Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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Sanibel Snowbirds

December 1998 Sanibel Snowbirds Florida's shell-collecting capital attracts a Canadian crowd

To be honest, I've always had mixed feelings about Florida. Admittedly, the weather forecast for Sarasota in February looks very tempting when I'm digging out from another snowfall, but other warm places hold more attraction to me. I've made no secret of my views but a snowbird friend had long been telling me that I should visit Sanibel Island on Florida's Gulf Coast. "Sanibel really isn't like the rest of the state," he said, "and much of the island is a nature preserve." Since we were looking for a place where my wife could recuperate from cancer radiation therapy, we decided to give it a try. It was also reassuring to know we would be close to first-class medical facilities rather than facing the uncertainties of an isolated Caribbean island.

So on a warm November evening, we left Fort Myers airport, stocked up at a huge all-night grocery store and followed the signs to Sanibel. Tuning into a local radio station, we learned that a tornado warning had just been issued. As we crossed the causeway to the island, lightning flashes lit up the silver-flecked sea and etched the silhouettes of waving palm trees against the night sky. We were lulled to sleep that night by steady rain outside the window of our rented condominium.

As the most southerly of the barrier islands on Florida's Gulf Coast, Sanibel is roughly 19 kilometres long and eight kilometres across at its widest point. At its western tip, it's connected to the smaller and narrower Captiva Island -- supposedly the place of imprisonment for female captives of the 18th-century pirate José Gaspár.

Early efforts to cultivate the islands were largely abandoned in the 1920s when a series of devastating hurricanes flooded fields with massive salt deposits. Many islanders gave up and left but the few that remained established the beginnings of a tourist industry. Those early settlers were a special breed. Attracted by the island's remoteness, they guarded its qualities jealously. Until 1963, when the causeway was built, Sanibel could only be reached by a small ferry -- and any place that cannot easily be reached by car has a lot going for it.

The people who administer Sanibel today must be cut from the same cloth as the early pioneers: They are either extremely enlightened or selfishly stuck in the past, depending on your point of view.

Arriving on Sanibel from the mainland, it doesn't take long to notice the differences. It's almost like going from the '90s to the '60s. No enormous high rise hotels looming over the beaches, no divided highways, no traffic lights. Not even a Macdonald's -- but I'll bet they've tried. Clearly the folks who run Sanibel want to preserve the qualities that made the island so attractive to visitors in the first place.

With more than 30 kilometres of beaches, Sanibel Island and neighbouring Captiva Island are some of the world's finest spots for sea-shell collectors. The morning after our arrival, a dull grey haze blended sea and sky. Scores of people were walking the beach very early to see what the storm had washed in. Sharp-beaked terns hunched together in groups pointing into the wind and tiny sandpipers skittered like wind-up toys back and forth to the water's edge as the waves hissed in on the hard sand. People with T-shirts proclaiming they'd been everywhere from Nebraska to New Jersey carried plastic buckets or had bags tied to their waists, bending over in the "Sanibel Stoop" -- poking among shells that had once been home to scallops, clams, cockles, whelks, conch, rock oysters, speckled iridescent abalone and many others. About 250 species of shell have been found on Sanibel. Rarer finds include the brown spotted junonia. Pick up one of those and you'll get your picture in the local paper, but it's a definite no-no to take most live shells off the beach.

We had been given the name of a long-time Sanibel snowbird called Caroline Woodbury -- or "Woody" to everyone who knows her. A blunt-spoken retired Yankee schoolteacher, Woody took us on a tour of the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge which covers a large part of Sanibel. The 2400-hectare refuge is one of the top places in the United States to view exotic birds -- without binoculars. In the course of our tour, we saw white herons, great egrets, ibises, roseate spoonbills and many others, to say nothing of the turkey vultures, brown pelicans and bald eagles. Even an alligator. Footpaths give walkers and cyclists a close-up perspective of the wildlife and kayak routes winding through the refuge which are becoming more and more popular.

One day we took a long walk on the beach, trying hard not to pick up sea shells. We headed for the lighthouse and fishing pier at the east end of the island. This part of Sanibel, closest to the mainland, is where the earliest development took place. The lighthouse, built in 1884, is the island's oldest building. One early visitor, who became friends with lighthouse-keeper Henry Shanahan, was Thomas Edison, whose children roamed the beaches with the Shanahan boys as guides. At the fishing pier, snowy egrets perched hopefully on the railings as fishermen cleaned their catch, but we decided to head for the Lighthouse Cafe on Periwinkle Way for a late breakfast. A sign proclaimed "Serving Breakfast from 7AM to 3PM." Where else but the good old United States would you see that?

Next day we headed west to explore Captiva Island. Crossing the bridge over Wolfert Channel between the two islands, the contrast was remarkable. On the Sanibel side the road is fairly open but once over the bridge we drove through a shady tunnel of Australian pines. Sandy roads led off to secluded homes but at one point the road was just a few yards from the Gulf of Mexico. We stopped for lunch at the beach-side Mucky Duck, a pseudo-English pub that went up in my estimation when I found that it served my favourite English beer on draft. It also had some of the best barbecued shrimp I've ever tasted.

The top end of Captiva is a private resort but before turning back south, we visited the Captiva History House Museum, near Chadwick's Restaurant, to learn a little more about this area which had been a key lime plantation before the hurricanes hit. On another trip to Captiva, we stopped at the Tween Waters Inn and lunched at the Old Captiva House in an atmosphere of soft chamber music and artwork-covered walls -- including a piece by one-time guest, Robert Bateman.

A couple of days before we left, we arranged to have Woody take us in her boat across Pine Island Sound to Pine Island, another spot once popular with Thomas Edison. Nowadays on Pine Island, homes line a network of canals. As we chugged slowly along the canals, we saw pelicans and wood storks perched on pilings and boathouses. We docked for a seafood lunch on Monroe Canal at the Double Nichol Pub, where they have scallop shells for ashtrays and a roll of paper towels for napkins. On the way back to Sanibel we spotted lots more bird-life and drew close to a group of white pelicans on a sandspit.

Leaving the island was a bit of a shock. After two weeks, with only one excursion back to the mainland, we'd become accustomed to the slower pace of life on Sanibel and Captiva. We had walked its beaches, gone on nature hikes, dined out leisurely under a canopy of palms and simply relaxed in an atmosphere far removed from factory outlets, fast food, high rise resorts and traffic noise. This was a place I would happily come back to.

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