Sanibel Island Vacation

This commentary is a summary of my notes taken during a vacation with our daughter and her two children. The oldest grandkid was on Spring Break and the youngest was excused from school to go on the trip. The Denver metro area is having a blizzard and our backyard has about two feet of snow accumulated so far today while Sanibel is supposed to be in the high 70s with sunshine today. Denver International Airport is mostly closed, but our flight came back two days before all that started.

We flew non-stop on Frontier with very small and uncomfortable seats to Fort Myers, Fl and drove our rental car over the causeway to the island. We stocked up on groceries at a Publix on the way. We stayed at the Sundial Resort, where our daughter negotiated a 40% reduction in the room rate. We had nearly perfect weather of sunny skies and mid 80 temperatures with only one impressive and short squall that dumped more rain in minutes than what we get in the Denver area in a normal month. The biggest disappointment was that we weren’t able to do snorkeling to look at all the sea creatures. We heard Lake Okeechobee had to be drawn down from the heavier than usual rains. That made the surf too murky for snorkeling. The people at the visitor center told us it is a common spring occurrence, and they are working to get the practice stopped or modified in some way. One warning is that we did not use insect repellent on early beach visits and paid the price with the very itchy “no-see-um” bites that have stayed with us until after the vacation.

There are many fun and interesting things to do on a Sanibel vacation. Walking or relaxing on the beach with the sound of the waves, watching all the birds and boats, and twice seeing a pod of dolphins chase schools of fish up toward the shore. The bike riding is great on the island with the extensive biking paths where the only changes in elevation are the raised bridges over canals. One bike ride was to the light house and fishing pier, which was crowded. Sheepshead and mangrove snappers had been caught. (The bikes were “complimentary, although there is a $40/night resort fee for those and other recreational equipment.) A visit to the sea shell museum was a hit.

Favorite things done on the trip were lounging at the pool or on the beach and the night low-tide “shelling” with flashlights. Probably the most common creature left above the water by the receding tide were beautiful “fighting conch,” which were commonly 2 inch shells of various colors. One night expedition found three of the very large conch. (We were told it is pronounced “conk.”) We read several warnings that keeping a shell with a living inhabitant was prohibited. It might be difficult to put a really beautiful shell back when you see it’s occupied, but it’s the right thing to do.

We saw two 5-6 foot alligators up close (from our rental van). One was beside the main road that connects Sanibel with Captiva. It hissed at us as we pulled up beside it and took its picture. The other was sunning beside the water during our drive through the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which is popular for all the varieties of birds. We saw numerous lizards and one of the endangered Eastern Indigo Snakes. It was crawling across the grass by our condo and disappeared into dense vegetation. An interesting fact about the snakes is that they kill prey by violently thrashing against whatever is nearby. Captive snakes are given dead animals to prevent them from injuring themselves in this violent activity!

There are many wonderful restaurants on the island, and we had a running conversation about which was the best that we tried. All were busy. The Bubble House is a strange place apparently so named because it has chandeliers made of bubbling Christmas lights. Our waiter was a young woman wearing Boy Scout shorts and shirt and a headband with cat ears. The meal came with wonderful cheesy bread and sticky rolls. The menu was a bit odd, not extensive, and relatively expensive. The key lime pie was declared the “best ever.” The best of Doc Ford’s was the pound of “Calypso” peel and eat shrimp. We tried the Island Cow, and thought it was so good we went back for our last meal on the island. The most interesting meal there was the “Holy Cow,” which was a combination of fried shrimp, oysters, clams, and calamari. Alligator could be and was added to make a meal that could easily be enough for two to three people. I’ve decided to leave the Lazy Flamingo for last because it was my favorite. Very friendly people in what I think of as a beach café setting with a mix of locals and tourists. We recommend that you try the fresh grouper there or anywhere else it is on the menu. There were two trips to Pinocchio’s, which is a very busy ice cream place. Try the “dirty sand dollar,” if you like chocolate.

I’ll close with a description of a memorable 16×20 inch cake decorated with a beach motif from Bailey’s for a tenth birthday celebration. The cake had blue icing waves on the sides, blue water and sand (graham cracker crumbs) on top, and a variety of sugar “sea shells.” There also was a miniature beach chair, palm trees, a beach bucket and shovel, umbrella, and sand castle. A wonderful birthday cake and wonderful vacation. Try Sanibel, you’ll like it!

Costa Rica Fishing

There have been three previous commentaries about Costa Rica, and this is the final of that series. Our grandson and I offered that we would be willing to share the $475 cost of a four hour Pacific Ocean costal fishing trip with another party. No one agreed to that offer, so I told Grace at the resort diver’s shop that the two of us would pay the full price for the fishing trip. It was a wonderful decision!  (I hope I have provided the correct link. Go to the Hilton Papagayo dive shop and ask for Grace or Auxi, and they will schedule your fishing trip.)

“Nacho” and “Marvin” pulled the “Vahia” in close to the resort shore and grandson and I waded the short distance to get on board. We cruised out to some reefs to do some bottom fishing, but had limited success. We did manage to catch a few fish in an hour and a half. Our grandson was pleased that he caught a poisonous lion fish (or scorpion fish). I was more impressed that he caught a “keeper” grouper that was eventually cooked by the resort for our dinner. Continue reading

J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

I was interested in the refuge on Sanibel Island barrier partly because the area surrounding what had been the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapon production facility where I once worked has been designated a wildlife refuge.  The Sanibel refuge was created after Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, a political cartoonist, urged Harry Truman to sign an executive order to create the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. The designation blocked the sale of land to developers.  The refuge was renamed after the pioneer conservationist in 1967. The refuge has over 6,400 acres of mangrove forests, sea grass beds, cord grass mashes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. It makes up the largest portion of a total of five wildlife refuges on Sanibel with large populations of fish and the more than 220 species of birds and other critters that depend on fish for food.

Sanibel Island and the southwest coastal mainland of Florida were inhabited by Calusa Native Americans when Spanish explorers arrived and brought diseases that eventually mostly wiped out the tribe. It is thought a few might have made it to Cuba. The Calusa were still there in substantial numbers when Ponce de Leon organized a colonizing expedition using two ships that traveled to the southwest coast of Florida in 1521.  The word “Calusa” was described to mean “the fierce ones,” and in keeping with that description the tribe attacked the expedition.  Ponce de Leon was struck by a poisoned arrow, died of the wound in Havana, Cuba, and was buried in Puerto Rico.

We decided to take the narrated tram tour of the refuge which is operated by Tarpon Bay Explorers. The four mile tour is $13/adult and $8/child. You can pay five dollars to drive your own vehicle, but we decided we preferred the narration by an expert. Our guide was Barry Litofsky, and we were pleased with our decision to do the guided tour. We didn’t see any mosquitoes, but did get some bites from “No Seeums.” It would be a good idea to have insect repellant.

Barry said the most common question is, “Why do the mullet jump?” The fish were frequently jumping high enough to clear the water in the estuaries and landing with a splash. The answer to why they jump was something to the effect, “We don’t know. We don’t know how to ask a mullet.” However, the speculation is that they jump to dislodge sand that collects in their gills while they are bottom feeding.

We saw multitudes of birds, and I thought the two most memorable were a roseate spoonbill at a distance and an anhinga standing near the road with its wings spread to dry. The bird is called “snake bird,” because it leaves a ripple similar to that of a snake when it is swimming under water. The one we saw had a fishing lure stuck in its beak with a short piece of monofilament fishing line attached. There have been discussions on how to capture the bird and take it to the local rehabilitation center to remove the lure. The latest report is that the bird was never captured for removal of the lure and line. We are hoping that that the lure dissolved or fell out.

There are three bald eagle nests and over a hundred osprey nests on the island. Barry told us there are twelve types of small shore birds in the refuge, and they are collectively called “LBJ,” or “Little brown jobbies.”

Much of the discussion during the tour focused on the mangrove trees and their remarkable multiple roots that anchor them. There are three kinds of mangrove trees in Florida and Sanibel and many more in other parts of the world. The mangroves aren’t related except for the common trait that they live in salt water. All of them need to provide fresh water to their leaves. One type filters the salt out in the roots, another gets rid of the salt through pores on the leaves, and the other concentrates the salt in old leaves that then die.  All three methods are variations of the reverse osmosis process that provides fresh water to Sanibel residents and visitors.

The mangrove trees are protected in part because they provide impregnable resistance to hurricane winds. The guide told us that mangroves were removed from Captiva to plant citrus trees. Hurricane winds ripped out the trees and eroded a trench across the island. Another reason to protect the mangroves is that the network of roots provides a nursery for fish. The fish in turn feed the predators, including the many species of birds.

There are American alligators in the refuge, and there was one crocodile that died along with much of the snook (fish) population during a recent incredibly (for the area) cold snap. The crocodile had lived on the island for decades, and over 200 people attended its memorial service. One lonely bear has taken up residence. Barry pointed out half dollar-sized black crabs that had crawled up out of the estuary onto the trees.

There was an interesting discussion of the Sabal or Cabbage palmetto trees, which is the protected State tree of Florida. The center of the trees was used by the Calusa as food. Floridians continued harvesting the trees, especially during the Depression, and the food was commonly called “swamp cabbage.” However, the extreme tenderness earned it a reputation as a delicacy, and the name became “millionaire’s salad.” Almost all of the “hearts of palm” sold in the U.S. is from South America, with just under half coming from Brazil. The trees are grown commercially and harvested when they are about five feet tall at the age of a year or a bit more.

Fishing is allowed in the refuge, and it looked to me to be quite productive. We saw one man with a really large needle fish (three feet long?) Crabbing is allowed only with dip nets. We certainly would enjoy a return visit to the refuge, and I’m hoping next time I have some fishing equipment and the required license, of course. I’m also hoping funds become available to open the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge so I can take my family there for a visit.

Sanibel Island Florida

My wife and I had a wonderful vacation on the barrier island that is connected by a causeway to Fort Myers. I will describe the place we stayed, some of our activities, and the places where we ate. However, this is not a travel guide, since we had only a short week there. I recommend that you look at the Chamber of Commerce site which has interesting descriptions of the wonderful shelling on the fifteen miles of beautiful beaches of Sanibel and Captiva (pronounced Capteava). For those wondering what the connection is with a web site titled, there are extensive wildlife refuges, and a large portion of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site is destined to become a wildlife refuge. I intend to do a separate posting describing our visit to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel.

We visited Sanibel in late November, and it was a wonderful time. November isn’t considered “high tourist season,” but the daytime temperatures were consistently in the mid 80s, hurricane season is over, the beaches weren’t crowded, and the water temperature was comfortable after a brief acclimation. We stayed at Sanibel’s Seaside Inn. Their motto is “Ole Island Charm,” and we agreed with that description. I suggest you check out 231 reviews on trip advisor if you want more than just our opinion, but we agree with many of the positive comments on that site. We found the people who worked there to be incredibly eager to make us comfortable, enjoyed having a well-stocked breakfast basket delivered to the refrigerator in our room daily instead of doing a “cattle call” in a lobby, and were completely satisfied with our stay there. The New York Times was provided daily. The small heated pool was just off the porch out the back of our room, and the beautiful beach was a short walk.

One of the people at the motel told us few workers can afford to live on Sanibel, and that the corporation bought them transponders for free passage over the causeway from Fort Myers. That keeps them from having to spend the six dollars each day to get to work.

We heard many languages around the motel, and were told that people from Germany, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Chili often stay there in October and November.  Apparently many of the people who stay there in the heat of summer are called “inlanders.” Those are Floridians who are happy to come to island for the sea breezes and escape the calm heat of the inland. We were also told a famous resident of the motel was a large orange cat named Garfield that lived there in the 1980s and 1990s and entertained guests by working them for food.

We were on the first floor, which is elevated a few steps. The island is a foot and a half above sea level, so it is wise to have the first floor of anything elevated. The noise from people walking in the room above us was the only negative, but that wasn’t too troublesome. My wife thought the room was a tad too small, but I didn’t notice that we had that many conflicts while we were inclined to mill around. There are plenty of complimentary bicycles, and they are all one speed. You really don’t need multiple speeds, since there is only one place we noted on the island that can be called a hill. It is a ten or twenty foot rise as the road goes over a causeway in the twenty two miles of pedestrian and bike trails along the main highway. Bikes aren’t allowed on the beach. There were signs marking gopher tortoise crossing areas, but we didn’t see one.

The Sanibel Seaside Inn began as the Gallery Motel, which was one of the first ten or so motels on the island constructed about 1960. Hurricane Charles flooded the island on Friday the thirteenth in August 2004. The storm surge didn’t reach the elevated first floor, but the place had to be renovated after the winds tore off the roof and the torrential rains damaged everything beyond repair. The recent large oil spill didn’t reach anywhere close to Sanibel.

Travel tip—it was suggested the greatest risk of hurricanes is in August, it is hot and humid in September, and things become relatively safe from hurricanes and the temperatures are more comfortable in October.  The “high travel season” (with resulting escalating room prices) is in March and April during the family Spring Break season. We noted busy restaurants, some traffic congestion and quite a parade of bicyclists during our visit, and are trying to imagine what it would be like with another several tens of thousands of people on the island.

All the restaurants where we dined were busy, but we never had to wait more than a few minutes. Every meal was wonderful. We had grouper fixed in a variety of methods, and my favorite was mesquite grilled. We saw fresh grouper in a fish market, and it was $18.95/lb, which indicates it is widely popular. We would have either clam or conch chowder and salads. We had shrimp with the grouper a couple of times and fried oysters once. We had an appetizer of soft shelled crab once, and I had to convince my wife to try it. The crabs are held and watched so they can be harvested and cleaned immediately after molting. The very thin membrane that would become a new hard shell is quite easy to cut through and chew, and the flavor of the crab is excellent. It is difficult to select a favorite restaurant. Our first meal was at Grandma Dot’s, which is next to a marina at the end of a road that was more of a trail over hard-packed sand with numerous potholes.  We had meals at the Sanibel Grill, Timbers, and twice at the Lazy Flamingo. We paid $60-$80 for full meals, drinks, and tips, and considered all the meals to be worth the price. We wished we could have stayed on the island longer for several reasons, but we knew we would have enjoyed trying other restaurants.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t describe our shelling experiences, since that is the reason many people go to Sanibel. Sanibel and Captiva were literally made from shells. We heard there once was a six foot high wall of shells on Captiva that was eventually carted away by tourists taking home loads of them. The best time to find shells was reported to be at low tide, and we did considerable wading in the surf and watching for something interesting as the waves would wash back out to leave a relatively clear view. There were more clams than can be easily imagined and a variety of scallops. We found a few live juvenile conches, one of which was eating a smaller conch and another was eating a snail. We also found live snails, two whelks, and a couple of starfish. We dutifully followed the regulation to immediately release living creatures and decided that should also include hermit crabs that had taken over a shell.  We legally collected a few larger clam shells, various colors of scallops, and a couple each of juvenile conch, snails, and lace murex.

We paid the two dollar parking fee to walk to the fishing pier on the south end of the island. The pier is relatively short, but it was crowded with people fishing. There had been several sheepshead caught and the one man jigging had a nice stringer of mackerel. The most fun was watching two youngsters with throw nets catching bait fish next to the pier.

I can’t select a favorite part of the visit. We enjoyed the lush greenery that crowds up to the bike paths and highway. We also enjoyed the people we met, the great seafood, and we always enjoy the wash of waves on a sea shore.

American Tourists in the Bahamas

We recently visited the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas with our kids and grandkids, and completely enjoyed the luxury of the accommodations, the extensive Aquaventure Water Park, interacting with dolphins and sea lions, the vast aquariums, amazing meals, and impeccable service (at a high but what I judged to be a fair price). The driver who took us back to the airport in Nassau after our vacation made me reflect on our trip when he told us we had missed out by not taking a trip into the town. He pointed out numerous historical sites of interest, including a statue of Christopher Columbus. I realized I had very little knowledge of the history of the Bahamas or its people. I did a bit of Internet searching, and found what I consider to be some fascinating facts I wish I had known when we were planning the trip.  The Wikipedia article I will extensively quote observes the information should be reviewed by an expert, but I didn’t find discrepancies on the official Bahamas history site.

The first inhabitants of the Bahamas were the Lucayans or the Taino people, who arrived between 500 and 800 A.D. from other Caribbean islands. Recorded history begins with the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Columbus intended to sail to India for spice trade, and when he landed on an island in the Bahamas he called it “Indies.” He then named the Lucayans “Indians,” and the error resulting from him not knowing where he was would be repeated when explorers encountered indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.

The peaceful nature of the Lucayans was exploited by the Spanish, who enslaved them and transported them to Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). There were 40,000 people enslaved in twenty years. The Spaniards decided to transport the remaining Lucayans to Hispaniola in 1520, and found only eleven people. The islands remained uninhabited for 130 years. An English Puritan group from Bermuda founded a colony in 1649 and struggled with food shortages. The colony was supported with supplies provided by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

English privateers established themselves in the late 1600s, and Nassau eventually became the “pirate’s republic” with Blackbeard, Calico Jack., Anne Bonny and Mary Read using the islands as their base. A British governor, Woodes Rogers, arrived in 1718 and pardoned pirates willing to surrender and fought those who didn’t. The Bahamas fell to Spanish forces in 1782, but a British-American Loyalist expedition retook the islands without a fight. Most of the current inhabitants are descended from the African slaves brought to work on the Loyalist plantations established from land grants issued by the British. The slaves were freed after the British abolished the slave trade in 1807. The islands were deforested as plantations were built.

The Bahamas prospered during the American Civil War as a base for Confederate blockade runners. Rum running thrived during the American prohibition, and the enormous inflow of revenue ended with the repeal of prohibition.  Drugs eventually replaced rum, and at one time it was estimated that as much as 90 percent of the cocaine destined for the United States passed through the Bahamas.

The Hotel and Steam Ship Service act of 1898 inspired the beginnings of thriving tourism  by providing government support to the construction of hotels and subsidizes to steamship service. The closure of Cuba to Americans gave an additional boost to tourism. The Bahamas achieved self-government in 1964 and full independence on July 10, 1973, and is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Learning something about the history of the islands increased my appreciation of the friendly service by every single person we encountered at the Atlantis resort. We and the other thousands of other guests were obviously the source of great jobs for large numbers of Bahamians, and our experience was universally positive. However, I can’t quite escape an uneasy feeling about the divide between the wealth of the visitors and the economics of those providing all that wonderful service. That uneasy feeling was reinforced when my wife asked me to go the movie The Help. We joined about thirty women and watched the story of how black maids raised white children and did all the work in Mississippi households in an atmosphere of ruthless discrimination. I hope those who served us in Atlantis were comfortable that we were polite and appreciative of our interaction with them.