Feature Travel Archives

Florida's Most Enticing Feature: Captiva Island

and Tween Waters Inn

By Patricia Keegan

Unique and timeless, Captiva Island has chosen to bypass the high rise condos and dense commercialization that epitomize most of the sunshine state’s attractions.

One of the greatest travel surprises of my varied destinations is Captiva Island. It has managed, despite the siren call to commerce, to maintain a subdued ambience in total harmony with sea, sand and nature. Here one feels an instant connection -- a retreat to nature beyond the intrusion of 21st century hype.

From a flight into Tampa, it’s about a three-hour drive to the causeway separating mainland Fort Myers from Sannibel Island. Captiva and Sannibel Islands lie together, like two peas in a long pod, forming a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. Driving along the 12 miles of Sannibel, there is the occasional glimpse of multi-million dollar homes half hidden in tropical gardens. However, once you cross the tiny bridge onto Captiva, everything opens up with long stretches of white sandy beach edged with breaking surf. The very sight made my husband and I sigh spontaneously in universal agreement, “Ah-haa, this is indeed the place to be”!

I had found Captiva Island on an internet search while looking for “best beach in Florida.” Now, checking in at Tween Waters Inn, we wondered if we had stumbled on exactly what we were searching for.

Overlooking the ocean across a narrow, two-lane road, Tween Water lies between the bay and the Gulf. The resort is extensive, colorful and inviting. The landscape is dotted with small, gaily painted cottages, picket fences and rose bushes, with several large hotel-like buildings in the background. As we stepped into the reception area, words of encouragement came from a woman with a booming voice, on a cell phone standing next to her SUV. She was informing someone that she just arrived at Tween Waters, which “looks great and came highly recommended.”

At the reception desk, we were greeted by Don Williams, the low key manager, and Sandee, his assistant, who together create an instant image of what to expect on the entire island of Captiva -- a genuinely warm, friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Sandee supplied us with a folder of nature and entertainment activities, as well as coupons offering generous discounts on everything from scuba diving to dinner at the resort’s Old Captiva Restaurant. We discovered that most of the staff at Tween Waters hail from far off countries like Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic, adding an interesting international touch.

We stayed in the Orchid one of the eleven, restored historic cottages. This is a tiny, exquisite cottage, made for two, with a screened-in porch, luxury bath and kitchenette. The high bed was adorned in a burgundy and gold brocade spread, complimenting the wicker furniture and reflecting the golden glow from the lampshades. For such a small space it was so cozy and beautifully appointed that, for a moment, I wondered why people preferred to luxuriate in, and even risk becoming lost within the halls of million dollar homes. The cottage’s intimacy and simplicity transport you back in time. In fact, the Orchid has a history, having served as family quarters for a defunct WWII Army airfield on the mainland before being transported to the island. Some cottages are named after famous people who have visited the island. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in “Gift from the Sea,” shared the following sentiment about the cottage lifestyle:

“Here I live in a bare seashell cottage… I find I don’t bustle about with unnecessary sweeping and cleaning here… I want the windows open all the time, (and) I shall ask into my shell only those friends with whom I can be completely honest.”

Sure enough, there is lovely cottage christened The Charles Lindbergh. The cottages all have original heart pine floors and fireplaces. Each is unique in its own beauty, yet one of the most outstanding is the Ding Darling Cottage in memory of the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and conservationist who wintered at Tween Waters. The Roosevelt Cottagehas it own original theme -- outdoor rustic. So much quality and originality of design has been invested in these historic cottages that they could verily become the ideal or model for cozy vacation getaways.

All the activities one would expect of a five-star resort are available at Tween Waters, (which has no rating, but is in a three-star category). It has an oversized pool and sundeck, tennis courts, a small, but intimate spa with a wide menu of treatments, and a state-of-the-art fitness center with a multitude of Cybex stations, treadmills, stair masters, and weights.

The resort straddles the narrow island between the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound, and on the harborside dock you can arrange boat rentals. Trips to the golf course are just 20 minutes away. Since the resort has become a popular spot for weddings, couples are invited to some pampering with a spa session and a sunset cruise -- certain to alleviate pre-nuptial jitters.

Tween Waters Resort is abundant in reasons to vacation here, but for me, the greatest attraction is its location opposite the beach. Every morning before breakfast, my husband and I would cross to this long strip of white sand beach and dive straight into the crystalline Gulf waters. We could jog the length of the beach and not see another soul. One morning we watched a huge barracuda stalking a smaller fish at the waters edge. The victim could move neither left nor right without response from its hunter. Suddenly the barracuda swept toward the beach, and in only inches of water, grabbed its prey in a spray of foam, and disappeared with the fish wriggling in its mouth.

Looking down the beach, the resort’s lineup of hooded blue Cabanas are not only attractive, but also appealing and practical. You can rent a Cabana by the hour or all day for $15. Beneath this breezy raised platform, you can easily become buried in a book and not worry about sunburn.

On the dock and marina side of the resort we quietly observed a sea otter sitting at the helm of a boat with the remains of a fish in its paws. On the pier we watched heron mothers and white headed babies so tame they practically took a handout -- begging for tasty morsels. Manatees lounge in the shallows, motionless except for the occasional breath of air.

In the evening it become our ritual to be on the beach for sunset and then to dine at the Old Captiva House, a restaurant so good we felt little motivation to explore further. The ambience is bright and spacious, overlooking tropical flower gardens. The menu is varied with plenty of enticing choices, but for two nights in a row I had mahi-mahi in a delightful, crunchy roasted pecan sauce while my husband enjoyed fresh grouper. There were other enticing options on the menu, but to the credit of Chef Jason Miller, these were so good we didn’t think anything else could top it. Breakfast offers either a choice from the menu or the complimentary buffet, abundant in its variety of fruits and tantalizing fresh pastries and breads made in Tween Waters very own bakery.

For a truly casual evening, the Crow’s Nest Restaurant and Lounge, located next to the Old Captiva, is the place to be. Here you will find a pub style menu with steaks, and fresh seafood served in a casual atmosphere. It is also the nightspot for Captiva Island locals and guests who enjoy music and entertainment five nights a week.

Exploring the north tip of Captiva, we came to the South Seas Hotel and Resort complex which was badly damaged in last year’s hurricane but is now being restored and scheduled to re-open next year. It is a huge, modern, high rise facility facing the ocean with its own private golf course. We also stopped by Jensen’s Resort and Marina where we discovered some native and colorful characters that add to the charm of the island. We met the owners, three brawny, tanned and carefree brothers -- John, Dave and Jimmy -- who came from Minnesota in the 70’s when their father bought a few acres here, for a “song, sight unseen.” Today, because of their visionary father, instead of suits and ties, they ,enjoy a life of sun and sea, attired in shorts, tee shirts and bandanas.

“We’re not making any money, but we could never live anywhere else,” John tells us with a big grin. From the Jensen pier we took a speedboat with Jeff, an employee and young sailing expert, who spoke of his dream of becoming a life-long protector of Nature. We stopped briefly at tiny North Captiva, an island of luxury homes, to drop off a worker from the Northeast who had just arrived, tools in hand, to repair mansions damaged in the hurricane. On the return trip, we paused to watch a school of dolphins performing a joyful dance in the water.

Another not-to-be-missed attraction on Sanibel Island is the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of over 530 refuges in the national Wildlife Refuge System. Each season attracts a different variety of bird life. The refuge has an incredible 291 species of birds, over 50 reptiles, and year round osprey, raccoon, and pelican residents. Alligators can be seen basking in the winter sun, but retreat to cooler, shady spots in the hot summer. One of Darling’s most important contributions to wildlife was the 1934 initiation of the migratory Bird Hunting Stamp, or Duck Stamp. Since then, proceeds from the sale of these stamps have purchased over 4.4 million of wetlands for preservation in the national Wildlife Refuge System.

Perhaps out of reverence for the local natural environment, both the Tween Waters Resort and Captiva Island represent a charmingly spun cocoon which has chosen not to surrender to the Big Mac world.

For more information, call (800) 223-5865 or (239) 472-5161, or visit www.tween-waters.com