It tells you a lot about a place when the main headline in the local paper reads, ``Loggerhead turtles wash ashore.'' The week before it was updates about baby egrets returning to their nests. So goes the breaking news on Captiva, part of a 25-mile-long brace of islands dangling off the west coast of Florida, which conchologists have christened one of the three best shelling beaches in the world. It's a safari's worth of wildlife crammed into a space about the size of Manhattan Island. More than 300 species of fauna punctuate the area. It's the kind of wilderness that has appealed to outdoorsmen and environmentalists -- Teddy Roosevelt and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, as well as scores of tourists -- for more than five decades. Before that, the islands drew the likes of Ponce de Le'on, along with Gasparilla and a smattering of other seagoing pirates, who named the one spit of land for their
female captives (Captiva) and the other (Sanibel) for Isabella, Queen of Spain.
And then, of course, there are the shells. And more shells. So many, in fact, that residents speak of the ``Sanibel stoop'' when referring to beachcombers who move about with the posture and intensity of dowsers. That's what more than 300 types of seashells and a particular confluence of tides, trade winds, and geography will get you.
Out-of-towners have been coming to Sanibel ever since 1521, when Diego Marvilo sailed up the coast and discovered that Florida was not an island. Before 1963, the absence of any access except by ferryboat kept mainlanders to a minimum. Since then a two-lane toll causeway has increased the number of tourists. In 1974, the islands locked horns with nearby Fort Myers and came away with civic autonomy. A subsequent city charter sharply curtailed commercial development, and the islands' conservative land-us e plan is considered something of a landmark.
Not only has the limited condominium and hotel construction retained the islands' semi-exclusivity; it has also preserved much of the original environment. This is Olde World Florida, where the whelks and coquinas roam and the alligators and egrets play right alongside you on the local golf courses.
For the hard-core preservationist, a visit to the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a must. This 5,000-acre preserve, administered by the US Department of the Interior, includes mangrove swamps, pine forests, and wetlands occupying nearly the entire northwest half of Sanibel. Established in 1945, the refuge -- which is laced with walking, driving, and canoe trails for easy access -- honors the late Ding Darling, founder of the National Wildlife Federation and a nationally syndicated conservation
cartoonist. Found within the refuge's leafy confines are nearly 300 bird species. It is possible to spot rare roseate spoonbills, wood ibises, and bald eagles, along with the occasional Atlantic loggerhead turtle and American alligator.
Lest the potential vacationer think the islands fit terrain for only hardy nature stalkers, however, Sanibel and Captiva do offer more sybaritic pursuits. If one's pleasures run to boardsailing, jet skiing, sailboating, or driving ``topless'' cars, local rental businesses can fill the bill. For more run-of-the-mill activities, the islands offer tennis, golf, swimming, and beachgoing in abundance. Nearly every hotel and condominium complex has at least one pool, a couple of tennis courts, and good beach
access. The new Sonesta Sanibel Harbor Resort, perched at the end of the causeway, boasts 12 outdoor courts open to the public as well as a center court, the site of the annual Payne Webber Classic tennis tournament.
Sanibel offers two public golf courses, though not of championship quality. One of them, the Dunes, has 18 holes. South Seas Plantation, on the tip of Captiva, the toniest resort on the islands (high-season weekly rates for condominiums here start at $1,000), has its own private nine-hole course. In fact, everything about the 330-acre resort is private except for one of its restaurants, Chadwick's, and a local branch of the Off-Shore Sailing School.
By and large, the majority of island vacationers stay in rented condominiums. The islands appeal to families and long-term visitors, and the self-contained, apartment-style units are popular, with condo complexes vastly outnumbering hotels. Four island agencies handle most of the accommodation transactions. These include Executive Services, Priscilla Murphy Real Estate, John Naumann Real Estate, and a local branch of Merrill Lynch. A spacious three-bedroom condo on Captiva can run $900 a week in high s eason (January-April), while a one-bedroom on Sanibel can start at $500. Room rates at two island hotels, Song of the Sea on Sanibel and 'Tween Waters Inn on Captiva, run to the $100-a-night range in peak seasons. There is also one RV park and campsite on the island -- Periwinkle Park and Campground. It tends to get booked up early.
While mainland tourist attractions in nearby Fort Myers and Naples may initially lure the visitor -- a walk through the winter home of Thomas Edison is particularly worthwhile -- everyone sooner or later settles down to an island life style, the three-mile causeway notwithstanding.
Although upscale, the islands are not as self-consciously exclusive as Palm Beach or even Naples. There is a vacation-home feel to the place, and bare feet and shorts are the usual attire. A stable year-round population helps keep things in balance as well. On the beach, retirees in sun hats and children with sand pails comb the beach alongside the string-bikini set.
Indeed, the most frequent ``occupation'' on these shell-washed islands is beachgoing. Sanibel's famous Spring Shell Fair is held every March, and pamphlets on the how-to's of shelling are found everywhere. At local shell shops one can round out a collection with extra large horse conchs and hunks of rare red or purple coral.
Other favorite pursuits of this frequent visitor include browsing in the MacIntosh Book Shop, visiting the Schoolhouse Gallery, and breakfasting with an armload of newspapers at the 'Tween Waters Inn dining room. That is when I can't be found on the narrow, palm-shaded beach within arm's reach of the Mucky Duck, Captiva's most popular -- and only -- beachside caf'e. Those in search of culture, popular and otherwise, can visit the lone movie theater or the island's historic theater, Pirate Playhouse. Ot herwise, try reading the papers and catching up on the wildlife news. Practical information
Like the rest of Florida, the islands tend to get booked during peak season -- January to April -- so call ahead and reserve accommodations: Chamber of Commerce, (813) 472-1100; Priscilla Murphy, (813) 472-4113; John Naumann Associates Inc., 800-237-6004; Executive Services Inc., 800-237-6002.
Most major carriers, in addition to cut-rate People Express, fly in and out of Fort Myers's new airport. Cab rides to Sanibel run about $25 per person, but it's advisable to rent a car either at the airport or on the island. Don't feed the gorilla
One island must-see is the famous Bubble Room Restaurant on Captiva. This low-slung pink stucco site with a palm tree growing through the roof brings to mind a hideaway for the seven dwarfs rather than any credible eatery.
Since its 1978 founding by Jamie Farquarson, a San Antonio handbag designer, it has become an island staple. Famous out-of-towners (Willard Scott) and locals (Bob Phillips, the voice of Porky Pig) regularly stop by for heaping plates of ribs, chicken, beef, and the mountainous desserts homemade by Mr. Farquarson's wife. Waitresses and waiters are dressed in khaki shorts and merit badges and blithely refer to themselves as ``Bubble Scouts.''
D'ecor is early Santa's Village and clearly the main attraction. The hour's wait for your table -- no reservations -- can be whiled away carefully inspecting the wind-up dolls, marionettes, and Christmas tree lights, including the simmering bubble lights for which the restaurant is named.
The piano player on the third floor tickles the ivories next to an all-but-life-size stuffed camel. A whistling model train runs throughout the restaurant on an overhead track. During your meal, Farquarson propels a wooden alligator across patrons' feet.
``Careful, he bites,'' he cautions. Outside, a sign in an empty animal cage reads, ``Do Not Feed Bo Bo Bubble The Gorilla. He May Go Ape And Escape.'' Tourists should not.