Bonanza Beaches for the Shell Happy
Linked in name and image—and in real life, by a bridge—Sanibel and Captiva are part of the hundred littoral islands basking in the sun off the west coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. They share a reputation as one of the world’s best shelling locales, with palm-stenciled sunsets, tarpon fishing that’s unparalleled in North America, and what is left of laid-back Old Florida. This may be the only warm-weather vacation spot where tourists pray for a storm, since a good northwest wind will fill the sandy white beaches with shells from some of the 400 species of marine life that have made these two small islands world-class treasure troves. So eager have the shell-happy been that taking live shells away is now banned. But shell collectors doing the “Sanibel Stoop” or “Captiva Crouch” at low tide are welcome to claim uninhabited shells, such as angel’s wings, jewel boxes, king’s crowns, or lion’s paws, although many choose to leave their finds behind, explaining it’s the memories they enjoy collecting, not the shells themselves. The island’s shell culture culminates with Sanibel’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the only museum in the country dedicated solely to shells.
Those bothering to look up will find further confirmation that nature is king at Sanibel’s J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where foot-and bicycle trails and kayak and canoe routes crisscross the nearly 7,000-acre preserve; this is bird-watching at its finest.
If you’re not feeling detached enough from the mainland and its everyday demands, visit Captiva and Sanibel’s three most interesting neighbors in Pine Island Sound, car-free islands accessible only by boat. Cayo Costa State Park is an uninhabited barefoot Eden with deserted beaches whose shelling is arguably the best around. Cabbage Key, a 100-acre, down-home, real-life Margaritaville, is said to have inspired Jimmy Buffett’s classic “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” And genteel tum-of-the-century- looking Useppa Island is a Gatsbyesque (and privately owned) enclave that was once the refuge of Teddy Roosevelt and his tarpon fishing friends, and today warmly welcomes day-trippers and overnighters for excellent seafood lunches at the Collier Inn. Catch-and-release tarpon fishing originated here, though today the capital of the sport is nearby Boca Grande (on what is sometimes referred to as Gasparilla Island).