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27 Jan, Friday
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Montreal Families

Southwest Florida a haven for collecting hundreds of sea shells

I’m convinced that kids are simply hardwired to collect. Just bring them to a beach and see how fast the beach glass and rocks get scooped up. And the most precious beachcombing treasures – besides pirates’ gold – are shells. Even for adults, the lure of a shell shimmering in the white sand is impossible to resist as I soon discovered on a trip to Sanibel Island, off the southwest coast of Florida.

Located near Fort Myers, Sanibel and its sister island Captiva, are considered to be among the top shelling destinations in North America. In fact, the term ‘Sanibel Stoop’ was coined to describe the bent-over position visitors adopt as they’re scouring the beach for the more than 400 varieties of shells from the common-place scallops to the large conches. The expression also describes the backache that ensues; but of course, the kids don’t suffer from this ailment and have energy to spare as shell-after-shell plops into pails during our morning stroll at Bowman Beach.

Before this trip, no one in our family knew much about shells except that they are very attractive and popular with kids. Fortunately, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is on the island. Opened in 1995, the museum has the largest collection of shells in North America and showcases the region’s shells as well as rare specimens from around the world.  The learning lab features a hands-on play area for children, displays and games. A scavenger hunt gets the kids involved in their shell education and they race through the museum searching the exhibits for the answers. Friendly volunteers award prizes when they complete the hunt, and also identify the shells the kids bring in.

“Look mom! Another one for my collection,” my daughter says as she picks a shell from the basket that sits by the museum’s reception desk. Ah yes, one more item for that growing collection!

Lighthouse Beach Sanibel Island FloridaWhere to collect shells

Shelling is serious business on Sanibel island. Knowledgeable experts and shelling captains run local charters that ferry avid collectors to the top spots. But the island’s geography ensures even beginners are likely to score. Bowman’s Beach, Gulfside City Park, Lighthouse Beach and Tarpon Bay Beach are all good spots. Or just park your vehicle along any of the causeway beaches to get your shelling fix.

Tips for shell collecting

  1. Check that the tide is right:  The best time to go shelling is in the morning from an hour before to an hour after low tide. During a new moon or a full moon, your chances are even better.
  2. Collect after a storm: The winds increase the number of shells that wash up on    shore.
  3. Get into the water: Snorkelling or even just wading in and wiggling your toes around, are good ways to scoop up the treasures that others miss.

Note: Collecting ‘live’ shells is prohibited in Southwest Florida. If you find one with a creature inside, wade into the water and place it gently on the sea floor, with the opening facing down.

Other family-friendly activities

J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge: The 6,000-acre refuge is teeming with native birds like herons and pelicans, raccoons, otters, alligators and lush sub-tropical vegetation. Depending on your kids’ ages and activity level, you can explore the park via footpaths, canoe trails, a guided tram tour or a four-mile scenic drive. For more information, visit www.dingdarlingsociety.org.

Boat tours: Many cruise options are available. A popular family option is the 90-minute dolphin watch and wildlife cruise aboard Captiva cruises. They claim a 95 per cent chance of spotting these playful creatures. And sure enough, within five minutes of departing, we are greeted by a few of them. For more information, visit www.captivacruises.com.

For older kids, kayaking or canoeing the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail provides a more intimate way of viewing wildlife. Check out http://calusablueway.com.

Bubble Room Sanibel Island FloridaThe Bubble Room: Looking for a place to grab a bite to eat? You’ll find all the excitement of Christmas in this quirky restaurant, which is a cross between an elves workshop and a Hollywood shrine. Open since 1979, the theme is Christmas everyday and Hollywood from 1930s and 1940s. Every nook and cranny of this restaurant’s three floors is crammed with kitsch memorabilia, black and white Hollywood photos and Christmas decorations. There’s even a toy train that chugs through the establishment. This restaurant is known for its desserts. A little warning: portions are massive so don’t be shy to share a meal. For more info, go to www.bubbleroomrestaurant.com.

Accommodation is available both on the islands and in nearby Fort Myers. We stayed in the Pink Shell Resort in Fort Myers. Its white sandy beach, kids’ activities and family-friendly suites made it an ideal base to explore the area’s attractions. For more information, go to www.pinkshell.com.

For more information about this area of Florida, visit www.fortmyers-sanibel.com and www.visitflorida.com.

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