The late Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, used to escape to Florida’s southwest coast which inspired her most famous work, Gift from the Sea. The book compared her life to the various shells she found on the Gulf Coast while on vacation.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Anne and her husband, idolized Spirit of St. Louis aviator Charles, wintered on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Sharing a love of islands and nature, they traveled to the little, unheard-of Captiva Island – accessible then only by boat – to recharge. In 1940 and 1941, when Charles was swamped with publicity surrounding his wartime views, they also escaped by sailboat to the swamps and marshes of the Everglades. In her later years, Anne Morrow Lindbergh came by herself or with family to Captiva’s secluded shores but never publicly revealed Captiva as the source of inspiration for the book Gift from the Sea, which was published in 1955 and has sold more than three million copies.
After Charles’ death in 1974, close-lipped acquaintances revealed the famous couple’s clandestine getaway spot. Today, islanders and visitors celebrate with shrinelike devotion the island where the couple came to play outdoors. Modern-day visitors can follow the trail of their explorations and love of nature, from Captiva Island clear to Key West. Below, we simultaneously take you through Anne Morrow's Gift from the Sea and her Florida trail.
Chapter 1: The Beach
“The beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think.”
A true lover of beaches, Anne planted herself in a “seashell of a house” along Captiva Beach. ‘Tween Waters Inn occupies the same stretch of beach and has even named two of its historic cottages for the Lindberghs. The Anne Morrow Lindbergh Cottage wears a sea-tinted coat of paint and faces the beach
Anne loved to comb. The Charles Lindbergh Cottage sits beside it.
On Captiva Beach, Anne collected shells and contemplated how they related to her life. Charles, who on occasion recorded their Captiva moments, exalted the “miles of beach without other human life.” Still today, island visitors absorb that sense of isolation walking the nine miles of Captiva’s white sands. At the main Captiva Beach public access and at The Mucky Duck restaurant, they gather nightly for the sacred ritual of sunset.
Chapter 2: Channeled Whelk
“Channeled whelk,… you have set my mind on a journey.”
To immerse yourself in the world of the seashell, you need not journey far from Captiva Beach. Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, on sister island Sanibel, pays homage to the beauty, artistry and social importance of the seashell.
Sanibel Island specifically is known as a top shell-collecting destination, thanks to the unusual boomerang east-west turn at its south end, which allows it to nab seashells en route from the Caribbean Sea. Casual collectors and serious conchologists have come to these shores for decades in search of cockles, coquinas, whelks, scallops, conchs and the coveted junonia. The shell museum helps shellers identify their finds and learn, as did Anne, their connection with the human species. On the land side of the island, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge shows its quiet side; the Lindberghs explored mangrove swamps up and down Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Chapter 3: Moon Shell
Anne’s find of a moon shell, as described in Gift, reminds her of woman’s need for solitude. However, she and Charles did seek out company during their early Captiva visits; one place where they socialized was the winter home of Thomas and Mina Edison in Fort Myers. We know they enjoyed “tea-supper” at the inventor’s home. They likely strolled Mina’s Moonlight Garden, designed, as was the vogue, to shimmer in the moonlight with pool waters and fragrant white flowers.
The estate underwent an $12 million restoration. Today’s Edison & Ford Winter Estates has restored the beauty and historical correctness of Mina’s and Thomas’ research and gardens. One can peek in on the parlors and living areas where the Edisons, Lindberghs, Fords and other geniuses of the age discussed grand ideas.
Chapter 4: Double Sunrise
“…can the pure relationship of the sunrise shell be refound once it has become obscured?”
This fragile, hinged bivalve reminded Anne of new relationships. Earlier on Captiva Island, she and her husband of 10 years rediscovered their love at the beach and by sharing their passion for sailing. Charles purchased a 32-foot yawl with a local friend, and the three would sail into the Gulf of Mexico for adventures lasting up to a month.
The draw of the sea continues to lure visitors on sail and power cruises to fish and explore the parade of mangrove-laced islands along southwest shores, as did the Lindberghs. Captiva Cruises takes visitors for day trips to the upper, unbridged Cabbage Key, Cayo Costa, Useppa Island and Boca Grande. To simulate the Lindberghs’ sailing adventures, visitors can hook up with Offshore Sailing School in Captiva and learn to captain their own sailing yacht.
Chapter 5: Oyster Bed
“It is untidy, spread out in all directions, heavily encrusted with accumulations….”
When the Lindberghs headed south, wilderness was their goal – absolute wilderness in the form of the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. “It is a kind of Forest Primeval,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in her diary. “There is an advantage in having real contact with nature for a time; it is a medicine that is irreplaceable….” Charles recorded in his diary.
Today, whether traveling by boat, car, foot, kayak or bike, escapists embrace the surreal sense of isolation and teeming wildlife abundant at Everglades National Park and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Islands of mangroves, sand and oyster beds create a maze where roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, manatees, dolphins and other rare species seek refuge. Adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve and state parks provide access to this sometimes-forbidding territory. Parks and private operators can introduce you: Just pick the mode and make ready for adventure.
Chapter 6: Argonauta
“Sailors consider these shells a sign of fair weather and favorable winds.”
A favorable wind took Anne and Charles to the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas in 1941, to don diving helmets and explore “the strange world of motion,” as Anne described it, below the surface of crystalline waters that still make the Keys a scuba hotspot.
Modern-day divers may wear less clumsy equipment, but they still thrill at vibrant coral reefs alive with mammoth sea turtles, flashy fish, hypnotically waving sea fans, tiny seahorses and toothy moray eels. From Key Largo to Key West, a string of dive shops and resorts cater to beginners and experienced bottom-timers. From Key West, catch a boat or seaplane to Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, where you can camp in the shadow of a Spanish-American War fort by night and snorkel or dive to your heart’s content by day.
Chapter 7: A Few Shells
Anne equated shells with the simplicity of island living. Skipping along the spectrum of islands from Key West, through the Ten Thousand Islands, north to Bonita Beach, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Captiva and beyond, it’s easy to understand the seductive attraction of life away from the mainstream.
“I must remember to see with island eyes,” Anne wrote. “The shells will remind me; they must be my island eyes.”
Paging Through Florida’s Outdoors
Other Florida places to visit in the wake of famous female writers:
Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, Eatonville (north of Orlando). The museum celebrates this anthropologist and Harlem Renaissance author in her hometown, which was America’s first incorporated black municipality. 407-647-3307.
Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail, Fort Pierce. Follow the author’s life in Fort Pierce, where she lived and wrote as an adult. 772-462-1618
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, Cross Creek. The homestead of The Yearling’s
author is preserved near Gainesville, and state park rangers dress in period clothing to demonstrate her life in rural Florida. 352-466-3672 or www.floridastateparks.org
Cabbage Key Inn (accessible by boat from Captiva Island). The home that novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart built today serves as a quiet and isolated island inn. 239-283-2278, www.cabbagekey.com
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was one of the earliest writers who popularized Florida, even before the advent of the railroads. There is a marker in Mandarin, a suburb of Jacksonville, on the St. Johns River.
Edna St. Vincent Millay wintered south of Palm Beach in Delray Beach. Today, a Brazilian restaurant occupies the old Arcade & Tap Room where she and her cronies gathered. The poet, who often wrote about nature and life, also visited Sanibel Island, where the first manuscript of her Conversation
at Midnight burned in a hotel fire.
Westville (Northwest Florida). This rural town north of Panama City served as a respite for Laura Ingalls Wilder for a year while the author of The Long Winter recovered from illness.