '30s and '40s and who was one of the founders of the conservation movement. It's a big place, over 5,000 acres. Several of the guidebooks refer to the beauty of Ding Darling as being "subtle," which worried me a little. Would it be too subtle? A couple of Crackers were holding forth at the pool bar and a good time was being had by all. Why ruin it with a nature preserve? I've lived in Florida for 20 years and frankly, when it comes to flora and fauna, I've seen it all.

Torn between the pool bar and the nature preserve-isn't that the Florida vacation dilemma? Fortunately the spirit of Sanibel and Captiva won out, and I got down to Ding Darling just in time for the last tour.

Yes, the beauty was subtle. But the information! Every new Floridian should be required to spend a day here. I've never seen a place that so brilliantly described what's going on around here, nature-wise.

By all means, take the tram tour. You can drive yourself, but then you don't get an expert to explain things to you. Of course, you also don't get an idiot who brings his cell phone on a nature tour and keeps taking calls on it. The rest of us were furious. We finally had the tour guide talk to him.

The best part was the birds. Thanks to the tour I finally know their names. During the five miles we encountered all my favorites: the black one who holds its wings up to dry (that turned out to be the double-crested cormorant); and the pink one that isn't a flamingo (the roseate spoonbill); and even the one that attacked me at the gas pump (a great blue heron.) We found out what they eat (mostly mosquito larvae) and saw their rookeries, although I wish now I'd asked what a rookery was.

You also encounter many other creatures on the tour, including crabs, spiders and even a mullet, who leapt out of the water at the perfect moment and flopped three times before disappearing again. The guide explained they do that to clear their sinuses.

There was also a family of raccoons, which I felt a little sorry for. Of all the species they benefit the least from a wildlife refuge. The visiting humans are on their best ecological behavior and won't dare feed them no matter how hard they beg. Consequently they are tiny little things. The garbage-eating raccoons who live in my back yard look like linebackers compared to these waif-like creatures, who stand by the side of the road with their paws out, their sad and soulful eyes pleading. It makes you realize just how cruel nature can be.

I left Ding Darling, that supposedly subtle place, feeling a little overwhelmed. It was now clear to me that it was entirely up to us. The other species just didn't get it. If the water temperature goes up one degree, they stop reproducing. You would think for the good of the Earth they would grit their teeth and try and live with warm water, but they don't. They are indifferent to such things.

And so is nature. It needs just the right balance. The islanders have fought for it and preserved it on Sanibel and Captiva but the outlook for the rest of Florida is scary. It really is being gobbled up. Soon humans will be everywhere and the little crabs and fishes will be history. Not a happy note to end a getaway vacation on, but one I think Sanibel and Captiva would approve of.

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