Where wildlife (and tourists) take refuge

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Victor Block

Years ago, a group of onlookers applauded enthusiastically as a ceremonial shovelful of dirt launched construction of a golf course overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Just then, a southern bald eagle flew over the crowd, landed on its nest in the forest that was about to be razed, and settled onto a pair of eggs.

Today, the aptly named Sanctuary housing community, and its magnificent golf layout, surround an island of trees that was preserved so construction would not disturb the eagles’ habitat.

To those who live in the Ft. Myers and Sanibel area, on the western coast of southern Florida, this was but another ex ample of what makes that corner of the state so special. Many visitors go there to soak up the sun and escape the winter cold further north.

Others are seashell collectors attracted by perfect conditions that strew beaches with some 300 multicolored species of mollusks — more varieties than anywhere else in North America.

It was the call of Mother Nature that lured me to the area and resulted in my leaving singing her praises. The natural environment thrives in over one million acres of sanctuaries that have been preserved and protected.

Unspoiled wetlands set off miles of white sand beaches. Virgin forests and swamp lands remain hidden from the invasion of development. Given the beauty of the beaches, it’s good news that the BP oil spill has had no impact and isn’t expected to in the future.

During winter, huge populations of mi grant and resident birds join human visitors from the north to bask in the sun. More than 100 islands just offshore range from tiny, uninhabited mangrove clusters to large beach-rimmed keys.

Given their hospitable climate, stretches of inviting flatland and rich supplies of fish and other food sources, the 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 still serve as reminders of their long stay. 

Famous snowbirds 

More recent inhabitants included some with familiar names. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were among well-known winter residents of the region.

The Edison home in Fort Myers, set on a 14-acre riverfront estate, is a charming old-Florida house. It is nestled among botanical gardens that contain species of plants and flowers that were included for their scientific value.

The home of Edison’s next-door neighbor, Henry Ford, is a more modest bungalow. On display are Model A and T cars from the early 1900s.

The homes are open to visitors daily. See the website of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates at www.efwefla.org for more information.

Not being a knowledgeable shell collector, a visit to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum provided me with a surprisingly interesting introduction (without the sand and stooping).

Little did I know about the roles that shells have played in history, art, medicine, religion and other fields. Exhibits of stinging and poisonous shells, and a two-story tall globe surrounded by shells from around the world, often attract the largest crowds.

A different kind of shell caught my attention at the Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife, which rescues a virtual Noah’s Ark of injured and abandoned animals. A turtle with a fish hook protruding from its mouth, and an armadillo with a fractured shield and spine, were among temporary residents when I was there.

Live video cameras in eight cages pro vide intimate views of patients on the mend, while a rather gory peek into the stomach of a pelican model with several fish hooks embedded in vital organs left me feeling guilty about the harm humans can impose upon helpless creatures. 

Up close and personal 

In addition to created environments, close encounters with unspoiled nature also are close by. The Ding Darling refuge is a good example.

Hugging the north side of Sanibel Island, this quaintly named preserve is conveniently accessible from the main highway. Yet as soon as you turn onto the four-mile-long dirt road that bisects the 6,400-acre tract, you immediately enter a very different world.

Water flats and mangrove forests stretch out from both sides of the roadway. Stands of sea grape, salt myrtle and cabbage palms provide a lush backdrop. Canoe and kayak trails wind through the thick growth. Short walkways lead to scenic overlooks and jut out into mud flats where birds congregate. Nearly 300 species of birds find refuge at Ding Darling. As a neophyte watcher, I appreciated the fact that many cooperate by hanging out near signs with an identifying picture.

Also of interest is the name of the refuge. J.N. “Ding” Darling was a leading political cartoonist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1923 and 1942.

Other than poking fun at politicians, conservation was his passion, and he worked ecological themes into many of his drawings. The refuge that bears his name is a fitting tribute to that interest.

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. The sun filters through a high canopy of leaves and, other than the hushed voices of visitors, the only sounds are the rustling of tree branches and cries of resident birds.

However, closer inspection reveals intriguing differences. A mile-long board walk leads through the heart of the 2,000 acre preserve. The setting evolves from pine flatwoods, to a central wet area, to an inner island of higher elevation hammock. During my immersion in this setting, I learned that the word “slough” is pro­nounced “slew,” and that it differs from a swamp because water flows though a slough. Another interesting fact is that Six-Mile Cypress Preserve actually is nine miles long. (Its name refers to its distance from Fort Myers.) 

Exploring by boat 

As intriguing as I found them, the wet land preserves so prevalent throughout the area play second fiddle to the open waters that criss-cross the region, and the is­lands they surround.

A good way to get out and about to explore this aquatic environment is in a tour boat that follows the watery byways.

The Lady Chadwick operated by Captiva Cruises offers a choice of itineraries, and I opted for the voyage to Cabbage Key. It wasn’t long after leaving the dock that we en countered several dolphins and, at the urging of the boat captain, yelled and whistled as they cavorted in the wake of the vessel.

Ignoring disapproving glances of people aboard passing boats, we learned— as our captain had explained — that noise encourages the Flipper-look-alikes to continue their delightful play.

The hour-long ride ended at the Cabbage Key dock. The tone of that fun and funky destination was set by a handmade sign that greets passengers as they disem­bark. 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 served as an indication of 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 song writer penned the words to “Cheeseburger in Paradise” in honor of the one listed on the Cabbage Key restaurant menu. When pressed, how ever, he conceded that other dining establishments also make that claim.

Another claim to fame is a collection of autographed $1 bills that paper the restaurant’s 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 Fort Myers and Sanibel. 

Where to stay, eat 

The Pink Shell Beach Resort is well located to enjoy both natural and man-made attractions of the area. Situated on 12 acres along Fort Myers beach, it has three heated swimming pools, recreational programs for guests of all age, and a long list of other amenities.

Suites comfortably accommodate up to six people, and the full kitchen can stretch dining dollars for those willing to eat in. Rates for two people sharing a room begin at $169 during November-December and $189 in January-February. Special package plans are available on the website at www.pinkshell.com. For more information, call (888) 222-7465.

The three restaurants at Pink Shell pro vide plenty of incentive not to venture further. I alternated pasta dishes ($8.95 $15.95) with fresh fish entrees, which begin at $14.95 and are accompanied by bountiful servings of sides.

A personal favorite was a fried grouper sandwich with excellent “island slaw” ($10.95). French fry fans face a difficult choice of garlic, BBQ rubbed or cinnamon sweet potato varieties ($1.95).

U.S. Airways offers the lowest mid-October round-trip fare from the Washington area at $220, available at all three local airports.

For more information about visiting the area, call (800) 237-6444 or log onto www.fortmyerssanibel.com.

Victor Block is a Washington, D.C.-based travel writer.