When I was in college, my family regularly vacationed on a barrier island off the west coast of Florida. To get to North Captiva, you had to take a small boat with all of your supplies — there were no stores. So if you didn’t bring treats — and we rarely did — you could get kind of desperate for a dessert.
But there was a restaurant on the island. “Over the Waterfront,” it was called, and one time we bought a slice of chocolate chip pound cake, to go.
If you’re a certain type of person, which my mother and I are, cake can call you for an entire day. We had scored the restaurant’s last piece, and planned to share it the following evening. But guests stopped by after dinner. Divvying up our prize, we agreed in a whispered discussion, wouldn’t have been satisfying for anyone. Better we should slip outside, hide in a bush, and wolf down our loot. To this day I wonder if the guests noticed us exiting, or if we had crumbs on our lips when we returned.
Not just for pound cake-scarcity reasons, although not totally unrelated to them, we eventually moved on from North Captiva to the relative metropolis of nearby Sanibel Island . We go almost every Christmas break, and whenever I tell people, the reaction is almost always the same: “I love Sanibel. We went once.” That’s not a diss — people aren’t saying “once” as in “and it was so boring we decided to never go back!” It’s more like they’re recalling a sweet girl an aunt fixed them up with — nice, but . . .
Sanibel is the anti-Miami Beach, with its towers, designer boutiques, and, in recent years, chef-driven restaurants. The last time we went, the hotels set out so many chaise lounges on the beach that it looked like a parking lot. The dress code at the W South Beach, where we stayed on points, appeared to be “hooker.”
With fondness I can promise that in Sanibel, by contrast, there is such a lack of a scene that if you don’t have time for a pedicure before you go, don’t worry. If you have a weakness for shell-themed decor and do not like to dress for dinner, or even go out for dinner, book your flight to Southwest Florida International Airport now!
Most of the buildings on Sanibel are shorter than the palm trees, and its tourists are not dreaming of taking a selfie with Beyoncé or a Kardashian. The real stars here are the miles of non-parking-lot-like beaches; the birds — the royal terns, with their cute tufts of head feathers, and ibis, with their long beaks — and the world-famous shells.
So many visitors troll the beaches looking for calico scallops, Florida fighting conchs, prickly cockles, and other treasures, that a whole posture has been coined: the “Sanibel stoop.” If it’s raining, the shell-centric can spend a satisfying day at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, where you can learn how to classify shells and make shell jewelry, or sip wine at a shell-focused fund-raising gala.
Sanibel is about 40 minutes from the airport in Fort Myers, and the final leg of your trip from Boston — the three-mile causeway that soars over San Carlos Bay — is spectacular. Gulls fly by at eye level. Fisherman cast below. It’s like a real-life amusement park ride, but for aging birders, not teenage boys.
Most condos on Sanibel rent Saturday to Saturday, a fact I mention because it has an effect on our behavior beyond making plane reservations. Unable to shed our big-city competitive ways, the moment we arrive, sometimes before we even get keys for our condo, we head to the bike store hoping for the best selection.
The island has two rental shops. Billy’s and Finnimore’s Cycle Shop . Billy’s might be much better than Finnimore’s, or it could be the other way around. I’m not sure, because Sanibel is the kind of place that makes you forget about Yelp and the pressure to make sure you’re maximizing every experience. We’re Billy’s people, but that may be just because once, years ago, my mother got a good helmet there.
OK, let’s honestly discuss biking on Sanibel. If you enjoy mountain biking, or even just exciting biking, Sanibel’s 25 miles of bike paths may not be the place for you. We’re talking tame. But we’re also talking 25 miles (!) of bike paths, with parts that are legitimately scenic. One stretch goes over a wooden bridge that spans a swamp with a sign warning about alligators.
An actual alligator could be a problem, but I see its possible presence as a plus, since the remote threat of being attacked adds a reliable element of excitement to the ride for my sons (ages 12 and 14). The path also goes under lovely tree canopies, and all the way to the fishing pier at the eastern end of the 12-mile-long island.
You can ride your bike everywhere on the island: to see the toucans and macaws at an aviary unexpectedly located in the Periwinkle Park & Campground, or the parrots in front of Jerry’s Foods; to swim, play tennis, or work out at the Sanibel Recreation Center , which has reasonable weekly family rates (about $100), and not only a kiddie pool, but a slide, and a tall water-dumping feature that will entertain children for a long time; to Periwinkle Place , an outdoor shopping center with 25 stores, a spa, and, perhaps most significant to Sanibel’s target audience, the original Chico’s women’s clothing store.
My favorite thing to do in Sanibel is basically nothing — beyond reading, biking, walking, and enjoying the private sunset “manager’s cocktail party” we throw on our screened-in porch. White wine and almonds are served. This year, I’ve vowed, I’m going to fit kayaking through the mangrove forest at Tarpon Bay into my busy schedule.
As a child, I loved going to the island’s famous national wildlife refuge, J. N. “Ding” Darling, part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. You can see birds all over Florida, of course — Busch Gardens in Tampa has enormous flocks of pink flamingos — but glimpsing osprey and great blue herons and roseate spoonbills in their natural habitat carries an excitement that birds working a shift at an amusement park just can’t generate.
What I like best about Ding Darling now is that my husband takes our sons, providing me with the contentment that comes from feeling like you’re doing the right thing on vacation, without actually having to do the thing. I’m getting credit for second-hand nature.
My husband and our kids, bound by the school calendar, only spend a week on Sanibel, but my parents often spend several, and without us there, they enjoy evening activities beyond watching “Three Amigos,” the top rental in my father’s comedy collection. If you haven’t seen it 50 times, may I suggest another viewing? Martin Short’s character, Little Neddie, keeps getting funnier.
A few years ago my mother took a watercolor class at the island’s arts center, BIG ARTS , and the center has a film series, talks, concerts and shows. There’s also a movie theater. The offerings at the Island Cinema don’t change that often, so we always try to deny ourselves movies in the weeks before going, to better our chances.
We go to Sanibel two months too soon to watch Red Sox spring training at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. My advice to spring training tourists is to spend time on Sanibel while you’re in the area, or on the next island over, the quieter Captiva, or even the island off Captiva, North Captiva. If you go, I’d like to make a suggestion: Pack pound cake.