Slow pace and ample space are just two reasons why more than a million visitors from all over the world flock to Sanibel Island every year.
One of the great things about Sanibel Island is this: nobody seems to be in a hurry.
In the early 20th century, while land speculators throughout Florida were thinking about building, Sanibel's early residents were working to preserve what Mother Nature had given them. The city charter, drafted in 1974, mentions preserving "the unique atmosphere and unusual natural environment", but conservation efforts actually began back in the 1930s, a time when developers thought the only good wetland was a drained wetland.
Jay Norwood Darling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper cartoonist who settled on Sanibel, knew the value of something as lowly as a simple gopher tortoise. Darling, nicknamed "Ding," rallied his friends and neighbors to create the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge.
After Darling's death in 1962, the refuge was renamed in his honor. Today, 6,400 acres of land (two thirds of the island) is protected from development as the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Wildlife everywhere on Sanibel has special status; the entire island is a bird sanctuary, thanks in part to the efforts of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, which continues his work today.
With this emphasis on conservation and preservation, the waters of the area's two biggest draws - the Gulf of Mexico and the San Carlos Bay - still look the way they did when the mighty Calusa ruled this area 2,000 years ago.
Ding Darling, located at Mile Marker 2 on Sanibel-Captiva Road, is the first stop for most visitors, my family included. The refuge's Center for Education, with its life-like habit displays, will give you a taste of what lies ahead in the Refuge itself.
The one-way, four-mile-long Wildlife Drive starts just outside the Visitor Center. The road was actually constructed atop dykes built for mosquito control, and offers an excellent view of the mudflats to the right and mangrove forest to the left.
Nature lovers from all over the world come to the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge to see the myriad bird life that flocks here in all four seasons.
"Yellow feet, black beak?" I ask my son as I point to a bird standing on the shoreline.
"Snowy egret," the four-year-old answers.
"Black feet, yellow beak?" I ask, spotting another wading bird.
"Great egret," he responds.
In the spring, March through May, birders look for migrating songbirds such as the red-eyed vireo and prairie warbler. Also in late spring, especially during the full or new moon when the tide cycles are most extreme, keep an eye out for large congregations of roseate spoonbills. The waders often take to the air just before sunset, adding a pinkish hue to the already picture-perfect sky.
In the summer, when the seasonal residents return home, birders can see a variety of young waders - including yellow-crowned night herons, white ibis and little blue herons - as they adjust to life in the estuary.
Fall brings yet another migration, this one of waterfowl. Red-breasted mergansers and blue-winged teals are just two of the ducks that stop in the refuge November through February.
Birds were one of Darling's favorite subjects. In 1934, he introduced the first "Duck Stamps," which over the years have helped purchase more than 4 million acres of wetlands, including land in Ding Darling.
But on this picturesque spring day, I can't seem to get my son interested in birds. He's looking for alligators, which, along with the 50 or so other species of reptiles and amphibians, call this place home.
So we hop back in the car and drive to Alligator Curve. We stop along the roadside and look across the canal where we spot a small 'gator soaking up the sun after a cool spring night.
My son's wildlife fix fulfilled, we head down the road to Bowman's Beach, the promise of which convinced him to accompany me in the first place.
Strolling down the quarter-mile trail from the parking lot I can't help but thank those who had the foresight to preserve the sea grapes and pines instead of caving into the demands of "progress."
It is in a spot such as Bowman's, the most remote of the island's public beaches, that you can see the benefit of proper planning. Sanibel has a comprehensive land use plan that was developed in the late 1960s with input from notable environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society.
Planners set a maximum density level for the island. When developers build 9,000 units - hotel rooms, condominium units or individual homes - Sanibel will reach a desired carrying capacity, which according to design, still retains plenty of room for nature. In this grand plan, the value of mangroves was also identified. Planners hoped to preserve 40,000 acres of this critical habitat for every unit of development. Learning from the mistakes of other coastal communities, Sanibel city officials also set a three-story height limit on all new buildings, so everywhere you look, the view is the same: blue sky, azure water and clean, white sand.
Except, of course, if you are performing the legendary "Sanibel Stoop," also known as shell collecting. Shell enthusiasts come from all over to wander Sanibel's beaches. My son and I picked up a handy field guide at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which has the finest collection for shellers to view in the world.
"Look, Dad, a treasure," my son exclaims, holding up a pear whelk.
"A treasure indeed," I answer.
There are few, if any, places in Florida where you can find such an array of shells' alphabet cones, banded tulips, calico scallops and the Florida fighting conch to name just a few. It's easy to lose track of time searching for shells. In fact, author Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote about the calming effect of shelling in her book Gift from the Sea, written during the author's stay on Sanibel Island.
But Sanibel has strict rules when it comes to shelling, and I tell my son that he cannot keep a sand dollar that he has found in the surf.
"It's a living creature," I explain. "We need to leave it for some other little boy to enjoy."
He is disappointed, but he brightens up with the promise of a ride in a surrey. With 22 miles of paved trails, it is a bikers' paradise for one of the many things to do in Sanibel Island. There are plenty of places to rent bikes on the island. We pick our vehicle then head off down Tarpon Bay Road for a look at the bay.
Afterwards, we ride around for a while with no particular place to go. A passing tram (one more reason why cars aren't needed on Sanibel) catches my son's eye, and I tell him that it is one more thing we can add to our list for our next visit.
I promise him ice cream, but he's already snoring when I pull into the Dairy Queen parking lot to study the map. There's so much more to do on this 12-mile island. But I hope to be back again, and again, and again as there are many things to do in Sanibel Island.
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