One of the greatest privileges in travel is that beautiful, rare moment when a wild animal lets down its guard, brings you into the circle of trust and your eyes meet. However long it lasts, that moment is etched into your soul. Nowadays, I often find it hard to decide whether to break the magic by placing a camera lens between us or to do the whole mindfully present thing.
On opposite sides of the globe, I have been lucky enough have the opportunity to look a silverback gorilla and a humpback whale in the eye, which has been humbling to say the least. To that list, I now add a manatee swimming up to my kayak in the mangroves of Captiva Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast, its head popping up inches away from my seat. I even have to lift my paddle out of the water so as not to inadvertently give it a knock, having been warned how curious the sea creatures are.
Manatees are one of many marine species under conservation measures in the Sunshine State, alongside loggerhead and leatherback turtles that nest in the sand of the barrier islands of the Gulf Coast. With humans and wildlife living in notably close proximity, sustainability permeates daily life for the local communities and small businesses. The red light outside my delightfully retro-chic beachside motel is not of the dodgy kind, more an initiative to encourage the turtle hatchlings to head out to sea rather than inland. Apparently, they can easily mistake bright white lights for the moon reflecting on water, which instinct programmes them to follow.
I am visiting the islands off Tampa and Fort Myers to experience the remarkable way of life in tropical cyclone territory. In September 2022, Hurricane Ian made landfall at Category 4 intensity, with damaging winds and a catastrophic storm surge that flooded countless low-lying residential and commercial buildings. It is said to be the costliest hurricane in Florida’s extensive history of extreme weather.
From a safe distance, it was a momentary blip on the news cycle. For those impacted, it has taken over a year to bounce back, with the odd tell-tale ruin still illustrating the devastation. A strong sense of community spirit and resilience has stood out in my various conversations with the locals. As I am given a tour of the National Shell Museum & Aquarium by director Sam Ankerson, he explains how their power was knocked out, their tanks flooded and their roof left with a gaping hole. Fortunately, they have enough funds to rebuild and restock, which can’t be said for everyone.
People really came together in the aftermath, he tells me, with a notable lack of partisanship or politics. The museum is based on Sanibel Island, an area renowned for shell collecting thanks to the vast shallows of the Gulf of Mexico running perhaps ten feet deep for 100 miles. The warmth of these waters is a contributory factor to hurricanes, with climate change undoubtedly exacerbating the warming potential and creating further risk.
Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
Climate change also affects the growth of seagrass, one of the main food sources for manatees. Alongside anecdotes of the wild manatees being fed lettuce by the tonne, local businesses are also invested in the restoration of the seagrass. The son of a former governor, local entrepreneur Ed Chiles founded All Clams on Deck to help restore the ecosystem of estuaries – notably clams and seagrass – whilst supporting the growth of coastal economies.
Chiles has a small chain of restaurants on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key. He also spearheads the Pine Avenue Restoration Project, which fosters the maintenance of historic character along the avenue with independent boutiques, charming rental properties and platinum LEED-certified infrastructure credentials – think net zero buildings, permeable walkways, native planting and farm-to-fork produce in the hotels and restaurants.
Wherever I eat, the locally sourced produce is front and centre, not to mention fresh as they come. As a big fan of seafood, other dishes barely get a look in. I crunch on crispy breaded clam at the shack at the end of the pier, the laid-back vibe made even more mellow by a breeze that coquettishly kisses bare legs and the shimmering jade hue of the waters. I dip a 12oz lobster tail in melted butter at the Mucky Duck and savour scallop ceviche at Beach House, popping outside to watch the sunset between courses.
Mangoes for my morning smoothie at The Perfect Cup Roastery were grown just up the road, a heavenly-sweet accompaniment to the surprisingly tasty shrimp and grits, a hearty dish akin to porridge but made from maize. The coffee house was one of the first places to reopen after the hurricane, providing caffeine and sustenance to the many tradesmen and key workers in the immediate recovery process. The more I see, the more I realise how much small businesses sit at the heart of this community. Supporting them is of great consequence. Every interaction and touch point has a wholesome feel. While tourism is obviously a big driver of income, one also gets the sense that being here is a conscious lifestyle choice for residents and visitors alike.
Tom Shelby/Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
Fishing and boating is very much part of the culture. So, I frequently find myself out on the water in the spirit of fully appreciating the Old Florida charm. After a good night’s sleep at the historic waterfront retreat Tarpon Lodge on Bokeelia, I join proprietor Rob Wells on the pier for what soon turns into a dreamy day out. We jump into his walkaround fishing boat and set a course east for Cabbage Key, a 100-acre island covered in vegetation without a paved road in sight, which Wells and his family have run for decades. We pass signs reminding us to keep knots to a minimum to avoid manatee strikes, not that my host needs any reminding, and a few playful dolphins ride alongside us on the open water. As we cruise along in the sunshine and a warm breeze, I climb up the ladder to the small flybridge and feel elation rising with the apparent wind.
The island’s only restaurant is an easy-going, open-air structure that sits atop a giant mound of shells built by the Calusa Indians, who occupied the island for generations until it became a Cuban fishing camp in 1750. Nowadays it is more renowned as the inspiration for the seventies hit ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ by folk-country singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.
The frozen key lime pie melts in the mouth and they make a mean mojito too. One moment I’m watching a raccoon climb down the banyan tree beyond the restaurant deck, and the next Wells hands me a black marker pen to scribble on a one-dollar note and affix it to the wall, along with thousands of others. In times gone by, fishermen would do the same when the going was good, effectively guaranteeing their future tab for down days. It’s mainly a lunchtime spot but there are a handful of rental cottages catering for anyone keen to stay in splendid isolation.
One moment I’m watching a raccoon climb down the banyan tree beyond the restaurant deck, and the next Wells hands me a black marker pen to scribble on a one-dollar note and affix it to the wall
As I make my way north the next day, I drop by the Edison and Ford Winter Estate in Bradenton for another dose of history. It’s easy to see why the duo of inventors over-wintered here, setting a trend many more have followed. The museum tells the story of Thomas Edison’s work on electric lighting and the phonograph – the first instance in history that sound could be recorded and played back – as well as Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone’s botanical research collaboration to find a source of rubber that could be produced domestically and supply the tyre trade.
© The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau / Brian Tietz
Ready to ease back into the modern world, I arrive at the hip and playful Mello on the Beach, a two-storey complex of self-contained apartments within a stone’s throw of the pristine shore, with colourful lifeguard stations reminiscent of Miami and a distinct lack of crowds. In a manner to which I’d happily become accustomed, AMI Beach Suites have set up a pop-up living room in the sand in my favourite spot by the sea, right outside my door. It comes complete with deck chairs, tasselled parasols, floor cushions, a YETI cool box full of ice and a host of games to pass the time between swims – giant Jenga or Connect Four, paddleball and frisbee.
For other days, the motel has every conceivable mod con and beach accessory. At dawn on my final morning, I can’t resist one last beach walk. The sky glows pastel pink and the sea shines an iridescent pale blue. Countless wading birds potter around the wet sand of the shoreline. A couple are out metal detecting, a group are warming up for what looks like a fitness bootcamp session and a weather-worn chap climbs into a pirogue to go for a paddle. A lot of effort has gone into preserving such an idyllic way of life on Anna Maria Island, with strict regulations on development and clearly a competent steering group. With its progressive, holistic blend of modern innovation and retro charm, I come to reflect they’ve done a rather good job.