Worth the Trip: Animal Kingdom

Manatee at crystal river in Florida

Live the wild life at Captiva’s South Seas Island Resort

My virgin attempt at standup paddle-boarding did not go as planned. I might as well have been on stilts as I rose, trembling, on the board provided by Island Adventures, the on-site water sports vendor at Captiva’s South Seas Island Resort. Part of the board was still on the sand, and I still couldn’t keep my balance. The slightly choppy seas did not inspire further confidence.

“I’d rather not fall in the water,” I said to my experienced handler from Island Adventures. “If you can’t stand up now, you probably won’t be able to stand in the water,” he replied, guidance that managed to sound both tactful and direct. On my knees I would remain.

And so, crouched but persistent, I paddled myself into the undulating Gulf waters and, once removed from the beachfront chatter, settled into a kind of Zen. The only sounds piercing the dead quiet of this April morning were the sloshing of the water against the board and the wings of a seabird, which flapped a stone’s throw above my head. And then came the proverbial money shot: Sunlight sparking off the water, and the dorsal fins of two dolphins cresting maybe 50 yards ahead—once, twice, then three times. As far as I could tell, nobody else saw the cameo, which seemed tailored for my eyes only, and it left me slack-jawed and briefly unable to paddle. It’s a good thing I was sitting down.

Yet, as I would learn, this sighting, on the first morning of a three-night stay at the longtime Captiva anchor, is fairly commonplace at South Seas. The sprawling property, at the north end of the island off the Southwest coast of Florida, comprises two of Captiva’s six miles, and it was built around a 330-acre preserve that teems with wildlife.

One of the dolphins I spotted may have been “Chip,” a South Seas regular, so named because of the V-shaped chip in his fin; he’s become something of an unofficial mascot. Additionally, brown marsh hares linger around the periphery of the resort’s green spaces throughout the day, as unafraid of human contact as the bolder squirrels of Southeast Florida. Regal ospreys build nests on the palm trees and keep vigil from atop the hotel. Pelicans perch on posts, stoic as sculptures. Great blue herons alight often at sunrises and sunsets; because of the resort’s semicircular position, guests can take in both from its twin beachfronts.

Then there are the manatees, staking their places amid the shallow waters of the on-site marina, poking their noses up from the olive murk (the marina is decidedly not among the swimmable areas of the resort). Sometimes, these gentle giants like to play with the jets of water streaming from the holes at the bottom of the bobbing vessels, lying on their backs and drinking it in.

For human animals that enjoy the water, the amenities at South Seas are pretty much endless, and all can be enjoyed steps from the Harbourside Hotel at the resort’s North End. Parasailing, banana boat and WaveRunner rentals, in addition to paddle-boarding, are on the menu from Island Adventures, all clustered around a fishing dock and a pool complex with a waterslide.

There’s also sunrise yoga, a capacious fitness center, a spa and the Captiva Golf Course. Alternative delights await at the South End of the property, which includes tennis courts and shops.

Part of the ideal South Seas experience involves leaving the resort: The on-site Captiva Cruises features five-to-six-hour narrated voyages to nearby islands, including Boca Grande, Useppa and Cayo Costa State Park. I joined a cruise to Cabbage Key, a 100-acre speck purchased by its original owners for all of $2,500. We disembarked at the Key’s sole attraction: a historic home converted into an inn and restaurant, one of many places in South Florida attributed as the site where Jimmy Buffett wrote “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”

More impressive is the restaurant’s interior, in which dollar bills—including one signed by Buffett—are duct-taped over every inch of wall space and dangle precariously from the ceiling, a tradition that dates back to a time when fishermen would leave dollar bills as lines of credit. (Ten to fifteen thousand dollars fall to the floor each year, and are then donated to local charities.)

But it was a moment en route back from Cabbage Key, as the boat neared the resort on our final afternoon, that brought the festivities full circle. A dolphin crested near the forward side of the vessel, attentive eyes gazing in the direction of 1 o’clock. As the boat drew closer to the harbor, so too did the dolphin, ducking and weaving around and under the boat, traveling with us like a trained performer. This is about the time somebody noticed the V shape in its dorsal fin. It was Chip, resident South Seas mascot, seeing us off in style.

DINING AT SOUTH SEAS

Fresh and local seafood is a signature at most of the South Seas’ six restaurants. They include: HABOURSIDE BAR AND GRILL: On the waterfront, the resort’s most upscale restaurant specializes in culinary theatrics like smoked bourbon served out of a glass case and “yacht line” candied bacon, served on clothespins with accompanying maple syrup and black pepper, and bruleed tableside with a torch.

DOC FORD’S RUM BAR AND GRILLE: This classic, occasionally rowdy bar and restaurant is inspired by the title character in Randy Wayne White’s best-selling mysteries. Its selection of rums is exhaustive.

THE POINTE: In the Resort Pool Complex, this casual lunch and dinner spot offers lean, almost-sorta-healthy dishes. Order them to be delivered to your nearby pool cabana, and enjoy them with comfortable chairs, flatscreen and cold drink selection.

This story is from the July/August 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.