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A Sanibel Travelogue
Bird Watching and Grouper Sandwiches in Paradise
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
No trip to Sanibel is complete without a trip to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Start with a visit to the Visitor’s Center to learn about the natural environment of the area (and hopefully still be able to view the fabulous photos from a recent photography contest). New since the last time we visited, the open air tram looked sort of appealing because we know you always learn more on a supervised trip, but we independent types must strike out on our own.
The park encompasses about a third of the island and has a 5 mile nature drive with lots of pull offs and observation towers. The real attractions are the birds and waterfowl of almost every description, who dwell in the tidal mangrove ecosystem. They range from flocks of Pink Spoonbills to Blue Herons and White Ibis. About 85% of the way through the refuge, there is a pull off area and a gravel trail off to the right. Of course we had to explore it (even in light drizzle) and were rewarded with the opportunity to get really up-close and personal with a Cormorant drying his wings, a Great Egret who decided that Linda and her camera were there for his personal screen test and some 3 foot tall Wood Storks who seemed completely unfazed by our close proximity.
The other great way to explore the Ding Darling is to rent a canoe or kayak at the Tarpon Bay Explorers (900 Tarpon Bay Road), follow the markers and be prepared to really see the birds and maybe even a Manatee. Well worth the effort. We also noted that there are several guided canoe trips available, and if we’d had a couple more days, would have signed up!
And if you haven’t had enough birds by then, use your bike to ride the Bailey Tract of the Ding Darling located on the west side of Tarpon Bay Road. The hard packed path is easy to navigate, and this is the first time that we didn’t see multiple alligators lurking in the old water airstrip. I can’t imagine landing a seaplane in that narrow strip of water, let alone dangling a foot in the water!
www.TarponBayExplorers.com - Kayaking and water activities in Ding Darling Wildlife Reserve
www.DingDarlingSociety.org- a non-profit cooperating association dedicated to preserving the wildlife and habitat in the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island
CROW – Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife
Since we were on a nature bent this time, we also enjoyed visiting CROW, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (3883 Sanibel-Captiva Road). This non-profit organization is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of any kind of native wildlife. And these people are DEDICATED!! They are supported by private donations, lots of volunteer’s, and two underpaid staff veterinarians who treated over 3,500 patients last year. There is a presentation at 11 am on Monday through Friday that really highlights the plight of Florida’s wildlife as development drives them into smaller and smaller habitats throughout Southwestern Florida.
And, we enjoyed meeting Bill, the large 65-year old gopher tortoise who had been hit by a car, paralyzing both back legs. To aid in his recovery and make it easier to drag himself by his front legs, they cut a billiard ball in half (an 8 ball), and affixed the 2 halves near his tail on the underneath side of his shell. Bill gets around real well now, but we still sort of wondered what the girl tortoises think when they see him. They requested $5 per person donation for the 2-hour presentation, and just try to do your best to leave without wanting to give them the rest of the contents of you wallet.www.crowclinic.org
In the really “off the beaten path” department… on Periwinkle Way, just west of the causeway intersection is Periwinkle Park, a large trailer park. The park is kind of a trip in itself, filled with tidy little retirement trailers festooned with American flags, and surrounded by 3 wheeled bikes, and white metal lawn chairs with happy retirees who wave as you ride by on your bike. And, about 1,000 feet up the main drive, they have their own little zoo. A large pond filled with Black and White Swans is surrounded by large birdcages containing 10 species of Parrots. We counted, Macaws, Toucans and other exotic birds along with two colonies of Ring Tail and Brown Lemurs. Watch the Lemurs play, talk to the parrots, they will talk back, and please slip a couple of bucks into the donation box; it helps buy bird seed.
Last week, we shared ideas of the various ways to enjoy nature while visiting Sanibel Island. This week, we thought we share ideas to what to do while not bird watching, which would be eating!! But first, a couple more nature stops......
The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
If you’ve seen enough birds for a few days, a great stop is at The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum – you’ll learn more than you ever thought possible at the wonderful world of mollusks! The video is a must – even though we walked in a few minutes late and were initially taken aback as we hit the part about the reproduction of mollusks “and this is the reproductive organ of the male Fighting Conch” – more than we really wanted to know! But the museum has an incredible collection of shells and is worth the visit. And it makes shelling along the beach more meaningful, too. 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road; takes about an hour.
www.ShellMuseum.org - promoting education and research on shells and mollusks from Southwestern Florida and the Gulf of Mexico
The gulf beaches of Sanibel are a beach walkers dream, miles of long expanses of sand, covered with shells of every description. It’s the shelling capital of Florida and if you really want to find some nice ones, get a tide chart and go for a walk at low tide.
Always an important ingredient for a good vacation. One of our vacation rituals is to always try to get back to our condo by 3:30 or 4:00 each day so we can spend some time on the deck or porch with a good book and a glass of wine. There is one "ok" wine store on the island in Bailey's Plaza at the corner of Tarpon Bay and Periwinkle. You can find some pretty good bottles there if you're careful. However, if you want to pick some up without paying island prices, try stopping on the way from the airport. Just after you go under I-75 leaving the airport on Daniels Road, there is a Publix Shopping Center on the southwest corner of Daniels and Fiddlesticks Road that has a liquor store with a pretty good wine selection. We usually stop there for a few bottles on our way to the island.
Since you already paid for the full kitchen in your condo and the beautiful gulf view, you might as well use it! There are two grocery stores on the island, Jerry’s on Periwinkle Way and Bailey’s on Tarpon Bay Road. We prefer Bailey’s because most of the locals seem to shop there, and the prices are a little lower. Jerry’s is good too, and they have great exotic birds in cages around the property. The best investment you can make at Bailey’s are the fresh, large, pink gulf shrimp (13 –16 per lb) for only $12.99 a pound, some crab boil, fresh horseradish and catsup, some bakers and a couple of nice filets. We used the grill at our condo in Casa Ybel and just boiled the shrimp for a shrimp cocktail and grilled a couple of steaks that were better than St. Elmo’s (the view may have had something to do with it).
The island has more good restaurants than I could hope to cover. But you do need to be careful - this is one of the few places where even I can still feel young. They dine early and still like piano bars. So, if you don’t want dinner accompanied by a sing along, be careful where you are seated. And Linda's mission to find the perfect grouper sandwich sort of turned lunch into "the great grouper tour," so I'll start with lunch spots... Here are a few of our favorites.
Just east of the causeway on Periwinkle Way is the Sanibel Marina and a Sanibel institution called Gramma Dot’s. It’s been there as long as I can remember and it’s not a trip to Sanibel without lunch at Granmma Dot’s. The grouper sandwiches and burgers are great, and the French fries are almost worth the calories you consume… hey, as ATA says, "you’re on vacation!" They are also known for their Crab Cakes, Coconut Shrimp and at dinner, grouper cooked almost any way you can imagine it. There is almost always a wait, but since they are located right on the water, walking the docks and admiring how the people who got all those tax cuts go boating makes the waiting fun. Sanibel Marina - 634 N. Yachtsman Drive
Here is a restaurant that is so themey and over decorated that when you find yourself sitting next to the 300 gallon fish tank with a tiny, plastic mermaid floating in your glass of Chardonnay, you're sure that you have made a big mistake. It was recommended by friends who frequent the island, so we took the plunge and were pleasantly surprised. The Chardonnay was pretty good in spite of the floating mermaid (they hang a little mermaid on the sides of beverage glasses, and mine dove in) and their beer battered grouper sandwich and fries was pronounced the best lunch of the trip by Linda. Close your eyes and trust the force... the food's pretty good. 2055 Periwinkle Way
The Thistle lodge one of the most elegant restaurants on the island and certainly the one with the best views of the Gulf. Located in the Casa Ybel Condominum development, Thistle lodge is a restoration of the original restaurant built in 1890. They have a good, but pricey, wine list were we found a Rosemont GSM 2000 that was excellent. Linda started with the Prince Edward Island Mussels in a white wine tomato broth that were tender and perfectly prepared. I tried the Crispy Calamari with a Key Lime Caper Aioli and they may have been the best I have ever had. A word of warning thought, the portions are huge. My calamari could have fed 2 or 3 people as an appetizer.
As we finished the starters, we discovered why there was a piano centerpiece in the bar when a medley of show tunes suddenly burst forth. When the patrons began to chime in on the second number, we thanked the fates that we had been seated two rooms away. Thankfully, he took a break as the entrees arrived. Linda had chosen the special, a Shrimp Scampi, that had just enough garlic. It was served over pasta with shrimp tender enough to prove that the the dish had been prepared to order by someone you knew that shrimp don't need long in the pan. A very nice dish, but it couldn't hold a candle to my prime aged filet grilled to perfect medium-rare. Served with mashed potatoes it was as good or better than anything I have had in any of our local beef palaces. Piano bar aside, this is a first class restaurant from the well-paced service to the well-prepared food. And, the next day, continuing Linda's search for the perfect grouper sandwich, she dubbed the one served poolside from the pool bar quite tasty. Appetizers in the $7 to $15 range, entrees $16 - $30. Good place! 2255 West Gulf Drive
Here is a top notch restaurant owned and operated by real Italians way out on West Gulf Drive, halfway to Captiva. It was packed on a Sunday night, a good sign. And, better yet, their piano player had Sunday's off. How many restaurants have you visited lately that had tableside Dover Sole on the menu? Seriously, this place is like a little piece of New York City among the palm trees, right down to the waiters in black suits with long, white aprons. The menu is very extensive, running the gamut from Beef Carpaccio to grilled veal chops. The only disapointment was a rather uninspired, over priced wine list. We were forced to settle for a bottle of Antinori Santa Christina Sangiovese at $32 that we sell for $11. Oh well, as we looked around the room the reason was apparent. It certainly was a mature crowd and they were serving lots of cocktails.
The food was the real attraction. Our very attentive, very Italian waiter (and Linda tells me, very handsome in that Italian sort of way) enhanced the menu with numerous specials, all described with a great flourish and much hand waving. We started with the imported Italian Bufala Mozzarella with roma tomatoes, basil and olive oil that was just as good as it sounds. That was followed by a Caesar salad that was pretty authentic, from the homemade croutons to the anchovies on top. I couldn't pass up the Dover Sole and was not disappointed. Sautéed simply with lemon and parsley, our waiter deboned it tableside in perfect fashion. My Dover Sole standard is the Cape Cod Room at the Drake in Chicago and their presentation matched it.
Linda chose the special and her heaping bowl of Fettuccini arrived covered with more seafood than she could eat, even with me helping her. Shrimp, scallops, mussels, grouper and a entire lobster tail adorned a bowl of pasta in a chanterelle mushroom brandy cream sauce. All this was accompanied by excellent toasted garlic bread. Again, good service and excellent food at prices ranging from $8 to $13 for appetizers and $17 to $35 for entrees. 2761 West Gulf Road
The Mad Hatter
We didn't visit this time but some of the best meals we have had on Sanibel have been at the Mad Hatter. Very creative, upscale food with a great wine list and no piano. Pricey, but worth it. The fact that they don't advertise in any of the tourist publications tells you that they are busy enough that you should make a reservation. On Sanibel Captiva Road just before the bridge to Captiva
Last week's Sanibel Travelogue brought this note from veterinarian Kristi G. about her experience at C.R.O.W.
Wow! maybe I am just extremely post-partum right now but your travelogue brought back some amazing memories, I nearly cried... particularly your comments about C.R.O.W...
Many years ago, when I was a senior in veterinary school (Purdue University), I did a 5-week rotation at C.R.O.W. as an extern working with the doctor and other staff. I can't think of a time during which I had more fun, worked harder, and slept less than those 5 weeks (okay, so childbirth and these first 2 weeks with a newborn beat that time... but C.R.O.W. ranks second beating out even my residency). The people that work at C.R.O.W. are dedicated and compassionate and intelligent and amazing. I was also amazed by the number of volunteers that would show up to help throughout the day. Some days we would know who was coming and other days we would be surprised by an old friend stopping by to help. There were several couples who vacationed on Sanibel Island every year and every year they dedicated several days of their vacation to helping at C.R.O.W. Depending on their particular skills, they might help to construct a new out-building for a permanent resident tortoise, repair a flight cage, help with meal preparation, or even take the time to help a poor extern clean the pelican cage! It was amazing to see the spirit of cooperation and family that existed to help these animals.
I have some wonderful pictures to complement my memories of that time. I smile just thinking of the time we had to grease the head of an angry adult raccoon in order to get it out of the glass peanut butter jar in which it had gotten very stuck (one reason they want the recycled jars to be very clean when they are put out and that very tight 'raccoon proof'' lids are recommended for trash and recycle bins!) and of the successful release of a beautiful, although not very bright, adult bald eagle who had gotten waterlogged trying to catch his dinner.
Thank you for making me smile this morning and for letting your many readers know about C.R.O.W. - the more people that know about them, the more support they will receive and the more wildlife they can help.
February 4 & 11, 2004