How wonderful are islands! Islands in space, like this one I have come to, ringed about by miles of water, linked by...no cables, no telephones.... People, too, become like islands in such an atmosphere, self-contained, whole and serene; respecting other people's solitude, not intruding on their shores, standing back in reverence before the miracle of the individual.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh might recoil in horror if she revisited the sandy retreats that inspired her rhapsodic 1955 bestseller, Gift from the Sea. For one thing, after basking for centuries in seclusion in the Gulf of Mexico, a few miles off what is now Fort Myers, Fla., Sanibel and its smaller sister island, Captiva, are linked to the commercial mainland by a busy causeway and all manner of cables and jangling telephones. For another, so many condominiums are being erected on the islands that residents, fearful for the survival of the "Tahitis of the Americas," have been waging an exceedingly un-serene campaign called SOS—Save Our Sanibel.
In 1973 a building boom hit the islands like the severe tropical storm that recently swept away 50 yards of beach and a stand of Australian pines from in front of the cottage where Mrs. Lindbergh wrote Gift from the Sea. In her beachcomber days Gulf-front property went for $45 a front foot. Today it brings as much as $1,250. A decade ago there was not a single condominium on Sanibel; now there are more than 2,500 units going up in a community with a year-round population of only 4,000.
The southernmost of the barrier islands off Florida's Gulf Coast, Sanibel is a 12-mile crescent of 11,000 acres that, unlike the other islands in the chain, faces south. Bearing the brunt of strong currents and mighty storms, its beaches are strewn with innumerable shells; indeed, they sometimes pile up as high as eight feet, making Sanibel the most widely known hunting ground for conchologists in the Western Hemisphere.
It is also the only Florida island with a freshwater river (" Miami Beach used to have one," says a local conservationist, "but they filled it in with concrete"). That nourishing feature, plus 3,500 acres of estuaries, tidal flats and mangrove swamps encompassed by the J.N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge makes Sanibel a retreat where the birds outnumber the residents by more than 100 to 1.
The waters off Sanibel and Captiva are rich in snook and tarpon. It is a place where man still lives so close to nature that on a recent morning, while preparing to whip up his famous redfish omelets, the chef at the Lighthouse Restaurant was only slightly startled to find an alligator under the refrigerator; a place where golfers are menaced by falling coconuts and distracted by breaching porpoises; where grown men stop their cars to help a striped mud turtle cross the road.
Juan Ponce de Le�n first encountered "the islands that jutted out into the sea" in 1513, while on a search for new outposts and more slaves. The customary account has it that, in honor of his departed queen and benefactor, he christened the larger of the two islands Santa Isabella, later corrupted to Sanibel. Like many another modern-day interloper, De Le�n found the natives restless when he returned in 1521 and attempted to establish a 16th-century version of a condominium: attacked by Calusa Indians, he escaped, but with an arrow wound in his thigh that eventually caused his death. And in the 1800s another adventurer, the legendary pirate Gasparilla, is supposed to have kept the loveliest of his female captives on Sanibel's sister island, where "their wails rose in the lonely nights of despair." Hence Captiva.
Isolated, and without electricity or paved roads through the first half of the 20th century, the islands were so blissfully remote that copies of the
Fort Myers News-Press had to be dropped from a plane. There Teddy Roosevelt came to spear manta rays, Edna St. Vincent Millay to write and Zane Grey to fish. Clarence Rutland, a nurseryman, among many other things, was raised in the Sanibel Lighthouse and recalls fighting a brush fire with a man who introduced himself as Henry Ford. Now 83, Uncle Clarence, as he is known, also remembers Thomas Edison stopping by the lighthouse in a paddle-wheeler to discuss rubber-tree plants. The chats were ludicrous, he says, because " Edison couldn't hear thunder through that long ear trumpet of his."
Still, the occasional visit from such personages as Edison and Teddy Roosevelt could scarcely be termed "tourism." That began in 1963, with the construction of the three-mile Sanibel Causeway, and the building explosion hit 10 years later.
In 1973 the value of building permits issued for Sanibel in one week exceeded that of those issued in all of 1972. Today a new two-bedroom beach house sells for $150,000, and the old line "If God retired, He'd live on Sanibel" now prompts the sneering rejoinder, "Yeah, just so He could sell real estate on the side."