Florida’s stunning island sanctuary
If you are looking to travel at a slower pace, the two-mile Indigo Trail is a sandy walking path that also starts from the educational centre. Along the route, look for alligators lurking in the water and get a close up view of the mangrove ecosystem, where the roots resemble a tangle of cables. If you are inspired to get in the water, hire a guide and a kayak at Tarpon Bay Explorers to paddle around the endless bayous, channels and tiny islands rimmed with red mangrove.
For something a little less active, take the 90-minute Tarpon Bay’s Refuge Tram Tour along Wildlife Drive, from which you can scan the landscape for anhingas drying their wings like giant black bats in the trees, plus birds of every colour including white ibis, little blue herons, reddish egrets and brown pelicans. Because the refuge is a stopover on the migratory flight corridor, bird life is dynamic and ever changing.
Protecting a quiet refuge
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Sanibel residents fought development plans to turn the island into a major residential area, finally voting to incorporate as the Town of Sanibel in 1974 and immediately putting all building permits on hold. In the 1990s, residents fought another development battle, this time against fast food monoculture in the form of the first McDonald’s restaurant. When the corporate giant paid half a million dollars for a small plot across the street from a little grocery store, residents, tourists and even school children took up the charge and managed to stop the burger chain – and others that might follow – from setting up shop simply by banning drive-throughs.
As a result, there is still a small town feel to Sanibel. It is still possible to walk or ride a bike to a corner store, cafe, gallery or museum. The restaurants are all within an easy bike ride, and are busy but unpretentious, family friendly and affordable. With laid back names like Doc Ford’s, The Island Cow and Lazy Flamingo, they offer up fresh fish and shellfish from the Gulf of Mexico; the piping hot heaps of steamed shrimp are especially delicious.
Bike in the warm evening air to take in a play at the Herb Strauss Theatre or the J Howard Wood Theatre. Kids and adults alike will enjoy a visit to the Visitor Education Centre at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, where you can play vet using a touch-screen exhibit, see behind-the-scenes of wildlife medicine through live video footage from the animal hospital, and check out themed displays on the rehab and release of some of the 4,000 reptiles, birds and mammals treated each year, including sea turtles, owls and otters. Learn about the history of the island at the Sanibel Historical Village and Museum where seven buildings have been restored to their original condition to help tell the stories of the Calusa, the early Spanish and the pioneer families who farmed here in the 1800s.
Through careful development and hard won victories, the residents of Sanibel and its many return visitors have managed to maintain the island’s slow pace charm. For what is a holiday but a chance to relax, explore the natural surroundings and enjoy other people who are just as happy to do the same.