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April 15, 2011 > Travel: Sanibel Island

Travel: Sanibel Island

By Denny Stein

Five Day Florida Vacation in the Sun! Well, that's what was planned. But the best-laid plans can turn into lemons, and if you've got a mash-up like that you may need to spike your lemonade. First rule of thumb, never make your reservations without all the information you need, and double-checking with your mates. For example, it is a four hour drive from Orlando to Ft. Myers, and if you arrive at 6 p.m. that will seem torturous. Making separate reservations from Orlando to Ft. Myers will cost you big time, and when connecting to a 4 p.m. flight you have to get to the destination airport before the flight leaves, not an hour later. And those are just the pieces that you can screw up yourself. But it was a good vacation.

We were flying out of SFO on Sunday, with Virgin America, direct to Orlando, arriving mid-afternoon, then Southwest Airlines to Ft. Myers; we settled into the leather seats, individual TVs on, tray tables up, mood lighting bathing the cabin, on-time departure. One hour out of SF0 the pilot announces that we have to turn around and return to the airport because on push back from the gate we bumped the wing tip air sensor. "We?" That's like your teen-ager coming home with a three tires on the car and saying, "Mom. We have a problem." Our pilot can't see any damage, but the mechanics have to check it out, and the passengers are stoical. So, our full plane, packed with children and a baby who incessantly calls out "Yaya Yaya," turns around. Back we fly for a total of three hours airtime and nothing to show for it. But really, it was a good vacation!

I have to say that Virgin America handled the unexpected and strange delay with intelligence, humor and aplomb, and expected the same from its passengers. During what came to be a two and a half hour layover back in SFO, the crew kept us informed and up to date on the jet's condition, the mechanics findings, and our estimated departure. Finally, about five hours after our original take- off, we taxied out to the runway, again, and it was wheels up, again. To make a long story just a bit longer, we missed our connection to Ft. Myers, Virgin America paid for an overnight stay at what we dubbed the "Marriott Refugee Center," and we flew out the next day at 11:30 a.m. Now for the good vacation part.

The destination was an island off southwestern Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico. My parents had rented a cottage on Sanibel Island to escape the mid-Atlantic mid-winter. Why Sanibel? Dad said he chose it for what it didn't have: high rises, crowds, tourist attractions, and a lot to do. What Sanibel Island does have are old-fashioned guesthouses and motels, narrow, 30 mph roads, lots of bike trails, and acres of preserved wild space for the native birds, alligators, and fish.

The cottage was on Murex Circle, off of West Gulf Drive, with a five minute walk to the Gulf beaches. Before you start riffing on "Murex" let me explain that it is actually one of the local mollusks that lives in the area. The two bedroom house on Murex Circle was a wonderful escape from everyday stress. Outwardly non-descript, inside it was luxurious little refuge. There was a swimming pool and lanai, enclosed by a screened structure, known as a "cage " in Florida parlance. Outside the cage grew grapefruit and mango trees, birds of paradise, and palms of many varieties, but inside it felt both airy and cozy. We ate breakfast at a poolside table and meandered between the kitchen, living room and lanai through the sliding glass doors. It was sunny but cold the first two days, the temperature never topped 65, but we found the thermostat and stayed warm (a good vacation thing). The Lake Murex neighborhood is quiet, folks tool around on bikes or on foot, spend the day at the beaches, and are not late-night partiers.

Activities range from walking and biking to beach combing and sunset cocktails, fishing and boating, shopping and napping. Elderly folks from the north flock to Florida to escape the harsh weather of their homesteads. They are called "snowbirds" and though we may laugh at them, they clearly know how to take advantage of this country's climate opportunities. We saw whole families visiting with grandpa and grandma, generations fishing, swimming and building sand castles together, exchanging exclamations of surprise and pleasure at shell- shingled towers, or a good cast of a line into the surf. We spent the warmer portion of the day trolling the surf's edge gathering shells. Look closely at a shell - it really is a miracle of nature, perfectly suited to its purpose, tough, light, waterproof. Each shell has a signature shape and distinctive markings. The mollusk inhabitants of these shells are too numerous and varied to describe here, but if you find an inhabited shell throw it back and let the little guy live a bit longer.

Sanibel and its sister isle, Captiva, have no shortage of eateries and there should be something to please most tastes. If you are a true gourmet, though, finding that pleasing taste is a little more difficult than if you merely have tasty food in mind. Stein: Party of Six dined at Sweet Melissa's Cafe the first night; "Fabulous Food, Fun Atmosphere" exclaims their menu. I think they're pushing their luck with that one. The food itself was actually quite good, from my Seared Scallops, with Curried Cauliflower and Sweet Potato with Golden Raisins, to Miss B's Fish Stew overflowing with clam, mussels, grouper, shrimp, and scallops. The tasty but stranger items included a Grilled Romaine (the whole head grilled, really, with Caesar salad dressing), and Lobster Pot Pie, which was too heavy to be characterized as a "small plate." The "fun" atmosphere was subdued, just this side of geriatric. Our own table seemed practically raucous in comparison. The interesting discovery of the evening, though, was noticing that the La Posta Malbec wine had its web address burned right into the cork: the internets piggybacking on tradition.

We drove to Captiva for lunch at The Green Flash one day. On the water, crowded, with a long waiting line, which we bypassed having called ahead. It advertises itself as "Captiva's finest waterfront restaurant... traditional gourmet dining with "a European flair." It was obviously popular, but the menu concentrated on fried fish, hamburgers, seafood quesadillas, and salads. That's fine for a seaside burger joint, but clearly the "European Flair" had sailed for home long ago.

If you have a great cook in your group, like our Betsy, eating at home, is much more satisfying. These Islands are known for fresh fish; buying snapper or grouper from Capt. Johnny's Seafood Truck and cooking it immediately was the best, along with fresh vegetables and our own roasted potatoes. The swimming pool glowed in the night behind us, and the candlelight mixed shadows and reflections on the table.

The area has ample high-end shopping; an Eileen Fisher store was spotted on Periwinkle Way, but I got closer to a beach sandpiper than I did to her store. There is a national wildlife refuge called J.N. "Ding" Darling, small enough to drive through, paddle around in a canoe or take a tram tour. There were plenty of pink spoonbills, ibex, and herons, but the alligators all seemed to be hiding.

To end each day, though, we walked across the street, through the West Wind Inn, and out to the beach where, like nature worshippers of old, we watched in awe and silence as the sun set into the sea. Spectacular is the only word for the experience. Local lore has it that one may see a green flash just as the fiery ball disappears. I saw that flash, a green candle flame in the center of the sinking orb, and felt as though I had won the brass ring.

Sunsets, shells, flashes, sand, sea and, finally, warm air was short-lived though. Our return journey was Thursday and we reluctantly repacked our suitcases and flew out of Ft. Myers to board our final Orlando to SFO flight. No joke - the flight was delayed for 3 hours due to weather in San Francisco; late departure, late landing as we had to circle Nevada while Air Force One took off from SFO. Home at 1:30 a.m. and work the next day, but despite all, still dreaming of Sanibel's beaches. It was a good vacation.

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