Southwest Florida: Sanibel Island, Under Cover No More

By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2004

Periwinkle Way, the main drag on Sanibel Island, is drenched in an ocher wash as day-trippers and residents shop, jockey for primo sunset seats at waterside bars or head for home. It's early November in the Sunshine State, and nowhere seems sunnier than this sand-flecked boulevard a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico.

But wait. Before Aug. 13 -- Friday the 13th -- the last thing you needed along this strip were sunglasses. X-ray vision glasses, maybe. When Hurricane Charley and its 100-plus-mph winds whipsawed across this island, it destroyed enough vegetation to fill 100 dumptrucks a day for three months. More than 80 percent of the island's Australian pines -- tall, wispy junk trees that provided both shade and privacy for many of Sanibel's 6,000 residents -- are gone.

"There's a passionate debate going on about how to replant this island," says Steve Greenstein, executive director of the Sanibel and Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce. Because of the pines' invasive nature, it's against Florida law to plant the fast-growing tree -- and residents can't decide with what to replace it. "On Sanibel Island, if you want 10 opinions, ask three people."

For now at least, Sanibel and Captiva -- its tiny, even tonier neighbor -- are a voyeur's paradise. Multimillion-dollar homes once obscured by a blanket of vines, pines and palms sit nakedly in yards pocked by monstrous, tendriled tree trunks. On Captiva, where the missing greenery is even more obvious (and where the fabled Bubble Room finally reopened Nov. 18), visitors can get a clear view of artist Robert Rauschenberg's stark-white home and studio, if they know where to look.

While Charley saved its most vicious swipes for the less-touristed communities of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, about 35 miles to the northeast, the hurricane still did a world of hurt here. Nearly 1,000 of Sanibel's 4,000 rental units are out of commission, though most are expected back by Jan. 7. On Captiva, the 600-room South Seas Resort was pummeled and remains shuttered; MeriStar Hospitality, which owns South Seas as well as five other area resorts, is pumping $180 million in repairs into its properties.

All told, the storm did about $1 billion in damage to Captiva and Sanibel, and more than $7.4 billion statewide.

Fort Myers Beach, just down the coast from Sanibel, is by all appearances in fine form -- and flourishing. "Business in October was amazing," says D.J. Petruccelli, president of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce. "Restaurants, motels and condos are reporting business almost twice what it was last fall."

While vacationers have returned, he also gives credit to Charley. The flood of contractors and relief workers that poured into the area occupy many of the town's 3,000 rental units (minus the 200 or so motel rooms lost in the storm, including those in a Days Inn and Howard Johnson). Indeed, just about every parking lot has a couple of trucks piled high with ladders and building supplies.

Likewise, teensy Boca Grande -- placid even by Florida standards, it covers the tip of Gasparilla Island due north of Captiva -- has made a quick recovery. Because the town was on the west side of the storm as it unexpectedly veered inland up Charlotte Harbor, it escaped Charley's peak winds.

Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, on the other hand, took a direct hit. Though relatively few of the sun-and-sand set venture to these towns, the area became the face of Charley on the evening news, and these days gawkers continue to creep along in rental cars.

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.

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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