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Picnics, puffer fish and Eric Milton: A new captain meets the high seas

As spring break destinations go, it’s a hard one to beat.

And though some instinctively link the term with Daytona and Miami Beach, the Sunshine State’s southwest coast offers an experience that’s light on debauchery and heavy on chill.

Unless, of course, you’ve never steered a boat before.

The latter was true for me on a recent Sunday, when I loaded the newly-minted 9-year-old (Ryan), the perpetually accommodating wife (Danielle) and the nearest thing I could find to an accomplished seaman (screenwriting ace Michael Korb) into the trusty Kia for a trip to the Tween Waters Inn.

Upon arrival, the task was simply to keep said trio safe as I sought adventure while taking a maiden voyage as captain of a craft chartered through the Inn’s marina.

The property offers skippers of all stripes a chance to take to myriad waterways – bay, river and gulf among them — at the helm of vessels ranging from 19 to 25 feet. Arrangements can be made by calling (239) 472-6336 or visiting a marina-based representative from Beach Bums Boat Rentals, and all that’s needed to get underway is the requisite state paperwork.

Boat operators who were born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, must have a Florida Boating Safety Education Identification Card or a NASBLA-approved safe boating license to operate a motorboat in Florida. Temporary certificates are obtainable in about an hour onsite, or can be acquired prior to arrival by visiting www.boatus.org/free/#state, www.boat-ed.com/florida or www.boatus.org/florida.

Given that my past captaining experience hadn’t strayed far beyond rubber rafts in backyard pools, I chose the 19-foot Palm Beach model and its 115-horsepower engine and immediately sought the aforementioned Mr. Korb – and his Fort Myers waterfront property street cred – to help ensure the adventure wouldn’t end with an emergency room, a holding cell or an uncharted desert isle.

Toward that end, and armed with sufficient food, drinks and sundries for a three-hour tour, we set off for a back-and-forth trek to Picnic Island, a man-made seven-acre tract that was created by dredging near the confluence of Pine Island Sound, Matlacha Pass and the Caloosahatchee River.

It’s clearly visible and probably an invigorating swim from the bridges connecting Sanibel Island to the Lee County mainland, but Captiva’s orientation a bit more to the northwest requires a leisurely eight-mile trip that we covered in 45 minutes over glistening and (thankfully) chop-free conditions.

There are no docks, but our boat was easily anchored just a few steps from shore — allowing chairs, towels and umbrellas to be quickly transported. The island’s north side provides a shallow wading area while the south is more wooded, and the entire expanse can be covered on foot in no more than half an hour alongside a generally uninterested menagerie of pelicans, ibis, anhingas and herons.

True to his standing as the trip’s lone Florida native, Ryan chose to stick by the water, where he giddily assembled an entourage of puffer fish, hermit crabs and conch shells, then staked out the boat’s bow for the trip home as the crew’s self-appointed – albeit ultimately unsuccessful — “dolphin spotter.”

As it turned out, the most majestic sighting on the return leg was a palatial home owned by ex-big league pitcher Eric Milton, who must’ve shelled out some of the $47.3 million he earned in an 11-year career (a cool $531,966.28 for each of 89 wins) for a prime spot along the Southwest Florida water.

Seeing how one of his old Cincinnati Reds jerseys still hangs lazily in my wife’s closet – exactly 10 years after his final inglorious game with my favorite team – it’s pretty much a lock that we’ll be stopping by for drinks the next time we’re in the neighborhood.

I figure he owes us at least that much.

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The ABCs of a ‘Tween Waters vacation

Congratulations.

You’ve found your way to Southwest Florida, left the mainland behind via the causeway bridge and survived the trek down Captiva Drive to reach your vacation Valhalla – the ‘Tween Waters Inn.

Still, if you’re thinking the most challenging part of the voyage is done… think again.

Now that the suitcase is unpacked and the shoes have been exchanged for sandals, you’re going to have to fill the hours until it’s time to repack, refuel and re-board for the return trip to reality.

It’s surely a daunting task for someone unfamiliar with our sunset-centric way of life.

But fear not, excited traveler. Your TWI INNsider team has got you covered.

In fact, we’ve made it as easy as your ABCs.

Read on for 26 suggestions that’ll help make your humid subtropical stay a memorable one.

Alison Hagerup Beach Park — Directly behind South Seas Plantation at the end of San-Cap Road with access to beautiful Captiva Beach.

Bailey Matthews Shell Museum – On Sanibel, the only museum in the United States solely devoted to shells and the mollusks that make them.

Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) – Teaching hospital and visitor education center dedicated to saving wildlife through veterinary care, research, education and conservation medicine.

Dolphin watching – Keep an eye out on the Gulf or bay sides of the resort, where dolphins easily find sufficient food and typically travel in pods of two or three or four.

Edison Reef – Artificial reef for snorkeling and scuba diving, in about 40 feet of water, created from the rubble of a former mainland bridge not far from the Sanibel Island lighthouse.

Facial, Mani & Pedi at The Spa – Renourish, revitalize and restore your wonderful face, then treat your hands and feet with Vitamin E, grape seed oil and mineral baths followed by a sea scrub.

Golf at Sanibel Island Golf Club – An incredible natural setting makes it the perfect place to enjoy a round, with the challenge of a fabulous 18-hole layout lush with indigenous wildlife.

Historical museum – A local story is told from the Calusa and Spanish eras to the early pioneer families who settled in the 1800s. Learn about warriors, adventures, fishermen, farmers and proprietors.

Ice cream at Pinocchio’s – Unique handcrafted frozen confections at a little shop on Sanibel’s east end with bright green walls and colorful benches.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge – Part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States and world famous for its spectacular migratory bird populations.

Kayak – Guests enjoy priority pleasure rental opportunities from the marina, from basic single- and double-kayaks to professional tours through TWI’s rental partners.

Lighthouse – Sanibel’s 98-foot iron skeleton tower was one of the first on Florida’s Gulf coast north of Key West and the Dry Tortugas, built to mark the entrance to San Carlos Bay.

Manatee watching – Look for perfect swirls in the water from their wide, paddle tails, or see their whiskered noses breathing above the waterline. Spy them at the TWI marina or while kayaking.

NASCRAB races at Crow’s Nest Beach Bar & Grille – On your marks, get set and make sure you absolutely go to the hilarious, one-of-a-kind event hosted by the one and only Commissioner Tim.

Osprey Gift Shop – Within TWI’s Captiva House, find beautiful jewelry, books and gifts handcrafted and written by local artists and authors, alongside Brighton jewelry, handbags and throw pillows.

Paddleboard – Explore at your own pace as you glide through exotic mangroves. Rentals are available from the marina ranging from $30 an hour to $150 for a whole week.

Quick game of tennis before hitting the pool – The courts are open free of charge to resort guests from dawn to dusk, and can be reserved via the sign-up sheet that’s tucked away at the front desk.

Rent a boat & go fishing – The marina features quality, licensed and insured boat rental and charter providers of fishing excursions. Contact captains to expertly man your vessel.

Sunsets – Travelocity labeled them the “most romantic sunsets in America,” and USA Today named TWI one of the 10 most romantic coastal destinations in the U.S., citing those same can’t-miss sunsets.

Tween Beans Coffee Shop – Seven days a week, get gourmet coffees, teas, ice cream and more at the poolside walk-up window.

Umbrella drinks at the Oasis Pool Bar – Thirsty? What says “vacation” more than a beverage with an umbrella in it? You’ll find just about anything under the sun with a side of warm, friendly smiles.

Venus clamshell, Lightning whelk, Junonia (oh my!) – The island is literarily made up of shells, created over thousands of years, and its geography allows it to catch abundant sea shells from the Gulf.

Waverunner rental – If you prefer perusing waves at double-digit speeds (and you’re at least 16 years old) the Yamaha water rockets are available for rental in 30- and 60-minute blocks.

X marks the spot, charter a boat to Cayo Costa – Looking to treasure an adventure? Take the helm and head to uninhabited Cayo Costa’s beaches, pine forests, oak-palm hammocks and mangrove swamps.

YOLO Watersports parasailing – An unforgettable memory awaits one, two or three adventurous people, thanks to state-of-the-art equipment and an experienced crew.

Zzzz… get some rest with Gulf breezes – Whew! After all this activity, you probably need a break. Take it all in from an umbrella-shaded beach chair or a sand-anchored cabana, just feet from the Gulf water.

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A Super escape for disappointed pigskin fans

The calendar says it’s Super Bowl week.

Which means we’re once again in the final throes of football season.

Of course, unless you’re a fan of the New England Patriots or Atlanta Falcons, your season has been over for a few days longer. And if you’re a New York Jets fan, well… it’s been over for roughly a generation.

And as any Jets fan will tell you, the week before Super Sunday can be particularly difficult to stomach.

Every sports station is doing in-depth analysis. Every news program is researching ticket sales and hotel revenues. Every lifestyle show is sending its kooky correspondent to the game site to ask inane questions about Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Tom Brady’s wife.

I can’t speak for all the Gang Green faithful, but I’d just as soon skip it all.

Fortunately, if you’re like me in that regard, there are much more enjoyable options available.

And if you’re reading this, chances are you’re already plugged into some of them.

Thanks to good meteorological fortune, Florida is blessed with better weather this time of year than 99.9 percent of the United States – including the New England region, the Greater Atlanta area and, come to think of it, the northern New Jersey swampland that’s home to the Jets.

And Southwest Florida is home to the Tween Waters Inn, which any Jersey refugee will tell you is a better place to spend a weekend than the Newark-area stretch of the Garden State Parkway.

East and West Orange, notwithstanding.

Anyway, rather than enduring another ESPN dissertation on the three-deep zone, another CNBC recap of Southeast Texas occupancy rates and another TMZ “exclusive” from the Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars pre-game party, the TWI offers a slightly less gamey complement of activities.

There’s lounging by the pool. There’s imbibing at the Crow’s Nest.

And, oh yeah, there’s the Gulf of Mexico.

Spending a few days between the conference championships and the Super Bowl with sun on shoulders and toes in sand does wonders for any emotional trauma still lingering from missed field goals and untimely turnovers. And a few extra days even erases the sting of 48 straight years without a title.

Conveniently, my 8-year-old son – a Cowboys fan… don’t get me started – just happened to stash a Nerf football in his bag, so both my hankering for a quick game of catch and the overwhelming urge to sack something were quickly remedied, too.

And hey, if you’ve got to get tackled, why not have it on a blanket of white quartz and crushed seashells?

All that said, if you’re so hardcore that missing the big game might trigger a case of the DTs, there’s an answer for that as well. The Crow’s Nest has a Super Sunday bash set to begin at kickoff, and it’ll include raffles for $500 in cash (for the United Way), $50 and $100 dining credits, two- or three-night stays at the Tween Waters Inn (or the West Wind Inn, Beachview Cottages or Castaway Cottages), a champagne/Norman Love chocolate basket, a beer/snack basket and Crow’s Nest T-shirts.

In-game offerings will include a free scratch-off ticket with the purchase of an entree/sandwich, five-bottle domestic beer buckets for $15, Jell-O shot specials and a special Super Bowl menu.

Not a bad Sunday, regardless of rooting interest.

In fact, go all in and it’s more than enough to make you forget your team fell a few wins short.

And almost enough to make you forget you’re a Jets fan.

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Holiday magic pushes TWI sled to parade win

Jiri Vilim has no one but himself to blame.

Or, perhaps himself, a colleague and the magic of Christmas.

Upon hearing the Tween Waters Inn had been asked to simply donate a prize to the seventh annual Captiva Holiday Village Golf Cart Parade, the resort’s maintenance manager ambitiously chose to go the task one better.

Faced with a tight deadline, he enlisted the help of an assistant to go ahead and build the resort’s inaugural entry — and spent the better part of a week gathering and cutting plywood and dressing up a six-passenger golf cart as Santa’s sled.

Vilim said the cutting and building took about a day, with the balance of the effort spent on decorating and painting.

His gift arrived five days before Christmas in the form of a first-place trophy in the Commercial Division and the bragging rights that’ll accompany it, though he concedes that the unlikely victory will also bring pressure this time in 2017.

The 2016’s parade proceeds benefited the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

Nearly 50 decorated golf carts rolled down Captiva Drive and Andy Rosse Lane with over-the-top displays of holiday spirit, including snowflakes, flamingos, and gingerbread houses.

Prizes were awarded in commercial and non-commercial categories, as well as to a best-in-show honoree.

“We did fabulous,” Vilim said. “This means that next year we have to go even bigger.”

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Old Gold: Bringing the Decathlon to ‘Tween Waters

IMG_8682I blame Ashton Eaton. My television. And my parents.

After all, if not for the now two-time Olympic decathlon champion and his late-summer omnipresence on NBC, I’d have never come up with the silly idea. And had it not been for Bernard and Alice Fitzsimmons welcoming me to the world in March 1969, I’d not have been so old by the time it arrived.

Nevertheless, thanks in part to all of them, the testosterone die was cast.

Fueled by Eaton and the other nightly images of competition from Brazil’s coastline on the south Atlantic Ocean, I decided to pursue my own brand of Summer Games glory during a recent jaunt to the Tween Waters Inn – roughly 4,300 miles north of Maracana Stadium.

My personalized five-ringed gauntlet included 10 events that’d take me across and around the resort over just more than 24 hours, and incorporate as many different endeavors as my middle-aged body would allow without outright collapse.

The sweltering Sunday portion included a trip to the fitness center for a 30-minute workout, followed by a hardcourt set on the nearby tennis courts, a quick sidestep for a game of shuffleboard, a trip across Captiva Drive for a Gulf water surfboard relay and a trek back to the marina to depart on a kayaking dash around the mangroves.

It was challenging. It was invigorating. It was exhausting.

And to suggest I had a restful sleep – from roughly 8 p.m. straight though until 7 the next morning, in fact – would be an understatement of gold-medalist proportions.

But, alas, there was still a day’s worth of “work” to be done.

Russ TWIAnd while the Monday follow-up was certainly less strenuous, it was by no means less busy.

It began with a 15-mile rental round trip bike ride from the resort to the Sanibel School and a one-hour dockside fishing pole respite upon return.

As for those results, suffice it to say I remind exactly no one of Greg LeMond or Jimmy Houston.

Regardless, a 50-minute deep tissue massage at The Spa as event No. 8 provided ideal therapy for tired muscles nearing their collective half-century mark, and a penultimate sunset walk with the wife, son and pup blended nicely into a Crab Races at the Crow’s Nest finale – where, ironically, the extent of my exertion was exhorting a crustacean who looked as if it’d been through a weekend similar to mine.

Though the untimely slow-shelled tardiness cost me a few bucks, I was in no shape to criticize.

And when the Tokyo Games come on the tube in four years, I’ll make sure and switch to PBS.

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One fish, two fish … catch some, we wish

photo 1 (1)Ask any world-class athlete – LeBron James comes immediately to mind – and he or she will tell you it’s all about the hardware. Problem is, I’m not a close friend of LeBron James.

Or any other world-class athletes, for that matter.

So with neither the Cleveland hoops deity nor any of his high-tax bracket peeps as backup, it was left solely to my 8-year-old son – Ryan – and I to pursue a trophy that would instantly elevate our family to mandatory financial advisor status.

In this case, that meant either the “Most Caught” or “Biggest Caught” prizes at the annual Tween Waters Inn family fishing tournament, which took place earlier this month in the waters on both the gulf and bay sides of the resort.

OK, truth told, the perks of winning weren’t exactly life-changing in nature.

Rather than a vacation home in the Keys, it was a foot-high trophy with a generic nameplate.

Rather than a phone call from the president, it was a quick snapshot along resort GM Tony Lapi.

photo 3 (1)But it wasn’t a total loss. There was ice cream and popcorn.

And as it turns out, the few hours spent aimlessly tossing a line from a scalding splinter-laden dock while trying to keep live shrimp from boiling in a bucket has some benefits beyond economic ascension.

Though whatever critters were in the water decided to dine elsewhere – a total of 71 were caught, in fact, but none by us – the chance to simply sit with my boy without being interrupted by pesky fish yielded memories that’ll last at least until the next episode of American Ninja Warrior on NBC-2.

Or heck, maybe they’ll even go until Peter Busch’s hair moves on camera.

A 24-inch lady fish – the poor man’s tarpon – was the largest monster plucked during the competition, and a slew of consolation door prizes made winners of several others who’d had roughly the same luck with rod, reel and 20-pound test as me and my would-be Bill Dance.

I’m guessing the pelicans had a better go of it – minus the cookies & cream, of course.

And when next year’s event comes around, we’re casting from LeBron’s boat.

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Getting fit for a pool-side escape

You’re on vacation.

So there’s a good chance you left your body-image issues at home.

IMG_8437But if a few minutes at the pool or beach still make you feel like a T-shirt swimmer adrift in a sea of six-packs, fear not.

The Tween Waters Inn has got you covered.

Just a quick flight of stairs and a couple right turns from the hot tub is a judgement-free Valhalla where even the least-toned visitor can take 30 minutes to eliminate whatever guilt lingers from that extra slice of Crow’s Nest key lime pie.

The guest fitness center at has all the bells and whistles of a full-size gym in a conveniently compact size.

Free weights? Got ’em.

Cabled machines? Check.

Treadmills and stair-climbers? Yep.

There are clean towels and cold water, too.

And if you find your motivation lagging, take a look outside.

Imagine yourself playing a sun-soaked five-setter on the tennis courts that sit just an overhead smash from the second-floor window, or turn to the right a bit and catch a glimpse of the action on the pool deck.

Or, if that doesn’t do it, bring along an 8-year-old.

IMG_8439My main man Ryan accompanied me while the lovely Danielle slept in for Mother’s Day, and it wasn’t long before I realized keeping up with a second-grader provides whatever impetus that stepping on a scale might miss.

A brief tutorial on gym etiquette quickly gave way to an alpha male power struggle, featuring a revved-up mini-me bent on meeting and exceeding whatever standards the old man tried to set.

Five minutes on the treadmill? I can go 10.

Twenty sit-ups on the inclined bench? Watch me do 30.

Forty pounds on the lat row? Think I’ll try 50.

It wasn’t long before I was seeking out the water cooler, and breathlessly suggesting to the little guy that it was high time we got back to the room to hang out with Mom on her special day.

All of a sudden, body-image issues are the least of my concerns.

And next time, T-shirt or not, I’m pretty sure I’m stopping at the hot tub.

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Queasy Rider: The Open Seas (In 30 Minute Increments)

Upon first glance, it certainly seems inviting.

Go to any beach on any coastline and you’ll see them whipping through the whitecaps, usually at the direction of smiling, fit and tanned folks who appear to be having the times of their young lives.

And who among us — whether smiling, fit and tanned, or wincing, sore and pasty — wouldn’t want that that?

Dare I say… probably no one.

So with that as lofty motivation, I decided my adventurous Tween Waters mission for the month was to take the Jet Ski by the horns and get in on some of that “times of their young lives” action.

PittTurns out, though, that the first rule of Jet Ski Club is you do not refer to it as Jet Ski Club.

Thanks to the trademark lawyers at Kawasaki, that’s a no-no unless you’re planning to pilot one of their products.

Which, incidentally, are available for purchase in any number of places.

But for those more desirous of a vacation fling than a long-term finance, the acquisition of personal watercraft (yes, that’s the proper generic term) can best be handled barely a mile from resort property at YOLO Watersports on Andy Rosse Lane.

There, a fleet of WaveRunners — Yamaha’s proprietary label for the crotch rockets capable of up to 50 mph alongside dolphins, tarpon and whatever else that may sidle up — is available for rental in 30- and 60-minute increments.

Rentals run from $90 for the half-hour to $120 for a full — that’s per machine, not per person — and as many as three people can pile on, provided the combined weight doesn’t exceed 450 pounds and the driver is at least 16.

The ride area spans a mile-and-a-half along the coast and up to two miles offshore, and that’s aside from guided tours which take the bold and/or beautiful up to and around Cayo Costa before returning to home turf.

For the record, my wise-guy 8-year-old passenger likened my driving to that of “an old grandmother.”

FinsBut I’m not insulted. I prefer to think of it as not slow, but deliberate.

And in my defense, there were zero claims from anyone that I’d left a blinker on for 15 miles.

That said, I do see at least one advantage of burying the speedometer needle in the red.

If I’m going that fast and something resembling a shark fin zooms by, I’m pretty sure no one on land would hear me scream.

And as for the 8-year-old, he’s grounded until he’s old enough to drive himself.

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Tools of blissfulness: Making the most of sandy souvenirs

A $5 postcard. A $10 shot glass.

A $20 stuffed alligator with a clever T-shirt slogan.

IMG_8115By the time Tween Waters guests return to hometown ports of call, there’s a 50/50 chance one or more have been stuffed in a suitcase to meet the souvenir mandate of cubicle mates and dog walkers.

But fear not, sworn enemies of kitschy gift shop convention… there is another option.

And as vacationer luck would have it, all it takes is a quick stroll across Captiva Drive.

Available on the beach – whether the forecast calls for snow, rain, heat or gloom of night – are raw materials for mementoes that’ll evoke your trip at every moment their glimpse is caught.

They’re shells of all shapes, sizes and colors. And rather than dropping cash on a bauble forgotten before the sand has left the laundry, even the least handy adventurer can turn them into something special.

I took the challenge alongside my bride of 10 years – the former Danielle McIntosh – who vowed it would take no more than 30 minutes to transform a keyboard jockey like me into a jewelry engineer.

IMG_8122We headed out on a Sunday with our ebullient near-8-year-old, who was more than ready to charge into the shallow surf with a trusty orange shovel before ultimately delivering the goods – a dozen-plus fragments of pen, conch and clam shells, among others, on which she’d help me work my, errr… magic.

I eventually chose the sliver of a Florida prickly cockle shell, and my lady put me to beach-chair work with the small sheaf of materials she plucked from her purse. A small pair of cutters snipped an arm’s length of aluminum wire, which was wrapped around the head of a pair of similarly-toted needle-nose pliers and twisted to create a small loop known as a bail – through which a necklace is strung.

From there, the remainder of the wire is wrapped around the shell at the whim of the artist. Following grooves and contours enhances the natural feel of the piece, while a quick twist with the pliers every now and then makes sure the wire will stay tightly adhered, keeping the shell securely stable.

IMG_8131The trailing end of the wire can be tucked underneath the existing wrap, or swirled into a curly-q, which delivers a final visual accent without overpowering the innate simplicity. I chose the latter option, though I’ll concede now it was as much to divert attention from the mess as to provide a final touch.

Let’s not kid anyone, mine wound up as much jumble as masterpiece.

But because there are no wrong answers in art class, a victory was nevertheless claimed.

The wife signed off on the finished product without so much as a cringe, which for a moment made me think I might give it another go. Sanity quickly prevailed, though, so I took the symbolic $30 I’d saved on knick-knacks and headed back across the street to treat her to a latte at Tween’s Beans.

It’s no bag full of shark’s teeth. But I’ve never been much for seafood anyway.

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Python Challenge accepted: A quest for snake-wrangling glory

For one reason or another, it seems that a surprisingly large number of Floridians thought owning a pet snake was a good idea – right up until the moment they threw it into the canal at the end of their street.

Now, the state says that there could be as many as 150,000 invasive species of python living in our sun-drenched backyard, killing and eating things that rightfully should be killed and eaten by card-carrying American snakes. The situation is so dire, in fact, that sightings of raccoons, rabbits and other animals are down as much as 99 percent in places where pythons are known to reside.

IMG_7972And so, in its infinite wisdom, said state has created the 2016 Python Challenge to encourage overmatched but adventurous people like yours truly to go out with guns and knives to “humanely dispatch” pythons for cash and prizes. Pythons, incidentally, can grow to more than 20 feet and have been known to nosh deer and alligators whole.

All it takes is $25 and a dream. And seeing how I failed to hit Powerball, I figured what the heck.

Once the paperwork – in the form of a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission-sanctioned online training module and a passing grade of 100 on a 15-question multiple-choice test – was handled from the comfort of my kitchen table, it was time to gear up for my quest.

A baseball bat and some brass knuckles appealed to my New York sensibilities, but I ended up choosing a machete and a 7-iron – both capable of wicked slices.

Incidentally, for those thinking The Island Store is a one-stop shop for all things machete, think again.

It turns out that tools of killing are in stock neither there nor Periwinkle Place on Sanibel, so I had to go ahead and borrow a machete from my neighbor (Mental note: Don’t fool with the neighbor) before I packed a lunch, charged the iPhone and ventured out to make our fair region safe for the opossum.

IMG_7974My plan was to find roads not taken and trails not followed that would yield pits of the slithering insurgents. But when I lost cell service about 500 feet past the causeway, I thought “This is madness.”

Still, seeing as how I’d packed the lunch and the 7-iron, I pressed on.

The question quickly became, though, to where? Drive too far and I’d risk a washout during high tide at Point Ybel. Not far enough and the night-side bartender at the Crow’s Nest wouldn’t take me seriously.

Ultimately, given that it’s only a functional 15 miles from the accessible tip of Captiva to the base of the lighthouse on Sanibel, I chose what rookie typists once labeled the “hunt and peck” approach.

Wherever I saw overgrown grass and a lack of curious onlookers, I unsheathed my shiny Taylor Made, assumed an interlocking grip – right pinky between the left index and middle fingers – and channeled my inner Bear Grylls while visions of three- and four-figure payouts danced in my head.

The top solo hunter stands to rake in a cool $3,500 for volume, while the longest snake gets $1,000. The prizes drop to $750 for second place in both categories. Though, at last check, that’s still plenty for a massage, facial and pedicure at The Spa followed by a cool post-sunset nightcap at the Oasis Pool Bar.

IMG_7982The vision grew clearer as I prowled the paths adjacent to the Sanibel Fishing Pier, and it drew me into chest-high weeds and brush, a tool of death at the ready, slowly creeping my way toward greenery that looked moderately similar to the official FWC guide. And there it was, between five- and seven-feet long and about two inches thick. A beauty. Problem was, as I pulled back the lower branches with my beautifully crafted club, it suddenly occurred to me I’d forgotten to bring a bag to put it in. It was just going to have to lie on the front seat of the Kia.

And that’s precisely where it would have gone had it not turned out to be a palm frond that had seen better days. Twenty yards away, an ibis chuckled.

I trudged with slumped shoulders back toward a clearing until, steps from surrender, I decided to at least leave the mud-probing crustacean eater with a face-saving gesture. But as I turned to flip the salute I’d learned as a malevolent northern youngster, the recoil of a nearby branch landed first and not only sent me sprawling – but left me with a deep purple eye welt that’s still tender as I write this.

I checked the guidebook for advice and found none. Well played, Florida. Well played.

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