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Mirror Travel: Captivated by the pirate islands; Jo Layton uncovers the secrets on the other side of sunny Florida.

Byline: Jo Layton

THIS is another, less familiar Florida, a long way from Disney, Miami Beach and Florida Keys.

You'll find it on the south-west coast, an area where high-rise condominiums have not blotted out the scenery, where traffic is not bumper to bumper and where you can enjoy the warmth without fear of crime.

It is here you will find the islands of Sanibel and Captiva, across a three-mile causeway over San Carlos Bay.

After paying the $3 toll on Sanibel what you find, as you dodge low-flying pelicans at the end of the causeway, is a beautiful island just 12-miles long and two-miles wide leading in turn, by way of Blind Pass Bridge, to Captiva, a fifth the size of Sanibel.

For a while the notorious pirate Joe Gaspar kept his favourite female captive here. The run-of-the-mill ladies were kept in a group on the nearby island named for those unsavoury goings on - Isle de las Captivas - now known as Captiva Island.

And when the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered it in 1513, he called it Costa de Caracoles - the Sea Shell Coast - for reasons that become obvious. Shell collectors from all over America come to these white beaches for what conchologists declare to be some of best collecting shores in the world.

They call their shuffling search the Sanibel Stoop or the Captiva Crouch and you see people doing it at every hour of the day, bending over the sand or in the shallows looking for sand dollars, bubble shells or tiger's eyes.

But remember, you'll be fined if you remove a "live shell".

The Sanibel and Captiva community make a conscious effort to conserve their islands' natural resources and protect the wildlife. CROW (Clinic for the Rehabilitation Of Wildlife) is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of sick and orphaned wildlife.

Established on Sanibel in 1968 it receives native wildlife from around south west Florida.

Thousands of "patients" are treated annually, hundreds of species including birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. CROW has a complete wildlife hospital at the centre of its sanctuary and is staffed by a full-time vet and wildlife volunteers.

Once sufficiently recovered the patients are moved to more natural surroundings where their transition back to nature is gradual. Tours are available Monday-Friday at 11am. A $5 donation is requested from adults.

Travel a few miles along Periwinkle Way to Plantation Road, the main road through the islands, and you arrive at the best and classiest accommodation on the island, the units - mostly self-catering - grouped in a number of separate buildings right at the tip of the island in the grounds of an old coconut and key lime plan South Seas Resort, which occupies most of Captiva.

It's a 330-acre site with 600tation. It is a well-run, self-sufficient place, more like a small village and ideal for families (lots of children's activities) with plenty of places to eat, ranging from Mama Rosa's Pizzeria to the more elegant surroundings of the King's Crown.

THE suites have fabulous views over either the bay or the sea, and there's a nine-hole golf course, numerous swimming pools, tennis courts and plenty of water sports.

Boats are available for shelling trips, big-game fishing or pottering around the keys to the north.

There are other islands nearby, even less developed and more remote than Sanibel and Captiva which are definitely worth visiting.

Useppa Island, only accessible by boat, has a beach that looks as if it was plucked from the South Pacific. Best of all, it has a profusion of lush tropical vegetation - palms, royal poinciana and massive banyans.

Useppa is considered the most beautiful in the chain of islands in Pine Island Sound. The Calusa Indians apparently found it appealing, too. Archaeologists say this is the oldest continuously occupied land mass on the western Florida coast. The Indians started piling up oyster shell mounds in 3500BC.

Tycoon John Roach bought Useppa in 1894 and American publisher Barron Collier purchased it in 1912. The rich and famous liked the combination of beauty and privacy that this tiny half-mile-long island afforded.

Today it is run as a private club, but non-members are welcome to stay for a week on an "investigatory" visit. A stroll around the east ridge's pink pathway to the old Collier Inn is to return to the 1920s. Architecture is strictly controlled, new cottages are all white frame with lattice work and wide-screened porches. There are no cars.

Leading a Crusoe life might seem idyllic for a while, but if boredom sets in, a good way to break it is to hire a kayak for the day (pounds 25) and paddle over to some of the even smaller islands, such as Cabbage Key.

The water is so shallow you could almost walk to this button isle at the end of the chain that forms a barrier against the open Gulf of Mexico.

On top of its modest summit (all of 70ft high, but what passes for a hill in Florida) is a house built by the novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart in the 1920s. Later it became an inn, which it is today. There's a honky-tonk piano and a good bar. The most singular aspect of Cabbage Key, however, is that the inn's rooms have dollar bills as wallpaper. Every surface is covered with greenbacks.

"It started a few years ago when there were a lot of Cuban fishermen here," the barman explained. "When they had sold a good catch, they would come ashore for a drink and always fix a few dollars on the wall against the day when there were no fish."

The custom remained after the Cubans had gone. I asked the barman how much it all came to. "I've never counted," he grinned. "But somebody tried. They calculated there's about $30,000."

Rich pickings ... but for me the real prize is the islands themselves.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Sanibel and Captiva are around four hours drive from Orlando and just under three hours from Miami. British Airways Holidays offer a seven-night fly drive to Florida from pounds 350 per person for departures from November to December 19. Price includes return scheduled flights from Gatwick and car hire with Alamo for the duration, subject to availability and includes all UK taxes. Call British Airways Holidays on 0870 24 24 243.

ACCOMMODATION: Room rates at the South Seas Resort (001 941 481 4947) start from pounds 100, but they have special deals available throughout the year. For more details log on to www.southseas.com The Collier Inn on Useppa (001 941 283 5255) offers a minimum stay of 2 nights starting from pounds 90 per room including continental breakfast. All rates subject to local taxes.

WHEN TO GO: It's a little too hot in the summer and sometimes a few degrees too cool in January and February. September is a month for good weather and a dip in hotel rates. June, July and August are the wettest months. Afternoon rains are the norm, followed by spectacular sunsets.

NEED TO KNOW: The Chamber of Commerce information centre just across the toll bridge is an essential stop. For an information pack on the Lee Island Coast call 01737 644 722/www.LeeIslandCoast.com/ uk or the Visit Florida website: www.FLAUSA.com

NEXT WEEK: FLORIDA KEYS

CAPTION(S):

EXOTIC: The great blue heron, left, and roseate spoonbill flourish at the South Seas Resort; PROTECTED: A panther at the local wildlife Centre Pictures: www.leeislandcoast.com; HIDDEN BEAUTY: Sanibel island
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 24, 2001
Words:1254
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