Tucked between miles of pristine beaches and untamed stands of mangrove trees you'll find island paradises on Sanibel and Captiva. Separated only by a small inlet, you can visit both of these Gulf islands in a weekend and enjoy the shelling, fine dining, lodging, and shopping. Nature abounds here, with more than half the area designated as wildlife sanctuaries. This is the kind of place where the palm trees are the tallest things around and where you couldn't find mall food if you tried.
It's Finally Friday
Cross the causeway from Fort Myers, and leave stress behind. Begin by exchanging your car for a bicycle to join the slower pace. Billy's rents bikes for $3 per hour or $12 per day. Call (941) 472-5248). Pick up a trail brochure to plan your explorations on the more than 25 miles of paved trails.
When you're too pooped to pedal, check in to the Sanibel Inn (1-800-237-1491) on the east end of the island. Resort guests enjoy stunning sunrises and sunsets from comfy rooms. Beware, though--mid-January through the end of April is high season in South Florida, and bargains are more difficult to find than a junonia shell. Spring rates start at $319 per night at this inn (but they reduce almost by half June through December).
On your way to dinner, take your sweetie by the hand, and stroll down the strand at Bowman's Beach, recognized as Florida's most romantic shoreline. It's perfect for watching the sun dissolve into the Gulf of Mexico. Then add your name to the waiting list at Captiva's The Mucky Duck, and order a cocktail. (Expect at least a one-hour wait for a table--but it's worth it.) Join the patio crowd watching the sky turn purple then inky black over the sea. Once seated inside, don't pass up the dreamy barbecue shrimp wrapped in bacon.
Saturday Shell Game
Plan to devote your morning to the number one island activity--searching for seashells. You can do the "Sanibel Stoop" or the "Captiva Crouch" at such good sites as Blind Pass, the lighthouse, and Bowman's Beach. Or take a guided excursion to Cayo Costa (an island north of Captiva) with Capt. Mike Fuery, author of the island's guide to shelling ($180 for four people, reservations required; call (941) 466-3649).
However you choose to do it, you'll find the best shells during the hours around low tide. Listen to the gentle sounds of "sea chimes" as waves roll the mounds of olive shells, angel wings, lightning whelks, and cockles back and forth. It's possible to find 50 to 60 different kinds of shells within a single day here. (Please remember to leave all live shells behind.) Afterward, reward yourself with a junonia bought at She Sells Sea Shells shop ($15-$25). For lunch, grab a quick bite at Gilligan's. We especially like their fresh yellowfin tuna salads. Then add to your shell knowledge by stopping in at the beautiful Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. For shopping, try Sanibel's Periwinkle Place. Find swimwear at The Beach House and Caribbean Coast, handmade jewelry and resort wear at Her Sports Closet, trinkets for the kids at Toys Ahoy, and delights for your sweet tooth at Chocolate Expressions.
If you've never been to The Bubble Room, now's your chance. This kitschy restaurant features Bubble Scout servers delivering heaping plates of good food with an attitude. Our favorite dishes include Ingrid Birdman (Cornish hens), Gone With the Fin (baked salmon), and Prime Ribs Weissmuller. The setting is, well, unique. Antique toys, bubble lights, celebrity photos, and toy trains decorate the three-story building, where jazz keeps a driving beat. Save room for cake slices the size of footballs (red velvet is a local favorite).
Start the day with one of the best breakfasts in the South at the Lighthouse Café. Dress up your mimosa with a plate-filling Ocean Frittata, which bakes shrimp, scallops, crabmeat, broccoli, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts in egg.
Take an up-close look at the wildlife on an easy kayaking trip from Tarpon Bay Recreation, Inc. ($20 per boat for two hours; call (941) 472-8900). The bay hosts manatees and dolphins, while birds and otters hang out on the Commodore Creek Trail. Look for roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons, and ospreys along the tangled mangrove shores.
Before leaving, drive the 4-mile scenic route through J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge for a final glimpse of the island's undisturbed beauty ($5 cars, $1 bicyclists and hikers). More than 200 species of birds nest here as well as alligators, turtles, otters, and armadillos.
For more information: Contact the Lee Island Coast Visitor & Convention Bureau, 2180 West First Street, Fort Myers, FL 33901; 1-888-231-6933 or www.leeislandcoast.com.
Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.