Have you ever wanted to turn back the clock to a simpler time? Do you dream of escaping the hustle and bustle . . . the noise of modern life . . . the confusion of crowds? Perhaps you need a vacation! Perhaps you need to find a deserted island — well, let’s not get carried away here! Instead, let’s find a quiet corner of Sanibel island where the soft breezes and the soothing sound of rolling waves are the only things you hear at the Tropical Winds Motel.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands off the coast of western Florida near Fort Myers are the epitome of “laid-back.” Life moves slowly — the speed limit is about 30 miles an hour; there are no traffic lights, neon signs or wall-to-wall fast food joints. Instead, there are miles of soft sand, birds, shells and tropical vegetation. Structures cannot be higher than the tallest palm tree and must be set back from the beach. It is like stepping into the past!
Of course, there are modern, high-end hotels and condos on the island, and if this is what you want, you will find them. But if you yearn for the vintage, retro, old-world Florida, then the Tropical Winds Motel is the right place for you. It looks like a 1960s postcard. Hidden away on a secluded small road at the western end of the island, the white and blue-painted Tropical Winds Motel has only 10 rooms, just 300 feet from the beach. All have small kitchenettes; screened porches provide a serene place to sit and read, listening to the sound of the breeze and the pileated woodpeckers working their way through a palm tree. Barbecue grills and pale blue picnic tables offer an open-air dining alternative to the screened-in porch. In the words of our innkeeper, Stephanie, “It is unpretentious and comfortable here; it feels like home.” Stephanie and her husband, Luke, are great managers. They don’t just check you in and disappear. They take the time to get to know their guests and ensure that no detail is overlooked. Need anything? Just ask, and it is instantly taken care of with a smile.
Stroll down the path through the scrub grasses, and the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico beckon. There is no public access to this beach, so it is practically deserted, especially compared with the crowds, visible in the distance, a few miles away on Bowman’s Beach (rated one of the top beaches in America).
We are up with the sun, bag in hand to collect shells, and camera around the neck, to amble through the water. The light at this time of the morning is breathtaking. One day we see a pair of grey dolphins fishing a few feet from shore. they follow the shoal of fish right to the edge of the surf before splashing away.
A flock of royal terns, intermixed with gulls, sit in one spot on the shore, staring out across the water. As we walk past, they grudgingly move a few inches to let us by, their black caps ruffling in the wind. Osprey, which are busy mating and building nests, swoop down into the waves to catch a fish that has wandered too close to the surface. Instead of the sound of traffic, it is the osprey’s distinctive call that is heard everywhere on the islands in the late winter/early spring.
Sandpipers trip across the sand, practically under your feet, outrunning the waves looking for tiny insects in the sand. Overhead flocks of pelicans glide by almost at wave height. You can sometimes spot them soaring high into the air and hovering before diving headfirst into the water for a spot of breakfast.
Winter is the best time for shelling on Sanibel, especially at low tide when the large expanses of beach are revealed. The island’s emplacement makes it a giant funnel that transports the shells on the waves to the shore. If you are lucky enough to be there after a storm at sea, the selection will be even more exciting. A shell guide is included in each room at the motel to help you identify your treasures. It is an addictive pastime and, since the beach is practically deserted, there are lots to be found. When you have collected your fill for the day, take them back to the cottages where a mesh net table and a watering hose provide a place to wash away the grit and sand. We collect bags of shells every morning — lightning whelks, olive shells, scallops, murexes. After washing them, we content ourselves with photographing them before returning them to the beach.
In the evening we walk down the shore to watch the sunset. The sky changes color as it drifts slowly down towards the horizon until there is nothing left but an orange sliver. Island lore says that, if you are lucky, you will see a green flash of light just as the last bit of color dips below the surface of the water. Take a glass of wine down to the beach with you, and wait for about 15-20 minutes as the light from the sun paints the clouds overhead in shades of pink and orange and purple.
One morning we get up at 5 am to photograph the full moon as it sets over the Gulf waters. It is so bright that we don’t even need a flashlight to read the camera dials. As it is illuminating the western sky, in the east, an orange glow has already started to appear. Another beautiful, cloudless, day awaits.
What we love best about the Tropical Winds Motel are its simplicity and its hushed serenity. It is as close to being on a deserted island as you can get without sacrificing the facilities of modern life.
We use a polarizing filter on our lens to remove glare from the water and wet sand. To photograph the details of individual shells on the beach, we use a 200mm macro lens, set at f/20 or above to maximize the depth of field, adjusting the speed accordingly. The camera is on a tripod with a remote lead. We occasionally use a flash to fill in the shadows of shells with indents or pits. For sunset photos, we set the White Balance at K and dial in a value of 10,000 Kelvin to capture and amplify the magenta color of the light.
IF YOU GO
Tropical Winds Motel is located at 4819 Trade Winds and Jamaica Drive, Sanibel Island (Tel 866-646-1731; email@example.com). To get here from the causeway entrance to Sanibel Island, turn right on Periwinkle Way. Drive 2.6 miles to Tarpon Bay Road. Turn right and then left onto the Sanibel-Captiva Road. Drive 3.8 miles to Jamaica Drive. Turn left towards the Gulf of Mexico. The motel is on the right about .5 miles down the road. We usually stop at Bailey’s General store (in Bailey’s Shopping Center, Tarpon Bay Road and Periwinkle Way) to stock up on groceries so that we don’t have to drive back to town for supplies.