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Florida's Lee Island Coast.


If you think you have to lie on thesun-drenched beach of some laidback island in the Caribbean to acquire that enviable midwinter tan, I'm going to let you in on one of Florida's best-kept secrets: It's impossible to improve on the golden offerings of the Lee Island Coast's bountiful vacation spas.

Like me, you have toastedyour toes on the sand of Miami Beach, marveled at Epcot Center, been baptized by Orca at Sea World. You have gaped at the Kennedy Space Center, hollered yourself hoarse at Hialeah, eaten turtleburgers and key lime pie in Key West. And you have come home convinced you have "done" the state. No way.

The next time you areabout to whip through Fort-Myers and head for another well-trod Floridian destination--don't. Instead, make a hard right over the causeway to the barrier-reef islands of Sanibel and Captiva. Beyond, by boat, lie hundreds of other barefoot Edens of the Lee Island Coast, dominated by Useppa Island and Cabbage Key. Until you have sampled the golden offerings of their sand, sea, and sun, not to mention seafood and shells, you've been missing the best Florida has to offer.

There is one hang-up: Because somany of the islands' resorts (6,510 rooms and counting) offer so much to the wan, uptight vacationer from the North, how does one decide where to hang the mackinaw, drop the boots, and slip into shorts and sandals?

After shuffling the brochures andgiving them one cut, I had the good luck to come up with Casa Ybel, a sprawling complex of villas and townhouses on Sanibel, only a shell's throw from the natural-white sandy beach of the gulf. Between lies nothing but luxuriant tropical landscaping.

Rather than play tennis, sail,or even golf, I opted for the island's most famous but less demanding exercise--shelling. Sanibel, rated one of the three best shelling beaches in the world, contains some 400 species on its 20 miles of gulf-washed shoreline.

The early bird, I found,doesn't always get the pick of the beach. Would you believe some lowlifes actually strap on miners' head lamps and go out at night to beat the sunrise crowd? These are the shell hounds who often escape a sunburn only to go home with a severe case of "Sanibel Stoop."

Just up the road, or down the road,no matter, Sundial Beach and Tennis Resort beckons. This gulfside complex of efficiency suites and deluxe two-bedroom, two-bath apartments boasts five pools and 13 tennis courts. Fully equipped kitchen or no, more often than not you'll close the day at Morgan's Market and Lounge, where the hickory-smoked shrimp are "shrimply delicious" and "a tale of two losters" is most definitely far from fiction.

Then there is Noppie's JapaneseSteakhouse. Back at Casa Ybel you won't want to miss gulf-front dining in Thistle Lodge restaurant. Its New Orleans cuisine includes Eggs Sardou, Creole gumbo, broiled redfish, jambalaya, and, woe is weakwilled me, hot buttered pecan pie. If you can still wobble, to dine under the stars at the Mucky Duck is a must for yet another night. And unique Bubble Room is a night unto itself.

Shells, sand, sun, and fun areshared equally by Sanibel's Siamese twin, Captiva Island, joined at the coccyx by Blind Pass Causeway. On Captiva, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote her best-selling Gift from the Sea, without ever identifying the island she loved so much. And here it is that you'll be awed by the size and amenities of the South Seas Plantation. I refer to its 2-1/2 miles of private beach, its 15 pools, and its 20-court tennis complex. And with a deep sigh, I must include the belt-loosening King's Crown dining room and its New Orleans dessert, Bananas Foster-eaten with a chilled spoon, of course. Did you think it would be eaten with a regular dessert spoon? I did, until the kind waiter stopped me midmouth.

The historic island ofUseppa is only a spray away. Well, maybe several sprays. And should your boat be operated by a charming young woman who doesn't know the aft from the bow, don't plan on leaving the dock at Fort Myers Beach before running headlong into a shrimp trawler anchored innocently on the opposite side of the marina, stalling the engine, and being carried by the tide broadside into the pier. (I won't name names, but Jeanette knows who I mean.)

Useppa claims to be the mostbeautiful gem in this charming necklace of coastal islands. Evidence now turning up proves that the Calusa Indians had settled on these fertile 100 acres by 3,500 B.C. You won't see the three skeletons recently exhumed just off the entrance to Collier Inn--they are now in residence at the University of Florida. What you will see is enough to have you asking about a membership in the private Useppa Island Club.

You'll sense the mysteries of thisancient Eden just by strolling its shaded, pink walk, made of sand and shell, discovered in 1976 under ten feet of vegetative debris. The walk is thought to date back to 1912, when the publisher Baron Collier bought the island for the luxury of doing absolutely nothing at all-a custom club members or private tenants can still follow today when they're not using the many recreational facilities.

On your way back to the marina,keep an eye out for mile marker 60. A turn of the rudder will take you to Cabbage Key (accessible only by boat) and the home of the novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart. Built atop an ancient Calusa Indian shell mound, it serves today as an inn, with six guest rooms. In the picturesque dining room you might look for my autographed dollar bill pasted on the wall; then again you might not--some 20,000 other autographed dollar bills are pasted on the wall. The bills that fall down during the year are auctioned off during the muscular-dystrophy drive.

Going from the remote to the mostest,we come back to the Sanibel Harbor International Spa, home of the Jimmy Connors United States Tennis Center. When the question of "Tennis, anyone?" is raised there, 13 lighted courts beside the center-court stadium are available to play on. But tennis is only the beginning. The deluxe suites of the hotel offer sweeping views of the gulf as well as of Sanibel, Captiva, and the Caloosahachee River.

If you must finally head north toresume the daily grind and listen to your car wheels spinning shrilly in snowbank by dawn's early light make a stop in Fort Myers before you go. Your destination will be the winter homes (there are two, joined by a covered walkway) and the laboratory of the man credited with lining McGregor Boulevard with those miles of towering royal palm. To throw more light on the subject his name is Thomas Alva Edison.

Except for the abundance of evidenceinside the lab, it would be hard to believe that a diabetic man, total deaf and with but three months formal education, could be issued U.S. patents. The mystery is cleared up somewhat by a costton display among the hundreds of bottles and light bulbs, the rubber tires made of goldenrod (after experiments with 17,000 other plants), the movie set the phonograph, the stock ticker, the talking dolls, and all the rest. The second Mrs. Edison, hoping her husband would stop sleeping on his desk after his 20-hour days, had the brought in.

It gives me something to thinkabout as I head home to my own 8-to-5 daily stint. As a matter of fact there's little in the entire Lee Island Coast experience that can easily be forgotten.
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Title Annotation:island's off Florida's west coast
Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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