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April 28, 1985|BETTY HUGHES | Assistant Travel Editor

SANIBEL, Fla. — The white sand beaches of the islands of Sanibel and Captiva are some of the best in the world for shell collectors, with more than 400 species. History and legend say that the islands may be the site of hidden treasure but most vacationers only seek the riches of the good life.

Islands intrigue.

Their come-hitherness conjures up images of sun-warmed sands and sea-washed beaches punctuated by palms laden with coconuts. There's a sorcery in their serenity of isolation. By their geographical separation from the mainland, they magically exorcise the tumult of living in the fast lane. That's the picture you get from all those travel brochures, right?

Well, what about Florida?

The Sunshine State with Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Disney World hardly calls up that visual image. Yet, strewn on the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, just off the southwestern edge of the state, lie the barrier reef islands of Sanibel, Captiva, Useppa, Cabbage Key and a handful more. None of them is big; all are barefoot little Edens, each with a distinct personality.

History and legend say that after invaders killed or drove off the original Calusa Indian islanders, marauding pirates, led by a swashbuckler named Jose Gaspar, headquartered in these islands. Following the dictates of their chosen profession, they naturally looted passing ships, carried off helpless maidens, holding them captive. And being buccaneers, it's said, they buried treasure chests throughout the islands. Dozens are yet to be discovered--at least that's the story.

But the riches that most visitors come here to find today are not Spanish doubloons or pieces of eight. It's the blessedness of the good life, island-style, even if it's only for a fleeting holiday.

Civilization already has a concrete toehold on the islands in the form of a modern causeway that links Sanibel and Captiva to the mainland, doing away with the ferries that were kept busy carrying visitors and residents across the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River less than 20 years ago. The toll is $3 per car and though the cost of building the bridge has been paid, the islanders feel that the fee helps keep undesirables from their shores.

Motorists are deposited on the island's main street, Periwinkle Way, lined with Australian pines and attractive little shops, boutiques and malls to cater to every need from souvenirs to dog-grooming.

Although the acne of high-rises does not yet blemish the skyline (and won't if civic-minded islanders continue to have their say), new resorts and condominium time-sharing complexes are rapidly a-building.

My choice, lured by the brochure that pictured an older, traditional structure with wooden verandas, was Casa Ybel with tropical, luxuriant landscaping, royal palms and the much-lauded Thistle Lodge dining room.

Strung along the beach, weathered exteriors house handsome one- and two-bedroom villas with fully equipped kitchens and screened balconies. Not a small complex, it has 40 one-bedroom and 74 two-bedroom town houses (rates $95 to $120 a unit for two daily in summer, $185 and $220 in winter). So it's great for either families or couples. There's a tennis pro, lawn games, boat rentals, 18-hole golf privileges and each unit has views of the gulf.

It was from the veranda of my villa that I first saw them on the beach--20 or 30 people bending from the waist, eyes riveted on the sand just beneath them in an attitude of--searching, searching.

What were they looking for, I wondered? A diamond, eyeglasses, contact lenses? Traces of buried treasure?

A friendly maid laughed. What I was seeing, she said, was the famous Sanibel Stoop, a stance that may be modified, perhaps, but adopted by nearly everyone who comes to Sanibel.

For here is one of the three best shelling beaches in the world. (The other two are Jeffreys Bay in Africa and the Sulu Islands in the Southwest Pacific.) More than 400 species of seashells have been found on Sanibel among the billions that are gently washed ashore along 20 miles of soft, white-sand beaches.

That's a rather impressive reputation for a 12-mile-long island that's only about three miles at its widest. Still, it gets a little help from neighboring Captiva, to which it's connected by the short Blind Pass Causeway. Captiva is less than a pin prick on any atlas, measuring a mere five miles long and about half a mile at its widest. But together they make a super pair.

Other attractive resorts on Sanibel include the Sundial with its efficiency suites, deluxe two-bedroom, two-bath apartments, five pools, 13 tennis courts, Morgan's Market and Lounge and Noopie's Japanese Steak House. And there's the Hurricane House with a 1920s kind of charm and casualness in its one- and two-bedroom cottages, plus Song of the Sea, the Tortuga Beach Club and many others.

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