But one year, while pedaling bikes around a national wildlife refuge on this Gulf Coast barrier island, we looked up and saw a bald eagle harassing an osprey. The eagle wanted the fish – a mullet, I'm pretty sure – that the osprey had in its talons.
The osprey held on through a series of menacing, mid-air eagle lunges, but finally released. Down came the fish, destined, I was sure, for a tidal-basin grave. But at the last instant, as dramatic as a Hail Mary pass that wins a championship game, the eagle swooped down, caught the fish in its talons and made off like the bandit it was.
That was pretty wild.
If you go to Sanibel, where we've spent a week each winter for nearly 20 years, I can't promise anything so dramatic. But if you're in the least way open to nature, you'll be absorbed, be it by birds, alligators, dolphins, shells, flowers, mangrove forest and more.
Generations of far-sighted people have made sure that nature has a fighting chance on Sanibel. These days, 67 percent of the island is protected from development. What development there is has been restricted in character, density and height, meaning, among other things, no high-rise condos shadow the beach.
This isn't to say that roughing it is the Sanibel way. Accommodations tend to be upscale. Fine restaurants abound. One can get a massage, play golf and shop for clothes and jewelry in pricey boutiques.
But nature has a way of asserting itself even when Sanibel turns worldly. Behind the little movie theater, for example, is a pond where we've seen gators and green herons. Most winters, there's an active eagle's nest in the pines in back of the Dairy Queen.
From the porch of the condo where we stay, we've spotted pileated woodpeckers and great horned owls. The golf courses are galleries for wading birds. The entire island seems like a maternity ward for osprey, with big, branchy nests on platforms and in trees, the babies sometimes visible and audible.
The most-visited place on Sanibel is, not surprisingly, the beach. Surfers will generally be frustrated – indeed, shut out – by the gentle waves. But because of its east-west position, Sanibel collects an astonishing variety and amount of shells. Here and there, the beach is crunchy underfoot with them.
(Anne Morrow Lindbergh used the shells of Sanibel and neighboring island Captiva as metaphors for her book Gift From the Sea, first published in 1955. She writes of arriving frazzled and undergoing a period of "deckchair apathy" before finding renewal.)
Second-most-visited on Sanibel is the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where we saw the eagle rob the osprey. The refuge is named for an editorial cartoonist who also was a conservation activist, leading the early protection efforts here.
Serious birders will want to enter when the refuge gate opens, just after sunrise. They should at some point circle back to the visitor center, which includes not only interesting explanatory exhibits about the ecology of the refuge but also one of the best nature bookstores anywhere.
The refuge's paved Wildlife Drive winds for about four miles through tidal basins and mangrove forest. In a week at Sanibel, we'll typically go the whole route at least once by car and twice on bikes. It's best to go at low tide, when hundreds of wading birds can be seen feeding in the flats.
The signature Ding Darling bird is probably the roseate spoonbill, but close behind would be the reddish egret (which does a crazy dance while fishing) and the white pelican. When it comes to birding, my wife and I are ham-and-eggers, but we'll identify 30 species at Ding Darling without breaking a sweat. At low tide in the morning, novices can count on help from volunteers with spotting scopes.
On Fridays, the refuge is closed. Not a problem. Sanibel's other opportunities for nature-related diversion include kayaking or canoeing in Tarpon Bay, visiting the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife and walking through the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation preserve.
Over the years, we've made a daily practice of strolling through an interior part of the island known as the Bailey Tract. The landscape is the same, but there's a special quiet and stillness. It's a vespers just to be there late on a winter afternoon.
That's our Sanibel. If we're not back next year, the reason will have to be compelling.When you go
Sanibel Island is about 45 minutes from Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. A cab costs around $60. If you rent a car, you'll pay a $6 toll to get onto the island.
Periwinkle Way is the main drag, and along it are restaurants, shops and churches. It can be congested; factor in time if you must be prompt for a restaurant reservation or flight. Sanibel-Captiva Road links to Captiva Island. Gulf Drive parallels the beach.
Where to stay
Sanibel offers a range of lodging, from house and condo rentals to resort hotels and small inns. Prepare to pay big bucks, but relative bargains can be found. A good starting place is the Sanibel Island & Captiva Island Chamber of Commerce Web site, which has lists of rental agencies, hotels, restaurants and shopping. (www.sanibel-captiva.org/ index.asp). Among hotels:
-- Island Inn, 3111 W. Gulf Drive; 1-800-851-5088. Venerable, popular and on the beach. Winter season rates from $210. Summer rates start at $132.
-- Holiday Inn Sanibel Island Beach Resort, 1231 Middle Gulf Drive, 239-472-4123. Beachside. Winter, from $299; after Easter, $139.
-- The PalmView, 706 Donax; 1-877-472-1606. A block from the beach. Comfortable. Rates drop to $85 on May 1.
Where to eat
-- Lighthouse Cafe, 362 Periwinkle Way. Old Florida feel, wonderful breakfast and lunch fare.
-- Timbers Restaurant and Fish Market, 703 Tarpon Bay Road. Great variety of fish, prepared as you choose. Exceptional service.
-- Twilight Cafe, 2761 W. Gulf Drive. Seafood, steaks, pasta and vegetarian dishes.
-- The Mucky Duck, 11546 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva. Highly popular beachside spot for fish and more.
-- Beaches are world-famous for shelling.
-- Sanibel offers many miles of hiking and biking, and the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/dingdarling) is a prime birding spot. Even those who aren't all that interested in birds are likely to be impressed by the concentrations of beautiful wading birds at low tide. You can drive, bike or take a tram down the refuge's Wildlife Drive.
-- The Bailey Tract is a less well-known but lovely and peaceful interior part of Sanibel. Walking paths.
-- Tarpon Bay Explorers (www.tarponbayexplorers. com) offers guided nature tours, as well as kayak and canoe rentals.
-- There's also fishing, golf, tennis and swimming.