When you live in a coastal paradise like Sarasota, a short getaway to another island on the Gulf of Mexico can feel like needless repetition. Should you splurge on a beach vacation so close by? Yes. A thousand times yes, especially if the island is easy to get to and yet feels so completely remote and unfamiliar.
This spring, my sister and I were invited to spend four days and three nights at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva, an island about a 2 ½-hour drive away from downtown Sarasota. As someone who usually likes unplanned adventures and an absence of people, I was surprised to find out how much I delighted in this island resort of manicured amenities and activities and how different it is from our own barrier islands.
Captiva is only five miles long. The resort takes up 2 ½ miles of the island on its north tip, and the drive to get there is magical. You come in over Sanibel Causeway, a three-mile bridge ($6 toll) to Sanibel Island, Captiva’s sister island to the south. The islands weren’t always sisters. They were created during a 1921 hurricane that tore them apart, and today their only land connection is a small bridge over Blind Pass.
Both islands are famous for their natural beauty, which is largely a result of residents’ fierce passion and political will to protect nature and resist overdevelopment. No building on these islands is over three stories (residents and realtors like to say “nothing taller than the tallest palm tree”) and two-thirds of the islands have been preserved for parks and conservation areas. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a huge, irreplaceable treasure, is located on Sanibel. These islands retain the feeling of an older, quieter Florida when water, plants and wildlife dominated and were respected. It is a huge contrast from our overdeveloped keys with their towering condos and mega mansions behind walls.
The drive north to the resort is lined by mangroves, palms and flowers, and most homes are hidden behind the foliage. Golf carts and bikes are popular, so expect to share the road and go slow. After we passed through South Seas resort’s entrance gates in the early evening, we found our way to the reception center and got our key cards and plastic bracelets (you’re not supposed to take the bracelet off the entire time you’re staying on the property, so I suggest keeping it loose enough that you can slip it on and off) and made the two-mile drive to the far north end where we were staying. This place is huge (330 acres), but manages to keep an intimate, beachy feel with sandy paths, guests in flip flops and low-slung buildings along the water.
South Seas has a long history, starting as a Key lime plantation before opening to guests as a fishing resort in 1946. It’s gone through several ownerships and renovations—including a major renovation after Hurricane Charley tore through the property in 2004. Last fall, Timbers Company, Wheelock Street Capital and the Ronto Group purchased it for close to $50.4 million, and the property is going through another renaissance. The resort has 434 units, ranging from hotel guestrooms to villas and private waterfront homes.
My sister and I had a room at the newly renovated three-story South Seas Harbourside Hotel—which, from the outside, looks more like a motel or condo, with the parking lot out front and outdoor walkways to the rooms. Our room was stunning, with the coastal chic vibe of earthy organic colors and materials. But it was the balcony view that captivated us. We overlooked Pine Island Sound and the resort’s long dock. Boats motored by, dolphins surfaced as they hunted for food, and the blue water shimmered. We plopped down on some comfy outdoor chairs, opened a bottle of wine and grinned. We were on vacation.
And we were also hungry. Staying at a resort has its benefits. Instead of an Airbnb where we’d have to shop and cook or head out in the car to find a restaurant, we walked the few steps to the Harborside Bar & Grill on the marina. The setting is casual, and the restaurant bills itself as seafood-forward. But this is not a fried-fish-and-fries restaurant. The food is innovative. We liked the yummy Yacht Line Candied Bacon and Walter’s Crab Cake appetizers and the Chilean Sea Bass with corn risotto and Brussels sprouts. The restaurant is also proud of its craft cocktails; the smoky bourbon concoction is powerful. Good thing we didn’t have to drive.
South Seas is family-friendly with lots of pools and deliriously happy kids splashing around, but it’s also a great couples’ getaway and a perfect place for a wedding or anniversary party. You can play tennis, pickleball and golf, ride bikes, kayak, hunt for shells, book adventure programs for your kids, try yoga or book charter boat tours and learn to sail. Another attribute is the service. Every employee we met was helpful and gracious and seemed genuinely eager to be of service. We found out that South Seas is offering a fourth night free (called "Fuel Your Memories") if you stay three consecutive nights through Sept. 30, 2022, and you’ll get a $100 gas credit and a $100 resort spending credit applied to your account to enjoy resort activities or culinary experiences.
After staying here, I want to come back. I enjoyed the low-key resort experience and all the services (you’ll even see beach towel drop-off boxes, so you don’t have to bring sandy towels back to your room). There are so many experiences I didn’t get to try.
Here’s what we managed to pack in and loved:
- Morning yoga. I don’t practice yoga, so I wasn’t sure if I could keep up. But this class was taught by the cheerful Yali Zawady at Ambu Yoga. It was a fairly gentle, hour-long session on a large lawn as the sun came up over Pine Island. Brunch with hot coffee, yogurt and fresh fruit, and egg-and-sausage sandwiches were ready in the shade when we finished.
- The half-day charter boat tour to Cabbage Key and Cayo Costa, two islands only accessible by boat. Our tour ($45 per person) was run by Captiva Cruises. I would recommend this trip to everyone. The boat is spacious, and the ride shows the gorgeous coastline of this area and many undeveloped islands with expert narration about the ecology and history by the guide. Cabbage Key is owned and run by the Wells family, and they have preserved the historic structures and kept most of the island undeveloped. You can walk along trails and even rent the few rustic cabins there, but most people motor in, dock and make a beeline to the Cabbage Key Restaurant and the famous Dollar Bill Bar. Try the smoked mullet, stone crab claws, beans and rice with blackened mahi mahi and, of course, the Cabbage Key hamburger (only cooked medium), reportedly made famous when Jimmy Buffet had it with cheese and then wrote a song about it. Dollar bills with names and dates cover walls and columns and are taped inches thick and hang like long cobwebs from the ceiling of the bar and restaurant (our guide estimated up to $100,000 worth), so we scribbled our names on dollar bills and added to the collection.
- After lunch, make sure to visit Cayo Costa, an unspoiled barrier island and state park, with only a few homes along the seven miles of wilderness. (A couple of the entitled homeowners needlessly placed “No trespassing” signs in front of their sea oats even though this is one of the state’s least visited parks). We docked, walked over a boardwalk through mangroves and got a long view of the empty beach and reflected on what barrier islands looked like before development. We scoured the beach for shells before we climbed back on board.
- Sunset on the beach. South Seas has 2.5 miles of beautiful beach, and Captiva is world famous for shelling. Have a beer and a taco at the beachfront Latitudes Food Shack or, even better, take advantage of a buffet (if offered) and signature cocktails (I liked the Vibe-aloma with tequila, lime, sage simple syrup and a splash of grapefruit juice), under the coconut palms and twinkling lights. Then watch the sunset. It’s a heralded tradition here, and parents with little ones will love watching their kids dance to a guitarist on the beach who’s been strumming here since the ’70s. End the evening by roasting a few s’mores at the firepit.
- The hour-and-a-half tram ride through the “Ding” Darling refuge. Tarpon Bay Explorers operates the Wildlife Tram Tour; the rate is $18 per adult and $10 per child. Our driver was funny and informative and gave us an overview of the park. When I go back, I plan to spend more time there. This is considered part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the country and is well known for migratory birds and plenty of places to kayak.
- Sailing lesson at Steve Colgate Sailing School. When the wind and instructor are right, this is a must for anyone who’s wants to learn something about sailing. Our instructor was patient and calm with his inexperienced crew (my sister, me and two others) and after a couple of hours on a Colgage 26 ($275 for a three-hour solo lesson and goes up about $100 for each additional student until reaching five students), I came away with some of the basics of how to sail.
- Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. On Sanibel, about a 15-minute drive from South Seas, this museum is devoted to shells and mollusks, and you’ll see fantastical-looking shells, aquariums—one holds a giant octopus—and a touch tank for kids. The gift shop is great. $23.95 admission for adults.
To take advantage of the South Seas summer deal, go to Fuel Your Memories | Offers (southseas.com). Prices start at $289 and go way up, depending on the type of accommodation you want and date. South Seas Island Resort, 5400 Plantation Road, Captiva, Florida, (888) 974-0885,