With a late-breaking opportunity to travel and a fairly large family to accommodate, we opted against booking plane tickets to Mexico and for a Florida driving vacation, instead. Having heard great things about the beauty of the Sanibel and Captiva Islands, we decided to try our luck with a week’s stay on the beach at Sanibel. A beach is a beach, right? Tropical paradise awaits! At least that’s what we thought at first…
Driving for a vacation made for much easier and cheaper packing. We were able to pack all of our snorkel gear, our boogie boards, a case of water, laptops, and plenty of extra clothes… and all it cost us was a little more gas for the extra weight. We didn’t have to worry about missing our connection or waiting in long lines at immigration and customs. There was a lot to be said for the convenience of the experience. Given how worn out we were at the end of our week-long vacation, this convenience was certainly a good thing.
Driving around Sanibel was a mess. Much of the island is owned by the federal government for national parks or historical sites. This really helps keep the island pristine and natural. This is nice. But it means that everything you might want to get to is far away from everything else. There’s no real center of activity where you can get everything, instead the commercial and residential areas are sprawled across the island. This means that you have to drive to get anywhere… anywhere at all… especially in the mid-summer heat. Things are cool enough in the morning, sure… but by 10am, it’s an oven. Within 10 seconds of stepping outside, you’re sweaty. We were on Sanibel during slow season. No one really wants to visit Florida when you can cook an egg on the sidewalk. Everything’s cheaper for us that way. Lines are shorter, parking is more readily available, and there are fewer people competing over the various destinations.
Since you can get to the island by toll bridge and with everything scattered around the island, everyone is driving everywhere that they need to go. With the exception of a few exercise enthusiasts and packs of tourists renting bicycles to ride around one, it’s much like the rest of America. Except, however, the roads are one car wide – frozen in time. You can take the people out of the city, but it’s hard to take the city out of the people. All of these city-folk were driving bumper-to-bumper like they’re in the biggest hurry in the world to get wherever they’re going. Remember the frozen in time thing? Well, the intersections are frozen in time as well. Stop signs were everywhere without a single stop light to be found. There are lots of pedestrian crosswalks scattered across every road, not necessarily at intersections. The crosswalks are are strictly enforced with stern reminders posted at each one that Florida law demands that motor vehicles stop for pedestrians at a cross-walk. This makes the already edgy and harried drivers even less pleasant as they zip to catch up to the car ahead after being unnecessarily delayed in the middle of the road by the pedestrians they wouldn’t otherwise have stopped for without the threat of a ticket looming overhear.
Driving on Sanibel harshed my buzz, big time. Any time I had to drive, I had to wait minutes to get across intersections where I had the stop sign, but cross traffic did not. Four way intersections were often backed up by twenty or so cars. And this is the s l o w season. I can’t imagine how impossible it must be to get around town when the place is packed with tourists.
After all of that buzzkill road raging on Sanibel, driving home for three hours amid American type-A aggressive drivers made things a little worse for me, personally, than they might have been had the driving been someone else’s problem, like if I were sipping mojitos while on a direct flight from Isla Mujeres and then a shuttle ride home.
We were able to get groceries on the island. That was a plus. However, the prices were astronomical. Everything costs 50c to $1 per item more than they do at the local Publix back on the mainland. However, that Publix is on the other side of a $6 toll bridge and ten miles away at 35 mph with all of those stop signs and pedestrian crossings along the way. As a result, instead of basking in the quaint island lifestyle, it feels a bit forcibly unpleasant when shopping at the local grocery is imposed upon you, but unless you’re stocking up and have an hour or so to spare, it’s not worth it to venture to the land of savings aplenty.
Sunshine, Beach, and Swimming
Okay, some more good stuff: I have never seen a place with so many sea shells on the beach in my life. The whole island is actually made of sea shells that have accumulated in the root mass of the mangroves over the years. There were spots where you could wade ankle deep in the shells, there were so many. The Gulf of Mexico here is quite warm. It’s around 87 degrees Fahrenheit in the gulf around Sanibel. It’s like swimming in a hot tub.
Did I mention that you could fry an egg on the sidewalk? Well, the water affords little to no relief from the toasty sun. Oh, and the water in Sanibel is a murky green rather than clear and pretty like in Isla Mujeres. Once you’ve been in the water of Playa Norte and seen colorful fish from 50′ away, the tannic, runoff-laden Gulf Coast of the U.S. seems like someone’s used bath water in more ways than just temperature.
And there we have it. Shells. Shells are what makes Sanibel nice to visit. You can play around with them for hours, looking at the different colors and patterns. These shells make up the beach. Shells are sharp. Shells also grow barnacles, which are even sharper. So, cast aside your dreams of carefree barefoot walks on the beach. For the hour that your body can endure the heat of the sun or sauna, you’d better be wearing something protective on your feet. Thinking of taking in a sunset walk along the beach with your loved one? Oh, it’s beautiful as well… and as double-edged as the shell/barnacle combo. Dusk, you see, is when a peculiar insect comes out to hunt. This little pest is known locally as a “no-see-um” because you don’t generally see them. Instead, you feel them… biting you… all over. So, there you and your significant other are… walking the sharp beach at sunset, sunburned and overheated from the day’s beach fun, and sporting a host of welts from all the bug bites… romance is in the air in Sanibel. Come visit! I’ll be in Isla Mujeres, waving to you from across the Gulf.