Kathleen Ann Goonan
Dr. Hector and his Groove Injectors, hefty white blues boys, spat hard sax licks into the bar-and-dining room of the Tween Waters Inn at Captiva Island, Florida--the same inn where Ann Morrow Lindbergh connected with the quiet muse of the island over forty years ago and called it GIFT FROM THE SEA.
Remnants of excellent grilled mahi and superlative fries--I knew because that had been my choice, before we had left for a fishing interlude--mingled with half-full bottles of beer at empty tables. Couples had vacated them to dance beneath the octagonal wagon wheel studded with frosted light bulbs, a part of the ceiling decor.
My husband and I squeezed onto a cushion by the fireplace, the only seat to be found, and nursed our beers for fifteen minutes while the truly superlative Dr. Hector lamented, "The Thrill Is Gone."
Then we were surprised by a man bending over us and announcing, "That's our seat! We were here first."
A former preschool teacher, I recognized the tone of a human being over the edge, someone who could use a time out. "Yeah," his female companion chimed in, not to be outdone. "Those are our drinks right there. You gonna be jerks or are you gonna give us our seats?"
There's one--or two, apparently--in every crowd, though in this low-key place they seemed anomalies. But the music was good, and we stayed for another half hour, finding our own table after a few minutes. When we left, the strident sounds of the Groove Injectors propelled us out the door.
Outside, across the quiet road on the narrow neck of land, moonlight washed pale sand and small waves rattled a shore of shells. It still wouldn't be hard to find the shells with which Lindbergh titled the sections of her book--the channeled whelk, the moon shell, the double-sunrise, the oyster, and the paper nautilus.
In GIFT 's preface, Lindbergh says of others, "With envy and admiration, I observed the porcelain perfection of their smoothly ticking days. Perhaps they had no problems, or had found the answers long ago . . . But I found even those whose lives had appeared to be ticking imperturbably under their smiling clock-faces were often trying, like me, to evolve another rhythm with more creative pauses in it, more adjustment to their individual needs, and new and more alive relationships to themselves as well as others."
We crossed the quiet road and stood in the cool, soothing wavewash for a moment, and the sounds of the Gulf of Mexico enveloped us. A quarter of a mile away, a dark figure fished. Every five minutes a car went past, but between those times, we could imagine ourselves back in the early Fifties.
Lindbergh found balance, simplicity, and what she called "shedding" at Captiva.
If you play your cards right, that is exactly what you can find there too.
Of course it doesn't hurt to have the option of spiking that with some Blues now and then, either. Just make sure to get there early enough to get a good seat.
"How wonderful are islands! Islands in space, like this one I have come to, ringed about by miles of water, linked by no bridges, no cables, no telephones. An island from the world and the world's life."
There is now a bridge to Captiva Island. There are also, if you wish, telephones, air conditioning, and some truly stunning eateries tucked amidst the lush tropical scenery by the side of a road that shrinks to a lane by the time it wends its way to its demise at the north end of the island.
So, there is plenty to do on Captiva Island.
There is also nothing to do.
Captiva is one of the barrier islands on Florida's Gulf Coast, one which might fit more nearly than others some people's vision of tropical ease. The main--and only road, with very few offshoots--is shaded by palms, bougainvillea, and pines, and flanked by small restaurants. The grocery is still floored with wide, dark, warped pine planks. It is an old general store gone upscale with jams from France and Kona Coffee mixed in with whatever else vacationers--many of them with kitchens--might take a fancy to. The island is so narrow just down the road at Tween Waters Inn that you can take in the open gulf and the sheltered sound between Captiva and the mainland while standing in one spot.
Shelling is one of the main sports here. "When I think back to my first day here, I realize how greedily I collected. My pockets bulged with wet shells, the damp sand clinging to their crevices. The beach was covered with beautiful shells and I could not let one go by unnoticed. I couldn't even walk head up looking out to sea, for fear of missing something precious at my feet. . . But after all the pockets were stretched and damp, and the bookcase shelves filled and the window ledges covered, I began to drop my acquisitiveness. I began to discard from my possessions, to select." Amazingly, even after fifty years and many such acquisitions, Captiva and its companion Sanibel are known as premier shelling sites. The beach is sharp with shells. Early morning, when the waves are docile and the beach is empty, is an excellent time to shell no matter what the tide is up to, for serendipitous finds. Make sure to bring pockets. The sea on a summer's morning is pure pale green, and often the dark shining fins of dolphins wheel through the water in their perfect, repeating arcs. This is a birdwatcher's haven too, only a few miles from the J.N. "Ding" Darling Bird Sanctuary. An aloof, dignified blue heron will often get lazy and allow you to pass quite close before taking wing with slow, majestic flaps.
And, during the rest of the day, there's not much more to do. "The Beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think. I should have remembered that from other years. Too warm, too damp, too soft for any real mental discipline or sharp flights of spirit. One never learns. Hopefully, one carries down the faded straw bag, lumpy with books, clean paper, long over-due unanswered letters, freshly sharpened pencils, lists, and good intentions. The books remain unread, the pencils break their points, and the pads rest smooth and unblemished as the cloudless sky."
If I had read that before hauling a quite similar bag down to the beach, I might have saved myself some trouble. Some summer days, a warm mist rises and hovers in the air, and retreat from the sun may become necessary. After this strenuous schedule, a nap in a cool dark place is advised.
Thus days on Captiva wear quite pleasantly and almost impercetively toward evening.
"I have no car, so I bicycle for my supplies and mail."
We had a car, but it was far more pleasant to stroll down the little-used road in search of a restaurant for dinner. We found The Greenhouse, which was a lovely surprise.
The Greenhouse is run by Ariel and Dan Mellman, who have restauranted all over the world. Dan, the chef, studied under Roger Verge', and has won a bronze medal in the American Culinary Competition. Their place is reminiscent of a Marin County, California restaurant which one might come across tucked amid hills after a hairpin turn, both in its antique decor and in its selections. The menu has energy, intrigue, and a twist of daring which tempted me to order more than I should. Should I have as an appetizer Soft Shell Crawfish Grenobloise, sauteed, with an herb farm cheese stuffed artichoke bottom? Cheese Filled Black Raviolis, crisp fried with fresh herb buerre blanc? Pondering with the aid of a glass of wine, I regretted that I had stuffed myself at lunch, and got an appetizer as an entree: Warm Crab Pie on tomato-scallion relish with a key lime mayonnaise. Appetizers run between seven and nine dollars, and entrees clock in from $18.25 to about thirty dollars--that for the Colorado Rack Of Lamb, goat cheese crusted with roasted garlic. Not formally dressed, were welcomed with warmth and served with professionalism and friendliness. The open kitchen, designed by the couple, is the centerpiece of the restaurant, and the hanging copper pans reflect the muted lighting warmly. It was a lovely, moonlit walk home, too, in the cool, quiet evening.
What to do besides shell, birdwatch, swim, sunbath, and . . . yes, nap?
Well, you can always fish. You can rent boats, go on a charter trip, or take the lazy way, particularly if you wish to experience fishing without the ugly necessity of actually cleaning and cooking them.
To catch sea trout, one of the main surf fish, you need mullet. Thus, in late afternoon, the mullet-catchers get into their act. Casting round, weighted nets from the shore or docks, they gather bait fish.
We watched them as we meandered up the shore, intent on reaching the north point of the island for sunset. We carried some shrimp, which we had been told were no good for bait here, but no mullet were available in the bait store. I had no fishing pole. I was a spectator.
The north end of the Island is owned by South Seas Plantation, one of those resorts where the owners buy the houses and condos and the establishment rents them out most of the year. There is a guard at the gate, of course, but you're not interested in all those gray condos anyway. The beach is public property.
I mention this because of the sunset.
When buying Avon Skin-So-Soft (the native no-see-um deterrent) from a Sanibel motel manager about a year before, her voice had filled with hushed awe when I asked about Captiva. "The sunset lasts twice as long there," she confided. "And Tom Selleck owns a house there too."
Tom Selleck didn't interest me much, but I thought I might want to call her bluff. She was exagerrating, of course, in her kindly way.
If you are not staying at the South Seas Plantation (which we did), it is a two mile walk from the boundary to the point, but a pleasant one, along a white sand beach. Unless you are a guest, you will not have The Card necessary to buy any sort of beverage within the plantation, including those at the refreshment stand at the north end of the beach, so bring your own if you think you will be thirsty. This is one way they discourage outside visitors.
We walked the entire way anyway, because it is so soothing to ramble past beach homes half-hidden in the pines. Our doomed shrimp sloshed in the bright yellow Flo-Thru bait bucket, and it was easy to count the number of people we saw, some swimming, some fishing, some just gazing out to sea, having reached, presumably, the stage of "shedding." No crowds here. Small brown ruddy turnstones scurried before us, and brilliant white ibuses with their long curved beaks flew low to the water in search of dinner.
When we reached the north point, vast thunderheads were building up over the mainland, illuminated by lightning in the advancing night. The current is swift at the narrow channel, and "No Swimming" signs are posted.
Fisherfolk drifted out to the shore and began an evening of easy camaraderie. The sky over the gulf lit with orange and pink as the sun crept toward the horizon with a final, languid blaze of southern heat. The wind picked up, pushed by the storm, and the air cooled as the fisherman cast, and cast, and cast again. My husband pulled out catfish with his shrimp and borrowed something to get them off the hook from the woman fishing near us. We were not prepared for actual catches.
I sat back and waited for the sunset to conclude itself within a normal timeframe.
The storm played itself out over the scattered lights on the mainland while it was still light in the west. The pink sun rested on the horizon for long moments, gradually melting into that bottom elongation which signals the final exit. Long rays danced across the chop of the channel as the occasional powerboat returned home. My husband fished. And fished. And fish.
And finally, after the catfish had made off with two dozen shrimp, and the intrepid among us were lighting lanterns, the glow at last relinquished the sky and the stars begin to peek through.
The Skin-So-Soft woman was right.
GIFT FROM THE SEA is surprisingly up-to-date. Lindbergh escapes, at Captiva, from her role as careerwoman, mother, and wife, and speaks of the necessity of individuality in relationships, of space and time for oneself in a world of growing complexity and increasing responsibilities. She was, evidently, a hardcore workoholic: she mentions a visit from her sister, and that they both spent hours each morning writing in their own rooms.
Captiva Island has changed since her visit. Acres of lime and copra groves have been made into an exclusive club; visitors abound, and there are plenty of good places to eat.
But before I left, I found all the shells after which she titled the sections of her book. The channeled whelk, the double sunrise, the oyster, the snail, and even a small nautilus. The same long, soothing stretch of emerald sea is still here, dotted with white sails, as well as the possibility of solitude, shedding, and regaining an internal balance.
And the beauty of it is that once you've done all that, you can also go out and dance to the Blues.
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Last Update 11/10/98
Originally published in the Washington Post
Copyright © 1992 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.