Slip away―this time of year you can afford a slice of paradise.
1 of 6Photography Scott Wiseman
I stand on the dock at South Seas Island Resort, gazing across the water at what looks like a shimmering island covered with snowy sand. Then I watch it fly away in a flurry of feathers.
"Those are all white pelicans," resort naturalist Vince McGrath says with a smile, speaking of the birds that winter here from mid-October through mid-April. "The largest of them stand 60 inches tall with 10-foot wingspans."
Magic like that happens all day long on Sanibel and Captiva. These two enchanted islands are so exotic and beautiful, I almost expect to see a customs office when I cross the bridge from the mainland. It feels like the gateway to a foreign country, but you don't need a passport to visit this wave-washed paradise.
"You'll never see a high-rise on Sanibel--God willing," Vince says. Franchises fade away too. There's only one chain hotel--a Holiday Inn. The rest of the lodging is homegrown. Rainbows put up the only golden arches you'll see.
left: Peak shelling season runs from May through September; it also is good in winter months after storm fronts blow through. More than 400 types wash ashore.
2 of 6Photography Scott Wiseman
Not a Light in Sight
People take pride in the fact that there isn't a single traffic signal on either island. You know what stops people around here? Sunsets so breathtaking they leave you speechless. Water so translucent you can see a cormorant swimming beneath your boat when you go canoeing.
All sorts of other critters make you pause with delight. This morning, I watched cars filled with visitors halt to see raccoons play in J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Not far from the dunes on Bowman's Beach, signs in neighborhoods urge motorists to slow down for tortoises.
Take Time for Turtles
Linda Logan, general manager of the Song of the Sea resort, leads guests on beach walks to mark nests of loggerhead turtles. Females crawl ashore in darkness to lay their eggs. During the nesting season, from May through October, beach residents and visitors have to turn off or shield any lights that can be seen from the beach to avoid confusing the hatchlings.
"May and June are two of my favorite months," Linda says. In the value season--which lasts until early November--the islands are less crowded, and room rates drop dramatically.
left: Beaches get fewer visitors when the off-season starts in May, but days remain sunny and blissful.
3 of 6Photography Scott Wiseman
Renovations have refreshed much of the lodging since Hurricane Charley blew through nearly three years ago. Work ranged from refurbishing the cozy, 30-room Song of the Sea to a $140-million renewal of the luxurious South Seas Island Resort. This resort, the area's largest, closed for almost two years to add rooms, pools, and other amenities.
"The wildlife recovered from the storm in a hurry," Vince points out. "You can stand on the dock and see all kinds of birds. It's a manatee and dolphin highway."
A manatee surfaces like a stealthy submarine in the marina that's a base for Steve and Doris Colgate's Offshore Sailing School. Attendees to the three-day school for beginners learn the basics on the same type of boats that plebes sail at the U.S. Naval Academy. The youngest new sailor last year was 9. The oldest was 92.
left: Recruit the whole family for a day of shelling.
4 of 6Photography Scott Wiseman
Happy Trails To Follow
There are many easy ways to enjoy the natural beauty of the islands. You can explore the diverse wildlife habitat that includes the interior wetlands ecosystem on 4 miles of walking trails around the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Nature Center. It's part of nearly 2,000 acres that the group preserves on the barrier islands.
At the nearby "Ding" Darling wildlife refuge, you don't even have to get out of your car to view wildlife. The 4-mile Wildlife Drive (closed on Friday) winds along the water's edge at the almost 7,000-acre sanctuary.
One afternoon, I paddled across Tarpon Bay with Betsy Clayton, coordinator of the new Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail, a nearly 100-mile-long route that weaves through the shallows and hidden inlets of these coastal islands. In the depths of the crystalline water, I could see blue crabs scurrying on the bottom. Overhead, a statuesque frigatebird rode a lofty current. These enchanted islands don't hide their treasures. They surround you.
left: The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail makes it easy to explore watery hidden places.
5 of 6Photography Scott Wiseman
Sunsets, Cake, and Jazz
Try these treats for local flavor.
Experience the glitz and glamour of the 1930s and 1940s at The Bubble Room on Captiva. Don't miss a slice of their famous Very Moist Chocolate Cake ($6.75). (239) 472-5558.
At Doc Ford's Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille, savor a half-pound of fresh Shake & Shuck Shrimp ($12.95) doused with one of their gourmet "shake dressings." The restaurant is named for the main character in the works of local novelist Randy Wayne White. www.docfordssanibel.com or (239) 472-8311.
• Catch a sunset at The Mucky Duck pub on Captiva. If you can't get a seat inside, the show's even better out on the beach. www.muckyduck.com or (239) 472-3434.
Celebrate the end of the day with a romantic dinner and music at Ellington's Jazz Bar & Restaurant at the Sanibel Inn. Try a Sax on the Beach, one of their most popular specialty drinks. www.ellingtonsjazz.com or (239) 472-0494.
left: Fresh, seasonal berries brighten breakfast at the Song of the Sea resort.
6 of 6Photography Scott Wiseman
Get Here, and Settle In
Sanibel and Captiva are a half-hour drive from Fort Myers and a three-hour drive from Orlando. Most major airlines serve Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.
Off-season rates at Song of the Sea start at $169, which includes breakfast and bicycle rental. For more information visit www.sanibelcollection.com, or call 1-866-565-5101. South Seas Island Resort's off-season rates begin at $149. For more information visit www.southseas.com, or call 1-877-205-1293.
To learn more about the area, contact the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau; www.fortmyers-sanibel.com or 1-800-237-6444.
left: The Mucky Duck and sunsets go hand in hand on Captiva.
A NOTE TO OUR READERS:
"Treasured Islands: Captiva and Sanibel" is from the May 2007 issue of Southern Living. 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.