Travel diary // Island time on Florida’s Sanibel Island

Travel diary // Island time on Florida’s Sanibel Island

Words and photography by Andrew Coles

The concept of island time, where a general disdain for timeliness creeps in, is exactly what you’re coming in search of when you travel to a place like Southwest Florida’s Sanibel Island. You feel its loving embrace growing as you traverse the three-mile causeway from nearby Fort Myers, making you ever more eager to set foot onto the gritty white sands and allow the tepid-warm ocean to lap at your shins.

It’s a cliché for sure, but with copious palms rustling in the warm breeze and visions of sipping salty sunset margaritas maturing, you feel as if your mind has travelled immeasurably further from home than your body has.  

The islands of Sanibel and Captiva, discreet and exclusive home to a lucky few, and the nearby Fort Myers, are not what you think of when Florida is mentioned at dinner. Miami, Orlando, Disneyland, Key West, and the vaunted ‘Florida Man’ are what spring to mind, but Fort Myers and its nearby barrier islands run to a different, slower beat. If Miami is rapper Pitbull (he named his debut album after the city, don’t forget), then Sanibel is Ziggy Marley.

You can spot the tourists who have just arrived ‘on island’, as they say. They’re the ones wearing collared shirts and pressed trousers as they dine on their lobster at famous restaurants such as the Alice in Wonderland-inspired Mad Hatter, at Old Captiva House, and in the shambolically decorated, must-see Bubble Room Restaurant. The locals, on the other hand, choose to stroll down wearing what would be generously described as shabby beach chic. Covered shoes, you quickly learn, are always optional.

There’s not a building taller than the highest palm tree on Sanibel (if it falls over, does someone then need to lop part of their roof off? Asking for a friend) and there are no street or traffic lights so as to avoid disturbing nesting sea turtles, who navigate to the beach by moonlight alone. Chain stores are the enemy, and as such there are only three that were grandfathered in before the statute banning them was enacted, and you’ll need to cross back to the mainland in the hunt for any form of fast food.

Sanibel and Captiva islands can be accessed by road and a rental car is recommended for ease of mobility (although, there’s 25 miles of dedicated bike paths to enjoy once you’re there), but there are several nearby islands that can only be accessed by sea or air. North Captiva Island is bisected by a diminutive grass airstrip called ‘Salty Approach’ that is a favourite among local cowboy pilots, but we instead enlist Captiva Cruises to sail us to Cayo Costa Island, an almost untouched strip of pristine sand and mangrove forest that forms the Cayo Costa State Park.

We watch a quartet of manatees nibble on the shallow seabed as we wait for our vessel at McCarthy’s Marina, and then marvel as dolphins play gleefully in our boat’s wake once we get underway. Once on Cayo Costa’s beach we assume a position called the ‘Sanibel Stoop’ and scour it for shells. Shelling is a popular pastime here, and there’s even a Shell Museum who have produced an app that will identify your find in real-time.

Of course, this is still Florida, the land that traffic police forgot. We see the odd American classic, and plenty of local men exercising their God-given right to access their particular brand of ‘freedom’ by riding their Harley-Davidsons sans-helmet and shirt. But the winner is a heavily turbocharged Fox-body Mustang drag car, which makes its presence known by cam-surging its way down a quiet street in Fort Myers, stopping at a red. The driver grins, and on green he merely breathes on the throttle. The body visibly twists and two thick black lines are laid across the intersection in an instant. We’re thrilled to have witnessed at least a little of that famed Florida insanity, almost hidden among the sunsets and palm trees and a strong disdain for timeliness.