A million miles off the coast of Florida

South Florida Prepares For Hurricane Wilma
An Egret flies off a rock on Sanibel Island, Florida.Carlo Allegri / Getty Images file
/ Source: Tripso.com

Cayo Costa, a tiny Gulf Coast barrier island near Sanibel, Fla., is one of the least visited of Florida’s state parks. Which is exactly why tourists are drawn to this sanctuary of white-sand beaches and oak-palm hammocks, a place so remote that it can be reached only by boat.

Come to think of it, that’s why I was there, too. To get away from it all.

People go to this island chain — to Sanibel, Captiva and to Cayo Costa just to the north — because they want to escape from their everyday lives. They want to check in to their cottages and efficiencies, hoping that by the time they change into their swimming suits and wade into the warm ocean waters, they can forget the world that they left behind, if only for a few hours.

There are other islands in the Sunshine State that hold the same promise. Marco Island, the Florida Keys and Amelia Island are all in constant competition, it seems, for the title of America’s Favorite Island Retreat.

But this place, in a quiet way that I can’t quite articulate, lets you untether from your life.

I had come to Cayo Costa to write about a shelling cruise on the Dolphin Waters, a 45-foot powered catamaran operated by Adventures in Paradise. For $55 per person ($35 for kids), Captain Bob Spriggs offers tours of the saltwater flats of Pine Island Sound, putt-putting from Sanibel Harbor to Cayo Costa State Park and then motoring on to Captiva for lunch at the folksy seafood-and-burgers restaurant called Barnacle Phil’s.

But my mind was not on the story. My family and I were recovering from a bout of the flu and a gastrointestinal virus, which had knocked us down the week before with a powerful one-two punch. Instead of surrendering to the sickness, I had continued to work and made a mistake that nearly cost me my career.

The experience had left me shaken, deeply disillusioned and in desperate need of — yes — a vacation.

Captain Bob, as he prefers to be called, is not a man of many words. Instead of narrating the one-hour trip from the harbor to the island, he allowed the place to speak for itself. Whenever a pod of bottlenose dolphins popped out of the water, he would slow down to let us take pictures. When we passed an osprey’s nest in the saltwater flats, he moved in closer so we could catch a glimpse of the newly hatched chicks.

“So much to see out here,” he said, revving up the engines again. “There’s always something new to discover.”

The Dolphin Waters made a sound like sandpaper sliding across a smooth plank of wood as it came to rest on Cayo Costa. The beach was completely empty. The water, almost green and perfectly clear, met the shore in small, controlled bursts of foam. The air had a faint smell of salt and orchid blossoms.

“It’s a good day for shells,” said Ruby, Captain Bob’s wife and first mate.

Sanibel and Captiva are islands that have seen hard times recently. In 2004, the eye of Hurricane Charley roared ashore just north of Sanibel, with maximum winds of 145 miles per hour and waves of up to nine feet. Many of the trees and mangrove forests sustained catastrophic damage. According to the city, the storm also inflicted $13 million in property damage.

And yet, the islands recovered quickly. Foliage sprouted. Houses were rebuilt. Just a short boat ride from Cayo Costa, the old South Seas Plantation, which was badly damaged by the hurricane, recently reopened as a new luxury property, South Seas Island Resort.

The millions of shells crunching under our feet — sand dollars, clams, conchs, cockles and lightning whelks — they survived, too. In fact, their numbers grew as the storm washed tons of them onto the shore. Perhaps their arrival was prophetic, a sign that though everything looked hopeless, these islands would prevail.

Ruby walked in the opposite direction from the crowd, southward toward Captiva, and when she was alone, she bent over and searched through a pile of shells. Captain Bob whispered to me that his wife is an expert sheller, “the best there is.” Her specialty, he said, is finding the rarest of rare shells, like the sought-after junonia.

“And rarest of all is when she finds ancient shells used as tools by the Calusa Indians. Some of them are more than a thousand years old,” he added, almost reverently.

Cayo Costa’s beach is different from the one in front of our cottage at the historic Island Inn on Sanibel, where we were staying. Walking along that generous strip of sand with my two sons, I felt like running around and splashing in the water, or wading out on to the sandbar to get a closer look at a dolphin or a tarpon.

But out here, standing on Cayo Costa’s almost-deserted shoreline, I could do no more than gaze out at the horizon, where the water meets the sky in a faint blue line, and marvel at the extreme beauty — a beauty that even a hurricane could not destroy.

Ruby held out a small, hinged coquina shell, a mollusk so small and fragile that it was almost translucent. My one-year-old son, Iden, grabbed the shell and tasted it before handing it back with a grimace that said, “Too salty.”

“When people come to Cayo Costa, they’re interested in the big shells, like conch,” Ruby said. “But I’ve found the smaller ones — the ones that are overlooked — are often the prettiest.”

In the same way, I’ve always felt there is an important difference between a tourist attraction and a true getaway. It isn’t something that can be summed up in a brochure or in a TV ad. It has nothing to do with having the biggest theme park, the best restaurants or the most pristine beaches. A real refuge has the mysterious ability to clear your mind, ease your troubles and even restore your soul.

We left this understated paradise with handfuls of small shells in our buckets and memories of releasing some of our everyday troubles, if only momentarily. I would have to face reality again, just like every other visitor who is seduced by Sanibel.

But when I did, there would always be the shells to remind me that the hard times will eventually blow over.

Tripso wants to take you on a cruise for a cause! See how far New Orleans and Cozumel have come since Katrina and Wilma. Join us October 26, 2006, for four nights on Carnival’s Fantasy, one of the vessels that Carnival offered for hurricane relief. Chat with your favorite Tripso columnist and contribute to a worthy Gulf Coast relief organization. Space is very limited. For more information, e-mail us or check in on our special Cruise Forum.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.