Sanibel Island a nature lover’s paradise

The Island Inn on Sanibel Island, Fla., overlooks a wide stretch of pristine beach. Contributed by Wesley K.H. Teo
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The Island Inn on Sanibel Island, Fla., overlooks a wide stretch of pristine beach. Contributed by Wesley K.H. Teo

Bird-watchers and shell-seekers will find plenty to do in this slice of Old Florida

While admiring the reflection of a brilliant sunset on the water, a roseate spoonbill with a glorious fan of pink and crimson plumage swept in from nowhere and scooped up a wiggling flash of silver in its long bill. After gulping the fish down, the long-legged wading bird stood basking in the fading orange-pink glow, watching me watching him.

The scene was so enchanting, I didn’t even bother photographing it, choosing instead to simply enjoy this rare moment of connecting with wildlife.

I was at the 6,400-acre J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Fla., and I had come to the southwestern coast of the peninsula in search of "Old Florida," a place far removed from the theme park mayhem, kitschy mermaid shows and towering Lego figures in other parts of the state.

Was it possible to return to a time when the Sunshine State was a blissful, unspoiled paradise?

I was starting to think so.

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A roseate spoonbill at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to 245 species of birds. Contributed by David Mintz

A roseate spoonbill at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to 245 species of birds. Contributed by David Mintz
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A roseate spoonbill at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to 245 species of birds. Contributed by David Mintz

Sanibel is a laid-back community that has controlled development through careful city planning, refusing to be transformed into a tourist Mecca with towering condos along the beach, tacky neon signs and fast food chains on every corner.

Preserving the island’s ecology has been a priority for decades, and the nature refuge is evidence of that.

Earlier in the week, I had taken a mid-day guided tram tour along four-mile Wildlife Drive to learn about the complex ecosystems protected by the refuge, especially the all-important mangrove forests.

But now, bathed in twilight, it felt like a different place. The crowds had dispersed, and there was an aura of quiet mystery.

It was strictly chance that brought me back. On a whim, I had hopped on a bicycle to explore some of Sanibel’s 22 miles of paved trails. I had no destination in mind, but somehow, I ended up here.

The refuge is home to about 245 bird species, including the American white pelican, the mangrove cuckoo, the reddish egret, the roseate spoonbill and the yellow-crowned night-heron.

My grandparents were birdwatchers, so I’ve always associated the hobby with elderly people bickering about what kind of feathered creature they are peering at through ancient, smeared binoculars — a pastime that held little appeal for me as a child. But in Sanibel, practically everybody becomes an amateur birdwatcher because fascinating species are everywhere. You don’t necessarily have to be in a conservation area to observe them.

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I was contemplating what magnificent wildlife I might see next when I heard something stir in the bush near the shoreline. Then I remembered that birds aren’t the only beings inhabiting these wetlands. Alligators lurk below the surface of the ponds and marshes, and I didn’t want the reptiles thinking I had overstayed my welcome, so I beat a hasty retreat.

I pedaled back to my cottage at the Island Inn, a beachfront resort that's been a fixture on Sanibel Island since 1895. "Resort" seems like a misnomer for this serene spot on the Gulf of Mexico, as it doesn't square with my idea of a modern, sprawling property with a perfectly manicured golf course and a luxury spa. It has few amenities, and that's part of the attraction of this Old Florida retreat.

To amuse themselves, guests kayak or walk along a shell-strewn beach guided by a marine naturalist.

Sanibel is world-famous as a shelling destination, and serious beachcombers check tide charts for optimal collecting opportunities. The ocean floor has an unusual slope toward the coastline that acts as a ramp, shooting dozens of varieties of shells toward the shore.

During my stay, I join pail-toting visitors doing the "Sanibel stoop," sifting through the carpet of treasures to find their favorites. To learn more about my bounty, I visited the Bailey-Mathews National Shell Museum where a group gathered around a large tank teeming with sea creatures for a Tank Talk led by a biologist. He pulled out a predatory sea snail commonly called a live shark eye, and the mollusk oozed out of its shell into his hand, a giant blob of slime that elicited exclamations of "cool!" and "weird!" from the kids.

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At the Island Inn, guests take a nature walk guided by a marine naturalist. Contributed by Wesley K. H. Teo

At the Island Inn, guests take a nature walk guided by a marine naturalist. Contributed by Wesley K. H. Teo
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At the Island Inn, guests take a nature walk guided by a marine naturalist. Contributed by Wesley K. H. Teo

The museum has more than 30 exhibits featuring specimens from around the world. There are numerous examples of how shells have been used in ancient cultures, art and religion over the centuries.

I was drawn to “Sailors’ Valentines,” an exhibit of hinged, octagonal shadow boxes that open and close like a greeting card. Each has a beautiful array of tiny seashells glued into floral patterns and has a sentiment, such as “It had to be you” or “All my love” at the center. They are called sailors’ valentines because 19th-century sailors purchased them for their sweethearts in Caribbean ports, but they were mostly made by women.

Later, as I did my sunset shell collecting, I saw the beach and the creatures that inhabit it in a whole new light. I carried a pail of sandy gems back to my cottage as a symphony of birds and insects welcomed a breezy, star-filled night. I realized I had found more than an abundance of shells on this trip; I had found Old Florida.


IF YOU GO

Stay

Island Inn. An historic inn that has been on the island since 1895. Guestrooms $159-$519, cottages-$229-$619. 3111 W. Gulf Drive. 800-851-5088, www.islandinnsanibel.com

Dine

Doc Ford. Fresh seafood with a Caribbean twist. Entrees $20-29. 2500 Island Inn Road. 239-472-8311. www.docfords.com

Attractions

J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the country. $5 vehicle, $1 bicycle or pedestrian. 1 Wildlife Drive. 239-472-1100, www.fws.gov/refuge/JN_Ding_Darling

Bailey-Mathews National Shell Museum. 3075 Sanibel Captiva Road. $15-$7, free for children under 5 and active military. 239-395-2233, www.shellmuseum.org