Captiva Island Inn captures islands' natural style

special correspondent

Another season is upon us and it's time to check your supply of jewel boxes, lion's paws, Scotch bonnets, lettered olives and banded wentletraps. Time to do a few hip bends to get ready for some serious "Sanibel Stoop" shell collecting.

Time to head for Sanibel and Captiva, those barrier islands necklaced to the Fort Myers mainland with beaches rich with silver dollars, cockles, horse conchs and calico scallops, coquinas and tulips.

Nowhere else in North America are more varieties (400) or a greater abundance of shells washed ashore, to be rescued by enthusiastic gatherers who start their stoop before dawn, wearing miners' caps to light their way. There are no reefs offshore to smash the delicate, colorful treasures from the deep.

It is no surprise that when Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote her book about the island, back in the days when it could be reached only by boat, she titled it Gift From the Sea.

The Lindberghs had a regular cottage they rented, but one season when it was unavailable, they stayed in another one not far away, on what is now Captiva Island Inn, according to inn owner Sandra Stilwell. She bought the inn, or rather, collection of cottages, a year ago. "I fell in love with this place the very first time I saw it," she confesses.

She immediately started upgrading the 10 cottages, furnished with queen-size beds, private bath, dining space and fridge, with temperature control and an outside deck. Painted in a sherbet palette of tropical pinks, with bright yellow and aqua trim and sea blue window boxes, they are named for plants found on the islands -- Bird of Paradise, Gardenia, Hibiscus, Periwinkle, Mimosa and Orchid.

More than 40 percent of Sanibel has been set aside as a wildlife preserve, including 207 acres of wetlands preserved by the Sanibel-Captiva Nature Conservation Foundation. The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is named for the pioneer environmentalist Jay Norton "Ding" Darling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of the New York Herald Tribune who immortalized the Sanibel Stoop in sketches and cartoons.

The inn is only a few hundred conch shells from the beach, and there are all the other beaches on the islands -- Bowman's Beach reached by a boardwalk over an estuary that is popular with fishermen as well as gators, and Turner Beach along a narrow spit of sand connecting Sanibel to Captiva, prime area for shell collectors.

The 18-mile stretch of islands -- with 22 miles of paths and 58 miles of paved, shell-packed roads -- is a bike-to-nature paradise, and if you don't bring your own bikes you can find them at the inn.

You will also find your complimentary breakfast in the inn's Key Lime Bistro, where the first meal of the day is served from 8 a.m. to noon. Menu choices include pancakes, omelets, smoked salmon and bagels, corned beef hash and poached eggs, "Our Soon-to-Be Famous Hash," huevos rancheros served on corn tortillas, crab cake Benedict or Bistro Benedict -- a pair of poached eggs placed neatly on Canadian bacon layered into an English muffin with sliced tomato and a dollop or two of Key lime hollandaise. Brunch selections include the classic Monte Cristo battered sandwich, this one served with raspberry preserves, and pizza of the day.

The bistro, which has become quite popular with the locals, also serves lunch and dinner, and on Sundays there's a jazz brunch. There's no shortage of restaurants, snackeries and sandwich shops on the islands -- including the simple little cafe Latte Da close to the bistro. But the bistro has shown it's a worthy competitor with its excellent luncheon salads and sandwiches that range from a tempura-battered Po'Boy with Key lime aioli sauce and Philly cheese steak to classic BLTs, crab cakes, Italian sausage, etc. The price range is $5-$9.

Bistro dinners are really ambitious, recalling the days when chef-owner Evan Snyderman was in charge and dinner reservations were essential. You can zero in on the shrimp scampi sauteed with basil and tomato; portobello and green onions in a fine garlic butter sauce splashed with Key lime and white wine; or awaken taste buds with sausage and peppers sauteed with fresh spinach and finished with portobello and parmesan.

For the main action there's more shrimp, jumbos stuffed with blue crab meat, then wrapped in puff pastry and presented with a lobster sauce; and Atlantic salmon, poached in classic court bouillon and served with cucumber and dill relish enhanced with Key lime aioli; ginger and wasabi seared tuna in a fine lime cilantro soy sauce, paella Valencia "sauteed with the flair of the Mediterranean," chicken piccata in a Key lime butter and white wine sauce; and slow-roasted certified Black Angus prime rib, roasted all day and served with horseradish and rosemary au jus. Those prices are $15 to $23.

To work up an appetite for all that superb dining, plan to do something more than the Sanibel Stoop. The inn will help you organize your biking itineraries, sailing or fishing expeditions, even a canoe trip with a local naturalist to point out all that's special about Sanibel and Captiva.

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