Sanibel Island on Florida’s easy-going West Coast is the kind of destination you keep coming back to.
I ought to know, because I do.
I remember the first time I saw Sanibel in the early ‘90s, still covered in dense foliage long before before hurricane Charley stripped her of natural canopy. I was in town for an educational conference and my expectations were about as low as you can imagine they would be if you’re covering an educational conference.
They shouldn’t have been.
Sanibel turned out to be this almost perfect tropical island, with abundant sea shells, white sand beaches and friendly locals. On my only afternoon off, I rented a bike, found a sports bar that served a grouper sandwich with cold beer, and watched a football game.
It was ideal.
I left thinking to myself, “This is a cute little place. I ought to come back soon.”
And then I forgot about it.
But the siren call of Sanibel was impossible to resist. A few years later, when I was taking a brief vacation while living in Europe, I knew where I wanted to go to unwind.
I returned to that languid island, Sanibel, half-expecting to be let down because it couldn’t have really been that ideal.
My memory must be wrong.
And yet again, perfect. I spent three days living in a little efficiency apartment, fishing in the mangroves and hiking from end to end during the day and eating fried seafood at night.
What more could you want from a desperately needed vacation?
More years passed, then I turned to Sanibel at a difficult time during my career. I was, you might say, at a crossroads. I looked to the island for a little relief during a time of upheaval.
And just like the warm waters of the Gulf Coast lapping gently against the shell-rich beaches of Sanibel, the island helped me find peace with my life decisions.
I arrived a nervous wreck. But after a few days of shell hunting and exploring outer Captiva Island, I was a different person. How could I not be?
So when we were invited back to Sanibel, it was not a question of if we would accept, but when.
Should we go during winter’s tourist season, when it isn’t unusual to experience traffic jams on the causeway? Then again, if we go during the summer, all the locals venture out to the beach looking for a little relief from the hot summer weather.
No. Our time is during the fall.
Why? It’s the lowest point of the off-season, when some restaurants aren’t even open and many attractions are half-shuttered for the season.
This is when the residents go on vacation. This is the time to be there.
There’s no feeling like walking along one of Sanibel’s pristine beaches and knowing that you are the only person there. There’s no feeling like looking out at the Gulf of Mexico and seeing a pod of dolphins and knowing that you are the only person who sees it.
And it’s quite the experience having an entire restaurant to yourself in the evening, and knowing that the staff is grateful that you’re there because at least someone is giving them the business.
You feel extra special. You wish more people knew about this special place in the autumn – but you’re also kind of glad they don’t.
There are things about this island I probably should mention, because they should be mentioned in every article about Sanibel.
There’s the J.N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a place to go boating and to see every manner of wildlife, particularly birds. There are biking trails crisscrossing the island and they are broad and easy, so you can bring the whole family and not worry about getting run over by a car.
Did I mention the alligators? Sanibel has more than a few of them, and they can be a little friendly with tourists. We had several close encounters with them when we first visited this island.
And then there are the shells. In addition to miles upon miles of beaches with one trillion beautiful shells that wash up upon its shores, there is a first-rate shell museum on Sanibel. If you do only one thing on this island, go to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Learn about the shells.
And that’s what you’ll see. It’s a little more difficult to describe the full experience. Because if you put it altogether — the shells, the scenery, the surroundings — you end up in a better place.
This island gives more than it takes.
It’s a place of tranquility, a place to recharge. It’s been my little secret for the last 20 years — and now I’m telling you about it.
I can’t wait to go back to Sanibel this fall. It won’t be my last visit. I expect we’ll be coming here for many years. My kids will probably come here on vacation and so will their kids.
That’s just the kind of place Sanibel is.
It calls you. And you can’t resist.