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Southwest Florida: Sanibel Island, Under Cover No More

Heaps of debris sit on street corners as if they're waiting for a bus, though the downed trees have, for the most part, been removed. In Punta Gorda, City Hall has a Godzilla-size bite taken out of it, and the harborside Holiday Inn lies in ruins. "NOW OPEN" placards outnumber collapsed roofs and boarded-up fast-food restaurants, though it's not uncommon to see a crowded shop next to one that is not only empty but imploded.

Just outside town on Route 41 -- the area's version of Rockville Pike -- a sign gleefully announces to the world that the Bada Bing adult video store reopened for business Nov. 3.

Like much of Sanibel Island, the Periwinkle Place shopping center has been stripped of its once-dense foliage. (John Deiner -- The Washington Post)

From washingtonpost.com at 12:00 AM

At Fisherman's Village, perhaps the closest thing downtown Punta Gorda has to a tourist attraction, the mood is upbeat. Sort of. The after-church crowd is streaming into the open-air mall, whose stores and restaurants include the Caged Parrot and Pirates Ketch. An elderly man peddling CDs and playing a sax fills the air with a lilting "Can't Help Falling in Love." When a passerby tells him that was her wedding song, he draws a breath and replies, "Was it now? Well, I love you, too."

Above the shoppers and diners and recent brides, though, workmen are repairing the storm-tossed roof. And a few yards away, the sole occupants of the adjacent yacht basin -- which had been awaiting renovation before the hurricane's arrival -- are seagulls, which line the vacant pilings like sentinels watching for the next storm.

Elsewhere in Charlotte County, you have to look hard to find evidence that Charley passed through. Waterfront communities like Placida, Cape Haze and Englewood emerged unscathed, and the fishing is said to be better than ever. Of the 3,500 rental units typically available countywide, 1,200 rooms are still undergoing repair, mostly in the Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte area.

Back on Sanibel, Jet Skis and sailboats clog San Carlos Pass, and parking spots are at a premium at the public beaches (five have reopened; one remains closed because of downed trees). Everyone is doing the "Sanibel Stoop," the ergonomically incorrect position visitors assume while digging through the island's bounty of shells.

Only now, the trees lining the beaches are mimicking the tourists.

Nature lovers, meanwhile, are meandering through the expansive J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where Charley affected 70 percent of the wildlife habitat. An abundance of willets, herons, spoonbills, pelicans and woodpeckers vie for camera time, and gators happily laze in the sun as toddlers hoot. Other than mangled mangroves and cantilevered pines, little seems amiss.

For certain, unless you know the island and grieve for the pines, or stroll the beaches and catch the workmen toiling in gutted condos, or somehow end up on Middle Gulf Drive (where trees are still being untangled), Sanibel looks pretty much how you'd want it to look.

"A few months ago, we were afraid people would come here and be offended by the island's appearance," says Sanibel chamber chief Greenstein. "But the subsequent storms . . . across the state leveled the playing field. I have no problem opening the door and telling people to come on in."

Details: Southwest Florida

GETTING THERE: Airlines offering nonstop service from D.C. to Fort Myers include AirTran and US Airways; round-trip fares start at about $200, with restrictions. I flew USA 3000 out of BWI and paid $139 -- and got meals and movies. From Fort Myers, Sanibel Island and Punta Gorda are both about 35 minutes away by car.

DEALS: Because the peak season runs from Valentine's Day to Easter and around major holidays, off-season rates and fall packages are available in Lee and Charlotte counties. Check the info sources below for options.

Lee County includes Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Captiva. On Sanibel, I stayed at the Colony Resort (419 E. Gulf Dr., 800-342-1704, www.colonyonsanibel.com) in a one-bedroom condo with a well-stocked kitchen, screened-in porch and beach access. The two-night special (good through Dec. 12) included a noon check-in and a 2 p.m. checkout; the price, with tax, was $201.

Rates generally run lower in Charlotte County, which includes Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, Cape Haze and Englewood. Accommodations range from the Virginia House B&B (233 Harvey St., Punta Gorda, 941-916-1005, www.charlottebiz.com/virginiahs.htm; from $79 a night double) to the Palm Island Resort (7092 Placida Rd., Cape Haze, 800-824-5412, www.palmisland.com; from $330). Many Englewood hotels have fall specials, including Weston's Resort (985 Gulf Blvd., 941-474- 3431, www.westonsresort.com), with two pools and a beach. Its Fall Getaway Package, good through Dec. 5 (excluding Thanksgiving), includes two nights' lodging, a $20 dining certificate and two video rentals; from $225 for two in a studio efficiency (reserve no more than one week in advance).

INFORMATION: Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, 800-237-6444, www.fortmyers-sanibel.com (site includes a "Great Deals" link). Charlotte County Visitors Bureau, 888-478-7352, www.pureflorida.com. Sanibel and Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, 239-472-1080, www.sanibel-captiva.org. -- John Deiner

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