Florida isles just off west coast seem so far away and foreign Laid-back: No stoplights or fast-food restaurants get in nature's way on Sanibel and Captiva.

November 05, 1995|By Lewis Beale | Lewis Beale,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

There's something refreshingly foreign about Sanibel and Captiva islands, off Florida's Gulf Coast.

Maybe it's the total absence of stoplights or fast-food franchises.

Maybe it's the fact that zoning laws limit building heights to four stories.

But most likely it's the overwhelming presence of undisturbed nature: Nearly half the acreage of these islands is set aside as a wildlife preserve. You can travel along back roads so deserted, so lined with canopy-like foliage, that it's easy to imagine you've been transported to Central America.

Mellow?

Sanibel and Captiva define the term. These are places for hanging out, dabbling in golf, tennis or water sports, and finishing up the day with a sunset drink and a freshly caught seafood meal (try the grouper).

Eco-friendly?

Just wander the broad, shell-filled beaches and watch ibises, egrets, herons and pelicans squabble for food. Sift through the massive variety of shells. Or look into the gulf waters and see schools of manta rays or playful dolphins.

This is so far from the gritty urban reality of the Fort Lauderdale/Miami metroplex that it's as if you've landed on another planet. Florida's West Coast has yet to achieve the nightmare status of Joni Mitchell's song -- they haven't paved all of paradise and put up a parking lot -- and Sanibel and Captiva are the jewels in the undeveloped crown.

Located a breezy half-hour drive from Fort Myers, the islands weren't even linked to the mainland by car until a causeway was built in 1963. Before that, ferryboats and other aquatic transport had been bringing over tourists attracted by the beauty of the landscape -- and the more than 275 different varieties of shells found in the shallow waters and on the beaches.

Long before Sanibel was on the mass-media radar screen, the term "Sanibel stoop" was being used to describe the position assumed by shellers while collecting their finds. Shelling is such a big thing that there are signs all over the beach warning about a "limit of two live shells of any species per person."

The centerpiece of this bounty is the J. N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge, with more than 5,000 acres of wetlands, mangroves, mud flats and tidal creeks. Named after a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist who was a conservation pioneer, the refuge is available for hiking, biking, car trips and guided tram and canoe tours.

Birds -- pelicans, egrets, herons, anhinga and others -- are a major attraction, as are alligators lazing in shallow waters.

Complementing this vast expanse of nature are the 1,100 acres of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, located a short distance from the Darling Refuge. Here, nearly deserted paths traverse marshland that is home to otters, birds, raccoons and alligators. Upland ridges covered with cabbage palms hide tortoises, hawks, woodpeckers and even bobcats.

If nature isn't your thing, don't worry -- the islands are full of condos and small resort hotels, many featuring tennis courts and swimming pools, some with golf courses.

Easily the biggest resort on either island is the South Seas Plantation, at the tip of Captiva. It covers more than 300 acres, has more than two miles of private beach, a yacht harbor and marina, golf, tennis, biking, snorkeling and scuba diving, several restaurants, a shopping plaza and its own internal trolley system.

If that's too grand, you can opt for something like the 30-room Song of the Sea. This European-style inn, which looks as if it belongs on Spain's Costa del Sol, features rooms with full kitchens and enclosed porches. Continental breakfast (included) is served on a lovely outdoor terrace. Amenities include towels for the beach, free videotapes for your in-room cassette player and free bike rentals.

But on Sanibel-Captiva, where you stay isn't what's important: The natural world is the star attraction.

If you go

Getting there: Sanibel and Captiva islands are located off the Florida Gulf Coast, 130 miles from Orlando and a half-hour drive from Fort Myers.

Where to stay: There are any number of hotels, time shares and condos on the island.

We stayed at Song of the Sea, a delightful small inn. The $142-per-night Nature Lovers package for two included continental breakfast, a complimentary bottle of good wine, free T-shirts at a gift shop, two-for-one drinks at a nearby lounge, and free admissions for tram and canoe tours of local wildlife refuges.

Eating: Restaurants offer the usual surf-and-turf fare, although Sanibel does boast a Thai eatery and a good Italian spot called Portofino.

Captiva's claim to fame is the Bubble Room, a kitschy place filled with memorabilia from the 1920s-1950s. It's overpriced, but a good place for a drink.

Excellent seafood can be found at Manatee's on Sanibel, an unimpressive-looking place with sophisticated and creative dishes.

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