One thing that strikes you negatively about the US after having traveled through several foreign countries is the absence of cheap, accessible public transportation. Except for a few of the largest coastal cities, life in the US generally means that to get anywhere, you have to go by car. Florida is no exception. And it seems as if, when you have more than 2 errands to run, the cost of hiring a taxi in the US almost equals the cost of renting a car.
We needed a short break from all the refitting that was going on aboard The Fox in Stuart last June - mostly because we had no mattresses or cushions, thus for several weeks we slept on hard surfaces. Our backs were getting stiff. For a couple of chubby, middle-aged Americans, we were sleeping rough, is what I'm trying to say.
This wasn't the first time we've had belowdecks all torn inside-out, so we knew exactly what to do to get some relief. We had to rent a car anyway to deliver our wind generator to Hotwire Enterprises for maintenance, so we figured we might as well make a 4-day road trip out of it and see some sights throughout Central Florida.
Let me begin by saying that I enjoy collecting seashells. By "enjoy," I mean that I'm kind of obsessed with not just collecting shells from the various places we've cruised, but also by identifying each shell by name. I give myself bonus points if I can find both the common name and the Latin classification. I have two rules: I collect only shells that have washed up on shore, and I avoid shells that contain either the original occupants or new tenants.
Anyway, ever since I heard tell that Sanibel and Captiva Islands on Florida's Gulf Coast had "world-class seashelling beaches" I was keen to see for myself. And drag GB along. I bugged him for months, insisting that if we visit Florida, I. Must. See. Sanibel. He indulged me.
The drive to Sanibel from Stuart was fairly straightforward and only took a few hours. During the trip we learned the Florida is remarkably flat and featureless, comprised of mostly either marshland or paved-over marshland. Every named arterial has its own highway number, state route number or county road number, some of which have the same number. This is very confusing to the casual visitor. We were grateful that our rental car came with both a GPS and that lady robot's voice that tells you where to turn.
But the shelling? I visited 4 or 5 beaches on Sanibel & Captiva Islands, and I have to say: meh. The seashells were all bivalves - not my preferred type - and they were small bivalves at that. I found very few intact gastropods, despite every local everywhere telling me that they had all had very good luck finding big, pretty seashells "just a couple weeks ago." Yeah, riiight. Every day we were there, bunches of people were at all the beaches, at all hours, literally scooping up clamshells by the shovelful, not even looking at what they'd harvested and seemingly unconcerned about whether or not they were gathering broken shells. I have no idea what they would be doing with them all - paving their driveways? Making their own tabby blocks? Doing lots and lots of seashell craft projects?
Maybe the shelling on Sanibel and Captiva is better right after a hurricane - the locals told me that at post-storm times the beaches are really swarming with shell hunters. Oh well - maybe it's like some of those beaches in the Sea of Cortez, where the seashelling conditions can change every week or so. Bottom line: for me, in June 2011, the Sanibel shelling was suboptimal. Not to worry; there's plenty of other things to do there, right?
Well...yes. But the cost of everything on Sanibel/Captiva seemed very high relative to what we got for the money. No matter how good or bad the restaurant (there are 45 on Sanibel, and not all of them are good), a dinner entree will set you back $20-$30 - even if it's just poorly-cooked pasta or chicken, served indifferently. One scoop of ice cream is about $4. We spent most of our dinner dollars at Twilight Restaurant because despite the prices, the food was terrific. If you find yourself on Sanibel, check them out.
The cheapest accomodations we were able to find on Sanibel cost $100/night before tax, although we scored big because this was the only place we found that included a full bath, king size bed, a/c, cable TV and a fully-equipped kitchen. Sanibel Island has an outstanding seashell museum that I would classify as a must-see for seashell aficionados, but it costs $9/person to get in -- about the same as the entry fee to tour the Uxmal Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. There's a historic lighthouse with outbuildings at Sanibel's east end, but it's closed to the public so you can only look at the structures from the outside.There's a group of 7 historic houses that have been relocated to one spot on the island, but the place is only open for three hours per day, four days per week. We were there after hours so again only got to see the buildings from the outside. Here's a picture of one of them. Finally, there's the excellent "Ding" Darling wildlife refuge that provides a good tour of a mangrove estuary - unless like us you've spent the past few years touring mangrove estuaries by dinghy and panga.
In short, it was nice to see Sanibel & Captiva, but the expense - and especially for me, the lack of variety of seashells relative to the tourist PR hype - made the whole area feel anticlimactic.
OK, enough moaning about the tourism we're privileged to do. It's good to be seeing things. And it's great to be able to afford a rental car every now and then. Plus a cell phone. And infinite choices of things to buy.