"Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches,” wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh in her timeless book, Gift from the Sea. From her cottage on Captiva Island in southwest Florida, the famous aviator’s wife reflected on the lessons nature teaches, lessons that go far beyond the sea’s edge.
I read Gift From the Sea recently and was surprised to find that Ms. Lindbergh’s classic book, written in 1955, remains relevant in the 21st century, offering insight into the challenges of modern existence while encouraging us to tune in to life’s quieter moments and discover meaning in unexpected places.
Not long ago my son, Ross, and I decided to embrace the simpler pleasures of life on a trip to the same region that spawned Ms. Lindbergh’s book. We hoped to reconnect with nature and spend quality time in one of the world’s prettiest paradises. I wanted to show Ross the pleasure of finding shells on the beach, watching a sun set in a pastel sky, and listening for birdsong during a peaceful nature hike. Taking a cue from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I hoped Ross would discover the merits of waiting patiently for the serendipitous things in life, instead of expecting instant gratification, a lesson even I needed to be reminded of.
The Fort Myers area is a Mecca for nature lovers with its barrier islands, nature preserves, wildlife, and tropical environment. But most visitors agree that the beaches are the main attraction: expansive white sandy shores upon which the gulf’s gentle waves lap, inviting you to swim in the warm turquoise waters or perhaps sail on the gulf’s calm surface. You can spend every waking moment reveling in the mysteries and pleasures of the area’s beaches, but Ross and I decided to dig a little deeper and discover what else the region had to offer. We found plenty and managed to enjoy delicious days relaxing on the beach as well.
SALUTE TO THE SEA
Accommodation options in the area range from sleepy mom-and-pop motels to gleaming resorts. Ross and I stayed in a high-rise condominium complex called GullWing Resort in Fort Myers Beach. Our three-bedroom condo featured a gorgeous kitchen, luxurious bathrooms, and sweeping views of the Gulf from the living room and master bedroom. The best spot, however, was the balcony, especially at sunset.
To me, sunsets as much more than just the end of daytime. Sunsets are like a painting from God, a palette of colors that melt and sway as the sun sinks low, a prize for having lived each day to its fullest. They symbolize an ending that’s also a beginning. Sunsets are slightly sinister, too, presaging the darkness of night, linking the known present to the unknown future. Yet the next morning the sun rises up, heralding the hope of a new day and its limitless possibilities.
No wonder folks applaud the sunset on Mallory Square in Key West. In Fort Myers Beach, Ross and I didn’t see anyone clapping at sunset, but we did view a few souls who came to the water’s edge and stood in silent salute as the sun slipped noiselessly beneath the horizon. One evening we watched a family of dolphins swim by close to shore in the magical moments just after sunset when the sea and sky glowed with a silvery-green sheen. “Awesome,” Ross said, and I agreed. Watching sunsets on this vacation was a perfect way for Ross and me to be in the moment, observing nature’s beauty unfurling in slow motion before our eyes.
THE TIDE’S BOUNTY
Another opportunity for slowing down and experiencing the moment is collecting shells on the beach, and the Fort Myers area is known for its shell hunting opportunities. Sanibel Island, in fact, is world renowned among shell collectors. Enthusiasts are known to wake up at three in the morning, don a miner’s hat complete with light beaming bright, and head for the shore to be the first to glimpse the tide’s newest bounty. The phrases “Sanibel stoop” and “Captiva crouch” suggest that shell fanciers in this region take their treasure hunting very seriously.
Among the gifts from the sea collectors may find scattered in the sand are these native specimens: Sunray Venus. Thorny Sea Star. Alphabet Cone. Horse Conch. Lettered Olive. Florida Fighting Conch. Pear Whelk. Apple Murex. Sand Dollar. Atlantic Giant Cockle. Lightning Whelk. Angel Wing. Common Nutmeg. Shark Eye. Lions-paw Scallop. True Tulip. Junonia. Ponderous Ark. Crown Conch. Common Slippersnail. Dark Cerith. Each shell is a work of art with a regal name belying its small size.
Ross and I dove into the story of shells in the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island. We learned about shell habitats and history; shells in architecture, geography, and religion; cowrie shells, which were used as money; carrier shells, fossil shells, and much more. A unique form of art was on display at the museum: Sailors’ Valentines, which are made from small shells dyed different colors. These gorgeous designs featured shells intricately arranged to resemble embroidered tapestries.
Although the museum was pleasurable, Ross and I preferred being outside on the beach looking for shells in their natural habitat. We found an amazing variety of shells strewn across Lovers’ Key, a state park south of Fort Myers Beach, where Ross and I spent one afternoon under a cloudless blue sky searching for shells beside the glittering gulf. Ross found a few Crown Conchs, gorgeous shells in shades of gold and brown, but each one was inhabited, so he reluctantly returned the shell and its owner to the sea, a gift made more precious by letting it free. In fact, Lee County, which encompasses the Fort Myers area, has an ordinance in place prohibiting live shelling, ensuring its fifty miles of coastline continue to provide shelling pleasure for generations to come.
While the majority of shell collectors search for the most beautiful shells on the beach, a friend of mine seeks a different treasure. She likes to find shells that have abnormalities or odd, even ugly shapes and designs, marred perhaps by centuries of being tossed about by waves on the shore or damaged by other means. These misshapen shells represent our own shortcomings, my friend said, reminding her that perfect beauty is ethereal and can change abruptly, like a golden sunset that vanishes into the black night. Now I too stay on the lookout for the homely shells and include them in my own collection.
On Lovers’ Key, Ross and I rented kayaks and set out on a search of a different kind. Accompanied by a park ranger, we kayaked among canals in this large nature preserve, hoping to spot a manatee or an alligator. Although both proved elusive, we were content to observe the shorebirds wading at the water’s edge and fish jumping out of the water almost in rhythm with our smooth paddling. Our peaceful sojourn yielded few thrills, but Ross seemed happy simply to glide along the water’s surface and chat with the ranger about the critters who swam, flew, and crawled throughout the preserve.
Alligators were on hand, however, during our tram tour of Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a 6400-acre tract on Sanibel Island that serves as home to nearly 300 species of birds, 45 types of reptiles and amphibians, and at least 32 mammals. We glimpsed a few gators, along with other wildlife, during a 90-minute tram tour offered by Tarpon Bay Explorers, which takes visitors along the five-mile scenic drive through the refuge. We decided later, however, that renting bikes or driving our own car would have enabled us to stop and enjoy the surroundings at our leisure.
Make sure you stop at the visitor’s center before exploring Ding Darling NWR. Kids will enjoy the scavenger hunt handout, which invites them to answer questions about indigenous plants and wildlife. Ross successfully completed his and received an honorary ranger pin. I picked up the bird identification brochure, and together Ross and I enjoyed spotting a few species, such as roseate spoonbill, white ibis, great blue heron, double-crested cormorant, and osprey.
On another tour north of Fort Myers, Ross and I finally got our up-close alligator encounter. We went on a 90-minute swamp tour with Babcock Wilderness Adventures through a Florida cypress swamp, pine flatlands, and the historic Crescent B ranch. While wildlife sightings were few, the trained naturalist aboard our swamp buggy, which was actually a modified school bus, introduced us to a baby gator, who seemed to smile at us as we touched his cool, leathery skin and oohed and aahed at his rows of sharp teeth. We also heard a large alligator thrashing around in the swamp as we walked along a boardwalk. Ross lingered a while hoping to see the gator, but I was happy to head back to the bus!
After our busy adventures, Ross and I always made sure we had time leftover for swimming in the pool at our condo or taking a stroll along the shore to look for shells. And when the time for sunset approached, my son and I would find a spot on the beach, spread out our towels, sit facing westward, feeling the sun warm our faces, and wait patiently for the inevitable moment when the sun disappeared under the horizon, signaling the end of another day well spent.
• Visitor information - www.fortmyers-sanibel.com or 800-237-6444.
• GullWing Resort - www.gullwingfl.com or 888-627-5151.
• Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum - www.shellmuseum.org or 888-679-6450.
• Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge - www.fws.gov or 239-472-1100.
• Tarpon Bay Explorers - www.tarponbayexplorers.com or 239-472-8900.
• Lovers Key State Park - www.naturerecreationmanagement.com or 239-314-0110.
• Babcock Wilderness Adventures - www.babcockwilderness.com or 800-500-5583.