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Head back in time to old Florida around Pine Island Sound
Head back in time to old Florida around Pine Island Sound
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Pine Island Sound Spotlight

Unpretentious and occasionally ramshackle, a quiet stretch of the Sunshine State’s southwest coast provides a laid-back sanctuary for an ideal family trip

By Sam Sifton

May 4th, 2009

It takes about an hour to drive from the Fort Myers airport up into the scrub pine and woozy humidity of Pine Island, off Cape Coral, and by the time I get to the bridge at Matlacha, about halfway along in the journey on Route 78, I discover my pulse slowing and the stresses of workaday life drifting away on the tide. Seasonal blues? Before long, I’ll be skipping across the ruffled waters of Pine Island Sound in a water taxi, bound for the quiet elegance of North Captiva Island, 5 miles offshore.

And when the sun falls that evening, I’ll be on the beach for the spectacle, staring, happy and relaxed, from a varnished chair, out at the Gulf of Mexico, just steps from a beautiful rented home on an island that has no stop signs, no streetlights, no cars. My wife will smile as the kids run first into the low surf and then up toward the dunes, soaked and laughing in the fading light, again and again. I’ll be better than fine.

For some, travel in Florida is duty. For others, it’s compromise: old relatives in Vero Beach, drunken revelers in Key West, society scenes in West Palm or Hobe Sound, screaming children in Orlando. It’s something to be done, and if it’s watching spring training baseball or lying out on Miami Beach for a weekend, it might even be enjoyable. But a great travel destination? Florida?

Yes. For more than a decade now I’ve been traveling with my family to the peninsula’s southwest coast to explore what remains of old Florida—as much a state of mind as an actual place on a map. We’ve sailed charter boats on the Intracoastal Waterway from the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers, north through Charlotte Harbor and into Gasparilla Sound, anchoring at night in quiet lagoons, elegant marinas, and on rowdy docks alike. We’ve punted around the backwater of Estero Bay and the coves behind Marco Island, throwing lures and bait at redfish and snook under the watchful eyes of gulls, pelicans, and bald eagles. We’ve stayed in luxury condominiums on Sanibel Island and old-timey cabins on Captiva, in the coddled suites of the Ritz-Carlton Naples and in less extravagant circumstances along the Tamiami Trail.

And the region continues to make its siren call. We’ll get to luxury in a moment and we’ll enjoy it. But it’s important to note right from the start that old Florida is still out there on the southwest coast, beautiful and pungent under the bright-blue sky: Cracker-style homes set high above the flood-prone earth, rust-stained fishing boats, comfortable wicker chairs, roseate spoonbills, and sweet white shrimp.

The islands of Pine Island Sound, such as Sanibel and Captiva, are a good place to start a visit to the region. Pick any one as a vacation base; as with choosing varieties of steak or ice cream, it is difficult to go terribly wrong. Located just west of Fort Myers, the islands include a low-lying chain of barrier sandbars on the leeward coast of the Gulf of Mexico, shaped like a waning crescent moon, or a shrimp. Long a refuge for piratical sailors and, more recently, smugglers, Sanibel has been connected to the mainland since 1963 by a long causeway over San Carlos Bay, and Captiva to Sanibel by a short bridge over Blind Pass. North Captiva, which has always been divided from Captiva by scrub forest, became completely severed from its sister in a 1921 hurricane that created Redfish Pass. Smaller, interior islands like Cabbage Key and Useppa have likewise been battered by storms over the years.

Their resilience in the face of natural disaster is part of the region’s charm. Still, it’s best to travel to southwest Florida after the hurricane season passes, at the end of November. Hurricanes are like Christmas, as they say down there. At some point, you’re going to have a tree in your house.

View our Pine Island Sound Slideshow by photographer Annie Schlechter for glimpses of Florida's family-friendly southwest coast.

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