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ASK JOURNEYS: Florida's Sanibel, Captiva islands cast fascinating spell

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The sunsets on Sanibel are a nightly attraction.

RON PRADINUK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

The sunsets on Sanibel are a nightly attraction. Photo Store

There are no traffic lights on the islands. Overhead illuminations are an absolute scarcity. The speed limit seldom exceeds 45 m.p.h. And there are no buildings higher than the tallest palm tree.

Once you cross the causeway from the Fort Myers, Fla., mainland you are immediately transposed into a different kind of world.

These are the islands of Sanibel and Captiva.

Like the beaches around Naples a few kilometers south, they are loaded with sea shells that have washed upon the shore. Gathering these gems and watching the setting sun makes up a part of the daily activity of this landform that stretches along the coast in such a narrow band, few roads are necessary.

The islands, discovered and named by Ponce de Leon in 1513, were originally formed by gulf currents around 6,000 years ago. One could argue not much has changed. And that is what makes the islands so fascinating.

In many ways it is like being transported back to a time when the needs of the community were placed above and beyond all other considerations. Yet, while these regionally based policies may seem to be a throw-back to a less complicated era, everything else on the island is progressive and modern.

There are a number of excellent restaurants and bars on the islands, but this is not a place you are likely to ever find college-break revelers, or boisterous party-goers.

Two of the most visited places on the islands are the J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge and the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, both on Sanibel.

There is a Canadian connection to the seashell museum. Former television star Raymond Burr, who played the role of Perry Mason in the long-time series, was an avid shell collector in his own rite. He saw the beauty in the shells he gathered there, and around the world. He convinced, and worked with the volunteers of Sanibel Island to bring together one of best collection of sea shells that can be found anywhere.

Part of his collection forms just a small section in this vast scope of shell species in the museum he helped motivate.

There is something for everyone at the J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge site. Hikers, bikers, and an educational tram weave their way past the birds and animals that can be seen along the way.

Named in honor of a pioneer conservationist who campaigned tirelessly for action to protect the delicate balance of the fragile wetlands, the refuge today covers almost 2,630 hectares of sea grass beds, marshes and mangrove forests home to hundreds of species of birds and animals.

What do Henry Ford and Thomas Edison have in common?

In a fully narrated tour, or with the use of pre-recorded headsets, you learn Ford was an admirer of Edison's greatness. Even though Edison was 16 years his senior, Ford and Edison became close friends; so much so that when the property next to Edison's winter home became available, Ford jumped at the opportunity to buy it.

Side by side, they hold part of the history of two of the most important minds of the last century.

While there are vintage automobiles on the site, the collection of Edison's early creations such as the light bulb, phonograph, and the motion picture camera are laid out in a dramatic display of just a few of the 1,093 patents he invented.

There are a number of quality golf courses on the islands, which was a surprise to me considering the lack of real estate available for the development space required for golf tracks.

The Dunes Golf Club offered the most unique driving range I have ever heard of.

The range tee boxes are situated near the edge of a large body of water, with yardage markers appearing like floating icons on the water in 46-metre increments.

It is a strange feeling driving these, apparently floater golf balls, into the lake and then watching them move with the current into a gathering area.

Just about every hole is edged by lakes, and I can say on the day I golfed the water must have been very thirsty. With a few balls swallowed early I was motivated to purchase a half a dozen more from the pro shop as I rounded the turn to begin the second nine.

During our few days on Sanibel Island we stayed at The Island Inn, the oldest resort property on the island.

While it has added new sections, the original evolved from a private home, to a boarding house, and finally a resort in 1895.

With 170 metres of unobstructed horseshoe shaped beach frontage, there is no place better to watch the sun set.

Even before the sun begins its final descent guests start to gather on the beach, scrimmaging for a few shells as they wait to applaud the final moments when the sun finally drops below the horizon.

Then, with a sense of quiet and calm, everyone slowly ambles from the waterfront to find their way back to their rooms, or to the restaurant for dinner.

Sanibel Island! It is a different, but highly memorable experience.

Forward your travel questions to askjourneys@journeystravel.com Ron Pradinuk is president of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found on www.journeystravelgear.com or read Ron's travel blog at www.thattravelguy.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 E2

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