September/October 2000 Issue

    Just a short distance from Sanibel Island lies one of the most beautiful beaches in Southwest Florida. It’s part of a state park, where visitors can fish, canoe, kayak, shell, swim, and more. Welcome to Lovers Key State Recreation Area.
    Just across Big Carlos Pass at the south end of Ft. Myers Beach, the park is made up of four islands: Lovers Key, Inner Key, Long Key, and Black Island. The state acquired the original land for Lovers Key State Recreation Area in 1983. In 1996, Carl E. Johnson Park, an adjacent Lee County park, was leased to the state. The two areas were officially combined in 1998 to create today’s Lovers Key State Recreation Area, 712 acres of coastal lands with two and a half miles of white sand beaches.
    The road to Bonita Beach, which runs across Long Key, divides the park. Views of Estero Bay’s estuarine waters are stunning from this low-slung island and low tide provides ample opportunities for close encounters with wading birds.
    Also on Long Key, visitors will find a concession building called the Kayak Shack, run by Sanibel resident Chip Hoffman, who manages the popular Tarpon Bay Recreation Inc. The Kayak Shack has canoes, sea kayaks, and fishing rods for rent; it also sells snacks, cold drinks, and gifts. Friendly employees will tell you about the Estero Explorer, “a 40-foot pontoon boat designed for adventure.” Choose to go on either a fishing trip or educational cruise–both are affordable.
Of special interest is the back-bay paddle, led by a naturalist who teaches participants about Estero Bay’s ecosystem. Remembering that the bay is home to what may be the most significant Calusa mound puts a historic twist on an already fascinating area.
    The eastern side of Long Key has a boat ramp as well as ample picnic tables. Arrive early on holiday weekends to stake your claim.
    To the right of the main road lies the bulk of the park–serpentine Black Island, Inner Key, and the largest of the three, Lovers Key. An amiable park ranger gives visitors a map of the park, collects a small entrance fee, and directs them to the parking area.
    From the parking area, a free tram service takes visitors across the islands to the beach (and back again). While the route is walkable, lugging beach gear this far would not be easy. The ride itself is a pleasure; the tram traverses a bridge spanning Inner Key and the waters between it, Black Island and Lovers Key. The farther you get from the parking lot, the more you realize just what a special environment you’ve chosen to visit.
    A variety of wading birds makes these waters home. Mullet jump as osprey soar overhead. The tram passes canals, tidal lagoons, and mangrove forests. Just as you arrive at Lovers Key, you spy a terrific fishing pier off to the left.
    The tram drops guests just steps from the beach, yet everything necessary for comfort is close at hand: picnic tables, bicycle racks, a sparkling new beach pavilion, outdoor showers, public phones, and environmentally friendly restrooms.
    The hardest choice you face at this point is whether to head for the beach or a back-bay paddle. Another concession building, this one called The Love Shack, rents one- and two-seat kayaks for exploring the three islands.
    My friends and I opted for a paddle before we got lazy. Checking the current, we paddled upstream in order to drift back. Once we passed the fishing pier, we were in a peaceful, watery sanctuary. The very first birds we noticed were a flock of bright pink roseate spoonbills. This is healthy water, full of life, where the mullet were jumping as high as our heads. Our boats slid past night herons, egrets, and a cornucopia of other birds, the darker ones camouflaged by the mangroves they call home.
    According to the brochure we received at the entrance, Lovers Key State Recreation Area is home to hawks, owls, warblers, reddish egrets, shore and wading birds, marsh rabbits, raccoons, and grey squirrels. Dolphins and manatees also inhabit the near-shore waters. A remnant maritime hammock on Black Island hosts several species of woodpeckers.
    We paddled toward New Pass and got a surprise–one that had been hinted at by the only other paddlers we had seen.
    “There’s rapids ahead!” they yelled, laughing as they passed us.
    We wondered what they could possibly mean in these calm, flat waters. Moments later, we saw the chop. Of course, we weren’t looking at rapids, but the water from New Pass was rushing sidelong into our path, creating a fair amount of agitation. We paddled onward and by the time we turned around, near the New Pass Bridge, we discovered the joke. We were paddling upstream...again.
    We struggled against a pretty strong current and were glad to get back to the calmer waters. I particularly appreciated the easier waters, as I was solo. We eventually passed the fishing pier again, headed under the tramway bridge and made our way to the beach, where we slid ashore amid an astonishing number of tiny, live shells.
    The beach at Lovers Key is inspiring. It looks a lot like North Captiva’s beach, with beautiful driftwood and pure white sand. Seashells were in evidence and while we shelled, we spied an immature ray feeding in the clear, shallow water. Sanibel was visible ahead, the lighthouse jutting above San Carlos Bay, and Ft. Myers Beach was off to the right, but it seemed a million miles away. To our left we saw the high-rises of Bonita Beach and Naples in the distance, with a deeply hued thunderstorm beginning to build behind them.
    Returning the boats, we grabbed a quick bite at the Love Shack Grill from a menu of hot dogs, egg rolls, and burritos. On the day we visited, we had music to eat by: A church from Immokalee had rented the pavilion, and Latin music drifted our way as little girls in fancy dresses danced and played nearby.
    The beach beckoned, and we enjoyed a nice long walk, pushing our luck, weather-wise, but not caring. We blissfully procrastinated, in fact, until the last tram of the day. Nature timed its thunderstorm to begin just as our ride left the Love Shack. We all got quite wet on our little journey back to the parking lot, but everyone was laughing. Our perfectly fun day at Lovers Key had a perfectly funny ending. Somehow it seemed appropriate.

A day at the beach can often tempt freelance writer Libby Boren McMillan from her Sanibel home.