Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ask the expert on Sanibel Island: Frommer's Choices

When  Arthur Frommer indicated a few years ago that Sanibel Island was in his top ten destinations, people took notice.

Frommer and his guide have helped vacationers pick their spots for many years.

His is the voice of authority in the travel industry.

So we were delighted that in addition to a broad array of suggestions on Sanibel ranging from restaurants to accommodations,   Mr. Frommer provides some delightful insights on the hidden jewels to be found on and near the island in his Sanibel guide.

Some of his recommendations are ones that are broadly acknowledged, but not all.

These are our picks for the off the beaten path destinations and experiences when staying on and exploring our barrier island.

While most people who come to Sanibel Island know of Captiva Island, Pine Island is far less known.  Largely an agricultural mecca, Pine Island has a charm of its own and reasons for exploration. 

Matlacha is one of five communities on Pine Island although technically, it is located on a smaller island in Matlacha Pass, east of Pine Island. It is an "Old Florida" fishing village, home to many brightly colored art galleries, island boutiques, seafood restaurants, and traditional Floridian cottages.

And while that certainly sounds intriguing, it gets even better. In Pineland, farming is alive and well with a slew of nurseries growing organic veggies, palm trees, hibiscus, and mangoes.

From December to February, the area's Black Sapote trees bear a most interesting fruit. Known as the "chocolate pudding fruit," it is round with thin olive-green skin and contains a mass of glossy, chocolate-colored pulp that's soft, sweet, and mild, very much like pudding. It makes a tasty and healthy dessert, a delicious pie filling, or an exotic tropical beverage when mixed with pineapple juice. The Sunburst Tropical Fruit Company, on Pine Island (tel. 239/283-1200), has the fruit for sale, so you needn't pick from the trees.

Not adventurous enough for you?  Then consider this.

Short of Lost, you can't get any more deserted than at Cayo Costa State Park (pronounced Cay-oh Cos-tah), which occupies a 2,132-acre, unspoiled barrier island with miles of white-sand beaches, pine forests, mangrove swamps, oak-palm hammocks, and grasslands. Other than natural wildlife, the only permanent residents here are park rangers.

Day-trippers can bring their own supplies and use a picnic area with pavilions. A free tram carries visitors from the dock on the sound side to the Gulf beach. The state maintains 12 basic cabins and a primitive campground on the northern end of the island near Johnson Shoals, where the shelling is spectacular. Cabins cost $40 a day, and campsites are $22 a day year-round. For camping or cabin reservations, call tel. 800/326-3521 or go to There's running water on the island, but no electricity.

The park is open daily from 8am to sundown. There's a $2-per-person honor-system admission fee for day visitors. You can rent single-seat kayaks for $40 a day, two-seaters for $50 a day; for reservations, call Tropic Star Cruises, on Pine Island (tel. 239/283-0015;

So if you think that Sanibel is the end all and be all of a vacation in Southwest Florida, you are correct.  But you can, indeed, venture out in almost any direction and have a great time!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Photographing Wildlife on Sanibel Island

The question of what to shoot is easily answered.

Everything in sight.

Leaving more fundamental considerations to be resolved, such as how to shoot and when to shoot.

The answers to each of those questions can fill volumes.

So we will abbreviate our answers into something you can evaluate and take home with you.

One of the most popular subjects on Sanibel for a photographer are our dolphins.  And while you may get some delightful surprises of dolphins swimming with you, those are rarely opportunities to point your camera and click away.  Even from the shore, the ability to get a good shot will be limited.

But most of our boat rides offer ample opportunity to get spectacular dolphin photography.  Lighting and speed will have everything to do with your success as you shoot from a moving boat, schools of dolphins swimming beside you.   First, check your metering, make sure you are shooting at least 1/400 shutter speed based on the lighting conditions. Make sure you have a high speed (class 10) card in your camera. Set your camera to continuous shooting and press the shutter for as long as the dolphins put on their show. Practice if you have to before you go shooting a moving subject, kids or pets. Finally, stating the obvious, be prepared to shoot a lot and edit out the bad (out of focus) shots.

We can not guarantee you will see dolphins, but the odds are greatly on your side

Shooting our birds may require more patience than skill.  The small song birds are generally not that easy to spot given the abundance of topicality.  It is probably more advantageous to sit in one place and wait for them rather than to go out looking.  A bench at your condo complex or chair on that deck of your rental house will be a fine perch for viewing and shooting.  Make yourself comfortable and stay cool with an iced tea and plenty of sunscreen.

But venturing out to find our wading birds  is necessary and generally successful.  Ding Darling abounds with waders from Roseate  Spoonbills to White Pelicans.  They will only be seen at low tide, but they will be in abundance providing ample opportunity to shoot them in groups or just isolate one or two as your subjects.

The waders are accustomed to people but may be at some distance.  So we suggest you get a pass into Ding Darling and drive through with your car, carrying your camera and tripod with you, stopping at the best locations.  You will know when a group of Rosies or White Pelicans are gathered on one of Ding's sandbars as the humans will be grouped there as well.  Because the distance may reach or exceed 100 feet, it is best to have  a tripod, but a very steady hand can work quite well.

The rewards of photographing in Ding Darling go well beyond Rosies and Pelicans though.  Your chances are good to excellent in seeing so many special residents there: Alligators, Raccoons, and dozens of other birds from Yellow Crowned Night Herons to Snowy Egrets can all be found in abundance.  And most of these will be close enough to shore where you will be able to shoot without a tripod.

The biggest challenge you will find is that you will quickly run out of time when using vacation hours and days to use your eyes and camera.  But you will go home with the best souvenirs. Ever!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Interesting Details on Sanibel's Wading Birds

Though Sanibel is the ultimate destination for shell collectors, it is a highly favored destination for bird watchers as well.

In fact, the island was just recognized as one of the 10 best bird watching sites in the USA.

The number of birds and the variety of birds are easily observed.  Unlike some destinations where binoculars are a necessity to bird sightings so many of our birds, particularly the wading birds,  are large enough to observe with the naked eye and from fairly close ranges.

What is less obvious is the special features that our birds have and use.

The Roseate Spoonbill , possibly the most iconic of all Sanibel feathered residents, is not naturally pink.  It's beautiful pink plumage depends on the Spoonbill's diet.  Shrimp consumption is the primary cause for the pink feathers.  Spoonbills forage by wading in shallow water, swinging their bills from side to side as they wade.  The spoon-shaped bill allows them to easily sift through mud, capturing small fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic animals that are often ignored by larger waders.

Looking at the larger birds like the Spoonbills, Great Blue Herons, Woodstork and other waders one is sometimes surprised to seem them fly off.  They simply look too big to lift up on their own.  But , as they say, looks are deceptive.  All birds have hollow bones, making them much lighter than you would imagine by visual appraisal.  A Great Blue Heron, which can stand 4 feet tall, and catch and eat a fish 15 inches in length,  weighs only five pounds.  Despite its height and girth, the Great Blue is light as a feather....or five pounds worth of feathers.

Another seeming enigma is the habit many waders have of spreading out their wings as they meander through the water.  This is not a show of vanity but a necessity in feeding.  The ability to spread their wings over the water and create a shade enables the waders to see directly into the water and spy their prey.  Similarly, the elaborate neck arching and feather displays made by little  Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets---  also known as common egret, large egret or great white heron----is not to ward off other egrets but rather to attract them.  During the breeding season both males and females develop a delicate cloak of long white feathers that extend over their backs. Courtship displays include erecting their spectacular lacy breeding plumes some raising their wings or arching their necks.

When successful, both parents take turns to incubate the eggs and to feed the chicks. While most birds do not start incubating their eggs until the full clutch is laid, Great Egrets start incubating as soon as the first egg is laid. Thus Great Egret eggs hatch at different times about 25 days later. Great Egret parents also allow their chicks to squabble over food. Chicks often kill each other. Thus, if there is insufficient food, the strongest (usually the one that hatched first) stands a better chance of surviving. Great Egret chicks also have an unfortunate tendency of climbing out of their nests. They then often fall prey to predators. Few chicks therefore survive to fledge, in 6-7 weeks. Great Egrets reach maturity at 2 years and can live for 22 years.

A vacationer interested in birds will have a wonderful time observing our Sanibel flocks and reading more about them!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Resolutions for the New Year on Sanibel Island

For many, today was the first work day of the year as well as a return to reality.

While we understand that enjoying family and friends often trumps being back into routine,  we also believe that serious consideration of the future is easier contemplated from behind a desk full of papers than behind a table full of food.

So, with no or fewer distractions to keep you from your mission, here are some suggestions for a new year commitment to Sanibel Island.

First, it will make you and your family happy to admit one true fact about vacationing.  Many times it it is a lot of effort, some times more effort than enjoyment.  The planning, arranging, finding a nice and appropriate accommodation, the packing can all be exhausting.  But truth be told, Sanibel is one of those rare exceptions where life is easy from concept to completion.

So your first resolution may be to thoughtfully and realistically analyze the value versus the cost, financially and psychologically, of choosing Sanibel.  We are betting that you will not find a place to holiday which offers more affordable options for a stay than Sanibel while also offering a plethora of alternatives for the whole family.  The beach, nature, boating, shopping all beckon continuously.

Second, it is worth recognizing that with effort at a minimum and enjoyment at a maximum, our little barrier island is not just a beach, but much more.  It is a place of discovery and you can, with the correct choices, take home much more than you bring.  You can learn on your own, or be guided to knowledge with such organizations as C.R.O.W., SCCF, Bailey's Shell Museum, the Sanibel Sea School and Tarpon Bay Explorers.    Why just "veg out" on a beautiful beach when you can relax and "take in" so much information on Sanibel?

Third, it is always good to share the joy.  Yes, we know everyone wants to experience the serenity of Sanibel and is loathe to see too many people coming to the Island.  But let's not be selfish.  Aren't there many people among your family, friends, neighbors and colleagues who need a break?  We are betting there are.  So open up your heart to a little more company and let them know what you have found as a vacation rental guest on sweet Sanibel. Tell them how very special this vacation destination is.   Giving is always better than receiving!

Now these are easy resolutions and much easier to achieve than losing weight, saving money and stopping a bad habit.  So we hope you carry on with 2015 with these commitments in mind.

And, above all, do have a very happy and healthy New Year~