By Victor BlockSeveral years ago, when construction began on a housing development overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, an eagle’s nest with eggs was discovered in the forest that was about to be razed. Today, the aptly named Sanctuary community surrounds an island of trees that was preserved so the birds’ habitat would not be destroyed.
To residents of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, this concern for Mother Nature was but another example of what makes that corner of Florida so special. Unspoiled wetlands set off miles of white sand beaches. Virgin forests and swamps remain hidden from development. More than 100 islands just offshore range from tiny, uninhabited mangrove clusters to large beach-rimmed keys.
Those islands attracted Calusa Indians as early as 1150 B.C. The tribe remained there into the 1700s, when it fell prey to diseases carried by Spanish settlers. Indian ceremonial, burial and refuse shell mounds serve as reminders of their long stay.
For visitors today, close encounters with unspoiled nature are never far away. The “Ding” Darling Refuge, named for the well-known 20th-century political cartoonist and conservationist, is a good example.
Water flats and mangrove forests stretch out from both sides of the road. Stands of sea grape, salt myrtle and cabbage palms provide a lush backdrop. Short walkways lead to scenic overlooks and jut out into mud flats where nearly 300 species of birds congregate.
At first introduction, the Six-Mile Cypress Slough Preserve resembles a mini-Darling setting. It has similar water flats, stands of subtropical ferns, and the ubiquitous herons and egrets.
However, closer inspection reveals intriguing differences. A mile-long boardwalk leads through the heart of the 2,000-acre setting. The terrain evolves from pine flatwoods to a central wet area to an inner island of higher elevation hammock. During my immersion in this scene, I learned that the word slough is pronounced “slew,” and that Six-Mile Cypress Preserve actually is nine miles long, and its name refers to its distance from Fort Myers.
As intriguing as I found them, the wetland preserves play second fiddle to the open waters that criss-cross the region, and the islands they surround. A good way to explore this aquatic environment is in a tour boat.
I opted for an hour-long tour voyage to Cabbage Key. A handmade sign that greets passengers as they disembark set the tone of that fun and funky destination. Its message, reportedly conveyed to help conserve scarce fresh water, is “Shower with a friend.”
A hiking trail begins at a water tower that is topped by an osprey nest, follows narrow canals that once served as roads connecting Indian dwellings, and meanders past mounds on which those residences were built. The height of each mound indicated the status of the family that lived in the structure,
The center of action on the island is a somewhat ramshackle inn that occupies a building constructed in the 1930s by mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart. Overnight accommodations are in six guest rooms and several cozy cottages. The inn’s restaurant specializes in fresh seafood and homemade Key lime pie.
Patrons at the bar are bombarded by reggae music and the sounds of entertainer Jimmy Buffet, who is said to drop by now and then. The bartender volunteered the information that the popular songwriter penned the words to “Cheeseburger in Paradise” in honor of the one listed on the Cabbage Key restaurant menu. When pressed, however, he conceded that other dining establishments also make that claim.
Another attraction is a collection of autographed $1 bills that papers the restaurant walls. Estimates of their total value range as high as $20,000, and those that occasionally come loose and fall to the floor are donated to charity.
The story goes that sometime in the dim past, a local fisherman tacked up the first bill with his name on it, so he could be certain to have a frosty brew waiting on his return trip to the island. Now so many visitors leave their money and their mark that I had trouble finding a clear spot on which to memorialize my presence.
Someday I hope to return to reclaim the beverage that my token offering represents. I also hope to recapture the scenery and serenity of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.
If you go …
Given the beauty of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, it’s good news that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which began last April, has had no impact. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration puts the future probability that oil will impact the Fort Myers-Sanibel area at less than 1 percent.
For more information about visiting the area, call 800- 237-6444 or log onto fortmyerssanibel.com.