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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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Sweating it Out on the Tour de Captiva

OK, I’ve finally conceded that I’ll never be mistaken for Lance Armstrong.

But while a month on a bicycle in France isn’t viable for a 45-year-old who breaks a sweat taking out garbage, it’s lucky that Southwest Florida is not without more suitable two-wheeled options.

And if you’re seeking to get your pedal on, why not enjoy a little scenery along the way?

Some natural roadside scenery
Some natural roadside scenery

The quest for mild exertion amid world-class visuals begins conveniently at the Tween Waters Inn’s bayside marina, where a full complement of non-geared bikes are available for rental by resort guests. Rates start at $15 for the first two-and-a-half hours and $5 per hour thereafter, an outlay which provides instant access to a fleet of ready-to-roll machines stationed a turn or two from Captiva Drive.

From there, the options are only limited by the spring in your legs and the air in your lungs.

My Saturday adventure (rentals are available starting at 9 a.m. sharp) began alongside good friend and colleague Michael Korb, who joined me in the mid-morning scorch as we hung a left out of the parking lot with visions of a full 28-mile trek from resort to Sanibel lighthouse and back.

It only took a trickle of middle-aged perspiration – which arrived after barely 60 seconds – to get us rethinking those objectives. And by the time we’d rolled two miles to picturesque Blind Pass, we were content with the idea that a 15-mile ride with higher aspirations would substitute nicely for a nearly 30-mile version that was 50/50 to end with a next-of-kin notification.

Fortunately, there was enough eye candy in our midst to distract any battered 40-plus ego.

Picture break at Blind Pass
Picture break at Blind Pass

Our leisurely tour brought us past the familiar cadre of fishermen on the bridge, alongside the occasional white egret strolling the fence line of the sprawling “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge and face to face with a vagabond gopher tortoise happily munching grass in the linked video while cars whizzed past just feet away.

We used the refuge’s parking lot as a pit stop prior to a thankfully tail-winded return trip to the resort, and the jaunt was capped by a visit to the pristine beach across the street before the bikes were re-racked alongside the marina steps just a few minutes before noon.

It’s far more sand than Champs Elysees, but as finish lines go it’s pretty tough to beat.

The perfect finish line
The perfect finish line
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Manatee and Dolphin and Osprey, Oh My!

A visit to ‘Tween Waters Inn Island Resort & Spa is a chance to get up close and very personal with nature. And it took only one trip for me to discover a truth I’d have never otherwise known.

Manatees are smart-alecks.

Yes, they’re gently gigantic majestic sea cows and all the other lovable things you’ve heard, too. But when you’re a 45-year-old guy wedged into a kayak and armed with only an obsolete iPhone to document your interaction, they also know exactly when to surface while you’re still fumbling through your access code, and precisely when to submerge just as you’ve lined up the perfect shot.

Maybe it’s instinct.  Maybe it’s coincidence.  Or maybe, as I surely suspected by the end of a two-hour paddle-bearing dalliance in the waters surrounding Buck Key, maybe they’re all hovering just beneath the surface — readying for just the right moment to re-emerge, and have me miss another great image.

But regardless of their intent — and in all seriousness — it’s an experience not to be missed. I was part of a six-strong mix of vagabonds (two from Michigan, one each from New York and Ohio, a Naples resident and myself) for a 2.5-mile trek offered by Adventure Sea Kayak Wildlife Tours, bayside on the property.

Adventure Sea Kayak offers four tours daily —9 am and 1130 am, 2 pm and 4 pm, weather permitting — from $40 for adults down to $30 for kids 10 and under. Reservations are recommended and customized trips and rentals are available.

Our trip was led by amiable tour guide Bob, a self-professed Florida cracker who spends half his work week splashing around the Tween Waters Inn, and the other half shuttling between his home in Fort Myers and a gig at Cabbage Key.

The time on the water has served him well, because he barely missed a beat between getting this northern transplant into just the right vessel — a candy apple red Whistler with a foot-pedal operated rudder — and dazzling the half-dozen of us with a college-level refresher on the flora and fauna just a few paddles off the shore. We saw the aforementioned manatees, a dolphin whose dorsal had an unsatisfying meeting with a motorboat, and enough osprey, little blue heron and mullet to fill three seasons of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

But just remember: if a good photo of manatees is what you’re after, you might have to endure some silliness to get it.

Lyle Fitzsimmons Innsider Kayak
Lyle Fitzsimmons Innsider Kayak 2
Lyle Fitzsimmons Innsider Kayak 3
Lyle Fitzsimmons Innsider Kayak 4

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