Sanibel/Captiva – Florida’s Best Kept Secret, mum’s the word.

When visiting Florida, there are numerous “must see” destinations.  SW Florida is commonly not on that list.  After all, SW Florida doesn’t boast the hip clubs that are found in Miami and up the Treasure Coast; it’s not the vacation mecca that DisneyWorld has become; there’s no major sports teams like baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey or races like those found in Daytona, Tampa, and Miami.   And it’s certainly not the well publicized party town and Jimmy Buffet stomping grounds like Key West.  Entertainment, scuba, sailing, swimming, skiing, golfing, sunbathing, sightseeing, and vacationing are usually associated with other areas of Florida.  Yet, SW Florida has one well-kept secret that Top 100 proudly claims is superior in many ways to any other resort area in Florida, but don’t tell anyone.

We visited SW Florida expecting to spend just a few days each major area like Naples, Ft. Myers, Cape Coral, and Ft. Myers Beach, Key West and for the most part, we were right.  When we visited Daytona, Ft. Myers Beach, Naples, Key West, Orlando, Panama City, West Palm and Miami…after just a few days we were ready to move on.

But there is one place in SW Florida that took us by surprise…it’s the spectacular Sanibel and Captiva Islands.  Perhaps it’s the $6 fee to cross the only connecting bridge that makes this magical place such a well kept secret, but we knew that we had found something extraordinary within 5 minutes of arriving…at the visitor’s center.  If you ever travel to Sanibel by car…you absolutely must stop at the visitor’s center, they will offer southern hospitality not found anywhere this side of Savannah, Georgia.  We were greeted handsomely by three enthusiastic employees, and we felt immediately welcomed for many reasons.  They asked us what we liked and then listened for our response.  Once they knew what we were looking for, they provided us with enough literature, maps, and contact names to fill at least four days.  In fact, since we only had two days scheduled to be there, we have to return next month just to finish this article.

Here are the highlights of the two islands:

  • A National Wildlife Refuge like no other.
  • Miles and miles and miles of shelling beaches…and boat access to other islands with the really good shells
  • Scores of unique and interesting bars, coffee shops, and restaurants.
  • Multiple shopping sites with everything from sea shells to bait.
  • Polished resorts alongside single bedroom cabins located right on the water.
  • Every kind of boat-ride or boat tour imaginable including rides to the famous Cabbage Key, North Captiva, Pine Island, and Cayo Costa, where you can do some shelling, enjoy the tropical splendor, or eat a cheeseburger in paradise.
  • And most importantly, you will enjoy meeting people that you like.

As was suggested, this island cannot be experienced in 1 or 2 days, here is what Top 100 found in our first two days.

The Jenson Marina – Dave, Jimmy, and John Jenson

There is quaint little community deep into Captive called Jenson’s Marina.  The Jenson’s Marina has been around for many decades and remains pretty much the same as it was back in the 1970’s.  Jenson’s Marina is like many marinas, a docking and launching point for many age-old Sanibel-Captiva water activities like fishing, sailing, or boat rides out to the neighboring islands.  But what gives Jenson’s Marina its legendary status is the Jenson boys (in alphabetical Dave, Jimmy, and John).  The Jenson family has been on the islands for as long as anyone there could remember.  And their enthusiastic welcomes and genuine interest in your well-being is what caught our attention.  Somewhere over the past few decades that genuine love are kindness for one another has fallen away in so many areas of our great country, but if want to experience it in 2010, just head to Jenson’s marina and meet the Jenson brothers…it’s like traveling backwards through space…to a better time.

Jenson’s Marina has a collection of quaint one and two bedroom cabins with twin and double beds, stand up showers, and moderate kitchens.  Ours had a 24” wide stove in our kitchen next to a small comfortable sitting room. …and a small screened in front porch.  Jenson’s offers fishing trips, boat rides to the island, swimming, relaxing on the beach, and basically the inside scoop on almost anything that you could want on Captiva Island.  No matter where to choose to stay on the island, Top 100 recommends that you stop at the Jenson Marina, and just meet the Jenson boys.  It’s a good way to get into the mood of the island life.

Captain Mick – Go sailing in Captiva with your friend, that you didn’t know you have.

Drive around back of the Tween Waters Inn and you’ll find a small dock that hosts a handful of boats.  One of those boats is Captain Mick’s personal sailboat called the “New Moon”.   Captain Mick has been giving personal tours of the islands and astronomy lessons from the water on his “New Moon” for many years.  His clients have mostly come through word of mouth referrals.  Today, thanks in large part to the release of the new movie The Twilight Saga: New Moon, his Twitter sight gets millions of hits from 13 year-olds.  His client-base, however, still comes from word of mouth.

Top 100 respects Captain Mick’s tour which is limited to 6 or 7 people because, the experience is not like you are one a 100 people who “bought a ticket”.  You are not rushed on and through a scripted tour like cattle, but rather, each tour is unique.  Captain Mick gets to know who you are before you even depart.

Our tour was extra special, because we had the unique opportunity t be traveling with a family from Ohio that was on the islands to celebrate a human victory.  Mark, the Dad, had been diagnosed with cancer almost a year prior, and had spent the better part of the previous year in transformation…new diet, new exercise program, and lots of visits to the doctor and chemo –therapy treatment.  No long before our sailing trip, Mark, was diagnosed cancer-free, and he decided to celebrate with a trip to Sanibel-Captiva and included this sailing trip with Captain Mick.

“Who wants to Captain the boat?” Mick shouts as we’re preparing to depart, and then he assigns someone from your party to helm the boat…in our case it was the wife, Carolyn.  Her job was to center the rudder, shift gears, give is gas, and, of course, steer.  Mick shouts orders from across the boat, but makes it pretty clear he putting faith in his very new crew.

As we sailed along the shores of Captiva, Charlie points out the many attractions many of which included changes to the island resulting from Hurricane Charlie.  “And there is North Captiva Island which was cut in half when Charlie came through.  See that house over there, that’s the only house the still remains standing in this region after the devastation of Charlie.”  It makes us wonder what the New Moon tours were like before Charlie.

As the sunset neared, we learned about the Green Flash which we are told is a phenomenon that occurs that the moment the sun descends below the horizon.  “When the blue water and the yellow sky part, a green flash appears just for a fraction of a second on the horizon.”

After the sun went down, we learned that’s the best time to look for planets.  Before the sky gets too dark and all the stars appear, you can see Venus as the only star in the sky, followed by Mercury and Mars.  For a short period, the sky contains only planets, then one by one each of the stars and constellations appear a form a spectacular star-filled sky.

For us, the best part of the sail was watching as Captain Mick interfacing with the adults and the kids.  He’s clearly a people person; he befriends his guests on board; and his sense of humor carries the night.  So if you’re on Captiva Island, you won’t be herded onto some boat with a scripted routine where everyone is treated like a number, if you call your friend on the island, Captain Mick, and ask if he wants to go sailing today.

Shelling – Great on the islands, better on the island’s islands

Sanibel and Captiva are well-know destinations for shelling, an age-old pastime where people walk along the beach and pick up every variety of shells.  When we asked where to go shelling, they basically directed us to head to any of the beaches that surround the island.  There are shells everywhere.  With a one-page flyer describing every shell known to man that we got at the visitors center, we headed to the beach where we found millions of shells, and hundreds of people walking along the shores admiring and collecting the shells that had walked up that morning.  When we had collected a full bag of shells and were heading away, someone told us that the best shelling was on the islands the surround Sanibel and Captiva, but you have to take a boat to get there.  That’s where the giant shells can be found.

The Visitors Center – Top 100 Voted Best Visitor’s Center Ever!

After two days of site-seeing, shelling, sailing, and stuff, it dawned on us that what we learned at our first stop…the visitor’s center…was the truth.  You can’t see all of Sanibel-Captiva in a weekend.  Admittedly, we would have to return to see it all.  Claire and I decided to take a bike ride across Captiva, when we reached the bridge connecting Captiva to Sanibel, Claire said, I’ll head back and get the car, you continue biking all the way to the visitor’s center, and I’ll meet you there. ..and we parted ways.  Claire headed back to the end of Captiva.  I headed toward the visitors.  When I arrived an hour later, Claire was on the phone.  “You have the car keys in your pocket.”  Yep, I had the keys, which meant that I need bike back across both islands.  That’s when it happened.  Bridgett, the marketing director, offered to drop what she was doing and drive me all the way to the Jenson’s Marina.  Now that’s hospitality.

So for the next half hour…we talked.  Bridgett has a lot happening in her world.  She has four children, two boys, two girls….and she’s working on adopting more from Haiti.  Her husband works in the construction industry.  We talked about green energy and fine art (my passion).  Sanibel is peppered with great artists with a long history of legendary artists and art benefits.  We even talked about bringing a global art event to Sanibel and brainstormed about a location…we decided that a private residence would be best.

So keep an eye on Sanibel.  It’s already the best kept secret in Florida.  Watch for it to maintain it’s historic charm, and at the same time to explore new ways to bring fun, adventures, and visitors in the know…to the magical Sanibel and Captiva Islands.

Editor’s note: Avoid South Seas Resort…despite a good location and reports of quality renovation, our repeated attempts to pay a visit were met with poor communication, multiple canceled appointments and (ugh!)  arrogance….try Tween Waters.

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