Steve Stephens More Content Now
NORTH CAPTIVA, Florida — When a powerful hurricane ripped Captiva Island apart in 1921, it left two islands, divided by a deep pass from Pine Island Sound into the Gulf of Mexico. Although the islands remain sundered, things are a bit quieter now.
Today the southern island, still known as Captiva, is a beautiful and pricey tourist destination reachable by car over a causeway from the mainland near Fort Myers. My family has vacationed in the area for many years, staying on Sanibel Island and enjoying the scene on Captiva, a short drive away.
North Captiva, though, has always been an intriguing mystery, a large, unknown whale breaching across Redfish Pass, unreachable by car.
This year, we decided to make the leap to the quiet, less-visited island. We wouldnt be leaving civilization, but wed certainly be farther from the traffic and commercial bustle of Sanibel and Captiva.
North Captiva, about 4 miles long and a half-mile wide, has an entirely different vibe than its twin. The island is not exactly a wilderness, but fewer than 400 houses have been built there, and most of the southern half is part of a Florida state park. Many of the houses are available as vacation rentals. Two homeowners clubs provide services, including community swimming pools, docks and rental gear such as kayaks, to the owners and their rental guests.
Two ferries, including one operated by one of the clubs, run scheduled service to North Captiva from Pine Island, which is connected by bridge to the mainland. Property owners will often help their guests arrange ferry service.
Visitors to North Captiva will find limited commercial establishments, including a few restaurants and a tiny convenience store, so those who stay on the island must take most of their supplies with them by boat.
As first-timers, we had fretted about the logistical challenges of getting three generations of vacationers — with luggage and groceries — to our destination. We neednt have worried, though. Although we were island newbies, everyone we encountered at the ferry and the grocery had done this many times before, making for a well-oiled process.
The ferries offer generous allowances for passengers suitcases and groceries. We didnt need much luggage; shorts, T-shirts and swimsuits sufficed for clothing, and our rental house had a washer and dryer.
Food and drink was another story.
Our host suggested a mainland grocery store that sells wares to many island-bound visitors. The store provided dry ice to keep our perishables cold during the short boat trip. Some stores also allow customers to order groceries in advance and pick up pre-packaged bundles without the need to stop and shop.
We took the ferry operated by the North Captiva Island Club, which also loaded our luggage and groceries and delivered them directly to the door of our vacation rental, a terrific service that made our travel easier. They also picked up our luggage and loaded it back on the ferry on the morning of our departure.
After a short, 25-minute ride across Pine Island Sound, we arrived at the docks, adjacent to the island clubs pool, poolside restaurant, general store and equipment-rental service.
Unlike Sanibel and Captiva, which often experience their own mini traffic jams, no cars are allowed on North Captiva. Transportation is by bicycle or electric golf cart, often included with a home rental. We picked up our cart near the dock and made our way the short distance over unpaved, sandy roads to our lovely rental.
Like most of the other houses on the barrier island, ours was elevated on posts to protect it from storm surges. The house also has a crows nest room atop two stories of living space, another common North Captiva feature.
My 12-year-old twins fought to sleep in the crows nest, which was like a little private clubhouse with terrific views of the ocean and of other crows nests and rooftop decks rising above the palm trees on surrounding properties.
Our house had its own heated pool, which we all enjoyed. And, with not much else to do, I relished time just lounging on the beautiful deck. But were a nature-loving family and adore beachcombing and bird-watching, so we also spent a lot of time exploring the beach.
On Sanibel, my wife and kids normally get up early to find the best shells, but no one had to hurry on North Captiva, where we had vast stretches of beach all to ourselves. The half of the island that is part of Cayo Costa State Park is wild and unbuilt: Perfect for hiking and beach walking and nature watching. We saw many ospreys and shorebirds and found a good selection of shells, too, including a Caribbean vase shell, a first-time find for us and a rarity in that part of Florida.
We did miss the familiar shops and restaurants of Sanibel. We quickly found a favorite place to dine out, though: Barnacles restaurant, a longtime favorite on North Captiva, where fleets of pleasure boaters arrive at lunch time. But we arrived early to assure ourselves a place at a picnic table under the restaurants large thatched-roof waterfront chickee hut.
We also made regular stops at Barnacles second-floor ice-cream shop. Now theres a running family argument about whether the locally made Queenies Ice Cream at Barnacles is better than the ice cream at our Sanibel favorite, Pinocchios.
Although we saw a smaller variety of birds than on Sanibel — famous for its avian denizens — my kids saw wild manatees for the first time. We spotted the gentle sea cows floating lazily in the canal near the islands grass-strip airport.
I actually felt a lot like a manatee myself during my North Captiva stay, content to spend a few quiet and dreamy days lounging under the warm Florida sun.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @SteveStephens.