A love letter to Sanibel Island…
There was a magical place once where we escaped. Its beaches were quiet and covered in spectacular specimens from the sea. It was a place to relax and get away from the insanity, an absolute refuge for us wanderers. It was not without its quirks. Think about the Bubble Room, and the concrete manatee mailboxes, and the beautiful private estates and the bold exotic flowers. Everyone I have ever met who has grown up on this island has proclaimed that their childhood was nothing short of enchanting. It was a dance with nature, the chance to get close but not too close to alligators, crocodiles and roseate spoonbills, with feathers so pink they might shame a flock of flamingos.
This place was the antithesis to the jet set, a place where people could alternately lose themselves or find themselves. It was never about the money. You would pay a $6 toll to cross a bridge, and instantly you were forced to slow down. You had to adjust to the vibes of the island and breathe a little bit more, unbutton your shirt, put that cellphone down for a second to look at the beauty in front of you and all around you. It was intoxicating. There were bike ride rentals so incredible until the chain broke and you had to walk your bike back to the rental shop. Even when it stormed on the island, you knew it wouldn’t last long and there would be eternal summer again. Once you set foot on Sanibel Island, you had to change, as the island would not change for you. You knew you couldn’t bring the mainland with you on the hunt for the elusive Junonia seashell. To find one ensures a photo on the front page of the local paper. You can’t just claim that kind of fame anywhere.
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Slowing down was part of Sanibel’s magic. You purposefully had to think about maybe enjoying your life, spending time with your family. Instead of rushing around, go have breakfast, have some ice cream, get a six-pack, go fishing, have your garbage plate at Amy’s Over Easy, relax for a change. See the Ding Darling refuge, which you could drive, but just make sure you don’t hit a gopher tortoise. Find the greatest seashell ever but throw it back because there is some grey slug-like animal that had already claimed it — so you throw it back because it simply wouldn’t be right. It’s a place to quit being so loud; to us, it was always noticeably quieter on Sunday on checkout. Solemn, like nature’s church. We were quieter and more respectful when we left. I’m still shaking my head, Bubble Room — waitresses dressed as Boy Scouts and grandma's closet exploded in pink everywhere, and bubbles and technicolor pink, beets as an appetizer. Quirky — because that’s the island.
We are left with souvenirs and memories, and hopes of your quick return. In our mind’s eye, we drive the extra way to Captiva. It’s where you make a turn on a long road and get your morning newspaper, your snacks, and then your kids want ice cream so it’s off to the Provisions store. We drink our coffee from a mug that says Over Easy — everyone still calls it Amy’s, even though Amy moved away a long time ago. There’s the shop where you buy your T-shirt, or a suncatcher for your grandma, or a treat for your dog. And Bailey’s grocery. You can go there and buy shrimp for your family, and they will help you figure out a recipe because you know you don’t have one. One bottle of Bailey’s famous seasoning will make it all taste right. So, they sell you a spice so you can cook and everyone can sit around the table and just be happy in each other’s company. This is contentment. That’s Sanibel, even if for right now we can only visit in our memories.
It was a place where our children were welcome. Every other place in Florida we felt like vagabonds and wanderers with them but there in Sanibel, we felt like a family and we never felt judged. Nature doesn’t judge you, and Sanibel didn’t either. Perhaps the best thing about it was that everybody thought Sanibel was their own personal secret. How can an entire region of people think that it was their secret? People never treated it with disrespect. They threw their garbage out, and recycled; the people on the island took care of the place and loved it. They would tell you they would see you next time you came back; they remembered you. We remember you, Sanibel.
A long time ago someone or a group of people realized how valuable this land would be. Not to developers but to nature lovers. Because of its unique location and array of wildlife, it was easy to see there was no place on Earth like this magical island. Ding Darling was a stunning gift to anybody who ever needed a crash course in why environmental protection is so important, and why our natural world, resilient as it is, is so fragile. Seeing what Ian has done — we are broken-hearted.
When a once-in-a-lifetime storm decimates the island, you start questioning. You try in vain to wonder what could have been done to protect it, because it protected you.
You can’t ever put everything back the way it was. Sanibel is like a heart for this region. How can you ever imagine going on without your heart? Having a place burned indelibly into us — we can’t ever go back to a life where we don’t know Sanibel or Captiva, and we would not want to.
You were always among friends, even people you didn’t know were after the same thing you were after, quiet peacefulness and family time and getting away from that world outside. If you are so bold to say it doesn’t matter, you would be wrong. This place matters. Ian must have been traumatizingly scary to all the flora and fauna, not to mention its stewards. We hurt because you hurt.
To say we were grateful to have been able to escape Southeast Florida all those times, all those years, to go to Sanibel does not quite capture the depths of our gratitude. We know you’ll be back, Sanibel and Captiva. We’ll be seated at the table waiting to scarf down breakfast potatoes with just the right amount of Old Bay, and our yogurt parfaits. We’ll be setting our watches to island time, hoping you come back with a quick and speedy recovery.
Allison Atkinson is now from Pensacola but lived in South Florida for 18 years. She says "I felt compelled to write something. I love Sanibel and I appreciate all the time we spent there and we hope the best for the people there. Maybe it might make somebody smile."