Love letters to Sanibel

The lighthouse and fishing pier are part of the scenes Christine Lemmon sets in her novels.

The lighthouse and fishing pier are part of the scenes Christine Lemmon sets in her novels.

My love affair with Sanibel began the moment I put my toes in the sand, gathered a treasure trove of seashells and watched the gentle lapping of the gulf. I had longed to see this little island for about 20 years before I finally arrived and made my way to Bowman Beach, the Lazy Flamingo and the Mad Hatter.

Christine Lemmon at Lighthouse Beach on Sanibel's quiet end.

Christine Lemmon at Lighthouse Beach on Sanibel’s quieter East End.

So imagine my delight in finding a series of books set in this magical place. One by one I devoured Christine Lemmon‘s sweet romantic fiction filled with strong women and a vivid sense of place. This place, this Sanibel Island, a barrier island on the southwest coast of Florida, is often paired with the equally delightful Captiva. I took the books home to recapture a bit of that Sanibel mystique.

“It’s not just the setting for my novels,” Christine says, “but the setting for my life.” She and her husband have made it their home; it’s where they are raising their three children, now ages 14, 12 and 8. And with every passing day, it serves to inspire her writing. Her fourth novel, “Walking Temples,” is expected out in the fall.

Three books by Christine Lemmon among the sands and shells of Sanibel.

Three books by Christine Lemmon among the sands and shells of Sanibel.

Just a day on the beach can become a scene in one of her novels. The colorful coquinas she used to teach her children colors reappeared in a similar scene in Portion of the Sea. Her son’s question about what lived under the sea was reborn in another scene.

Sanibel has been part of Christine’s life since a brochure prompted her grandmother to visit many years ago. She liked the island so much she bought her first home here during that trip. Christine, who began coming here at age 2, knows the island intimately and has her favorite places to eat, to take the children, to edit her work, to be inspired.

Roseate spoonbills, and the 'Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel figure in Christine's books.

Roseate spoonbills, and the ‘Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel figure in Christine’s books.

“All of my characters end up at the Lighthouse Beach,” she says. And no wonder, with its towering lighthouse, sandy beach curving around the Eastern tip of Sanibel and fishing pier as crowded with birds as with fishermen.

Who wouldn't want to stoop over to admire and collect shells from Sanibel and Captiva's beaches?

Who wouldn’t want to stoop over to admire and collect shells from Sanibel and Captiva’s beaches?

Much of Sanibel is set aside as the J.J. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, known for its vistas filled with mangroves and flocks of birds. And it appears in all of Christine’s books. Set among the mangroves with flocks of ibises, pelicans and anhingas, Anna meets the man of her love affair in “Sand in My Eyes.”

Traffic can be terrible on  Sanibel. Rent a bike, Christine advises.

Traffic can be terrible on Sanibel. Rent a bike, Christine advises.

Getting around the island can be an experience all its own (Bring your patience but it’s always worth the wait.)

Motorists learn to look for the orange-gloved traffic cops on Periwinkle Way. Residents walk everywhere or hop aboard a bike. “You’ve got to rent a bike on this island,” Christine advises. Or get out the paddles and kayak and canoe through the mangrove trails of Tarpon Bay, as Adele does in the upcoming “Walking Temples.”

Toast the sunset at the Mucky Duck on the neighboring island of Captiva.

Toast the sunset at the Mucky Duck on the neighboring island of Captiva.

Everybody who comes to Sanibel and Captiva has a favorite spot to eat. Christine and her family naturally have their own, such as Lighthouse Cafe, her grandfather’s favorite spot and well-known for its breakfast. Where else? Don’t miss the lanai at Cip’s Place…or get groceries or coffee at Bailey’s General Store (run by the same family since the 1800s.) For a sweet treat, she suggests  Pinocchio’s Ice Cream and Zebra’s frozen yogurt. Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille is named for a character created by another Sanibel author Randy Wayne White. Christine recommends the Red Velvet Cake from the Bubble Room. That’s their cake recipe in “Sanbel Scribbles.”  One of the joys of Sanibel and Captiva has to be the wonderful restaurants hidden behind just about every palm tree. After a day of swimming, sunning and shelling, you’re going to need a beer at the Mucky Duck (Christine loves to go here with her Dad — and it’s a favorite for my own Dad and me).

Maybe it's just a market, but Christine said its owners make it the heart of Sanibel.

Maybe it’s just a market, but Christine said its owners make it the heart of Sanibel.

Not all the fishers at the fisherman's pier on Sanibel are human.

Not all the fishers at the fisherman’s pier on Sanibel are human.

Christine is quick to say a visit to Sanibel means a trip to Captiva, too. “If you go to Sanibel, you’ve got to go to Captiva,” she says. It has its own share of beautiful beaches, lush vegetation, wonderful shops and restaurants.

Everywhere you look is something lovely. How can you not find relaxation and delight here? “Everything about this island inspires me to write,” Christine says.

Last year for Valentine’s Day I spent a day in Boonsboro, Nora Roberts’ hometown and the setting for one of her romantic trilogies. I think I’ve created a new tradition. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Even the birds find Sanibel a wonderful spot to stop.

Even the birds find Sanibel a wonderful spot to stop.

© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman

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