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Southwest Florida’s Best Kept Secret

Author: Rudda-les
Date of Trip: January 2007

After fifty-eight odd years of life, I thought I had seen it all. Then I stumbled upon a closely kept secret — a virtual paradise. Frankly, I had mixed emotions about sharing the experience or just keeping it a secret like the locals have always done.

My destination was North Captiva Island, just about five miles off the coast of Fort Myers Beach. I had been to Sanibel and Captiva before, and naturally assumed that this was the same place. I was wrong.

North Captiva Island is indeed a virtual paradise, tucked away amongst the barrier mangrove islands just off Florida’s Southern Gulf coast. Once part of Captiva Island, a fierce hurricane in the early nineteen hundreds actually severed North Captiva from its parent.

I was directed to Pine Island and the Pine Island Marina, where I would board a vessel owned by Island Girl Charters. Island Girl maintains scheduled service to North Captiva. I hesitate to call this a ‘ferry’ as it really was a modern, forty-foot utility boat with a twenty-person capacity, maintained in bristol condition by an able and friendly crew. Boats leave every two hours, and the trip takes about thirty minutes.

The trip is more than just a boat ride. It’s a return to Florida’s golden past into a time when the incredible beauty of this area was everywhere. I soon found out how very, very different North Captiva would be from Pine island and the hustle and bustle of greater Ft. Myers.

It is probably best to say what North Captiva does NOT have. No cars, no crowded beaches, no fast food restaurants or strip malls, hotels or noise. There’s definitely no throngs of tourists. Transportation around the island is by golf cart only.

There is a private air strip on North Captiva, and some of the island residents actually commute back and forth to the mainland via private aircraft. There are about four hundred private residences on the northernmost part of the island, from sun splashed beachfront ‘Key West’ style cottages, to lush multi-million dollar mansions shaded by swaying palms.

The southern part of North Captiva is a tropical eco-park carefully maintained by the Florida Park Service. It is available for hiking and just enjoying the many endangered species of wildlife that call the island home. About 20% of these homes are available for rental to those few savvy travelers who recognize paradise when they stumble upon it, as I had.

There are two ‘clubs’ on the island. One is the Safety Harbour Club, with the best marina on the island, and the other is the North Captiva Island Club, that is for members only, but renters get the use of the facilities that are in wonderful abundance. When a renter arrives, they are taken by Island Girl to the Club dock, and to the small office, where you pick up your golf cart, house keys and directions to your private home. These homes have names (mine was ‘Isla Vista’) complete with a ‘widow’s walk’ observation platform high on the roof that boasted an astounding 365 degree view of the Gulf of Mexico and Fort Myers Beach in the distance.

The sunset was awe-inspiring. I sat up top with a great glass of wine, and watched the crimson sky and the sun fall into the sparkling azure Gulf. It was then that I realized something I hadn’t noticed since my arrival. Life on North Captiva is indeed a world apart. The only sounds you hear are the occasional seabirds, the crashing of the surf on pristine and uncrowded aquamarine, shell-strewn beaches, and the wind gently filtering though the palms that abound everywhere.

The North Captiva Island Club has two pools (one olympic-sized) and the greatest tropical bar, reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s frequent haunts down the coast in the keys. The friendly bartender explained that the island is just about fully recovered from a devastating hurricane season a few years ago. Hurricane Charlie blew though and caused millions in damage to the Club and to numerous private homes. Everyone who came into the bar was greeted by name, and with a smile.

This paradise has so very much to offer. One of the things I loved most was the absolute peaceful tranquility. There is a great seaside casual restaurant named Barnacle Phils, just a quick three minute cart-ride over by the grass airstrip that serves the coldest Coronas and the best cajun fried grouper sandwiches I have ever had in my life. Its a quirky tropical place with the walls inside covered with dollar bills end to end. The old marina, destroyed by Charlie’s fury, has been replaced with a state of the art dock system. Barnacle Phil’s is a favorite haunt of yachtsmen, and all sorts of boats stop often for a quick lunch and some of the best cocktails in Florida. Fascinating.

Home rentals are surprisingly inexpensive when you consider that the least expensive home on the island is in the three quarter of a million dollar range. Many are available by the night, with a three night minimum, and just about all are equipped with all the latest creature comforts. Isla Vista was a four bedroom tropical delight, fully air conditioned, with a beautiful veranda overlooking the Gulf, decorated in a delightful tropical motif, turnkey furnished, right down to satellite TV and Wi-Fi, and its own private pool. Reservations are required well in advance. Booking one of these homes is in many cases, much less expensive than a stay at one of Florida’s better hotels.

Just remember to stop by the local supermarket BEFORE you get on the Island Girl boat. There are no supermarkets in paradise. Whatever you plan to consume, must come over on the boat with you. The North Captiva Island Club maintains a website with details about island life and availability of properties for rent. In any case, Island Girl runs on a regular basis, but reservations are required. Last boat off the island is between 5-6 PM. That is if you can bring yourself to leave.

North Captiva Island is truly a paradise worth visiting once in your life.

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