We are settled into the lovely Neopolitan Cove RV Resort in a city that has been called the “crown jewel” of southwest Florida, “well-known for its high-end shopping, world-class culture and sophisticated dining”. This city has the 6th highest per capita income in America, the second highest proportion of millionaires in the US, and showcases some of the most expensive real estate around. This is Naples, Florida and no, not where you would normally find us, rubbing elbows with the mega-wealthy, out on the town for a night of elegant dining. My silk suits and fashionable pumps have gone the way of my stressful corporate job as have Terry’s suits. We much prefer hiking boots, walking shoes or bouncing about on our bikes these days.
I was not going to be quieted until I knew I would be within striking distance of a day-trip to the darling of an island I had heard so much about, and Naples offered us this springboard when other locations were already booked. Florida is snow-bird haven so if you hesitate, you lose, when it comes to making winter RV reservations.
There is no denying the striking beauty found in Naples. We have oohed and aahed our way through the charming historic district, both on foot and bikes while on our way to the Naples Fishing Pier, one of the city’s better-known landmarks, tucked away in a residential neighborhood. It is where we have spent much of our time, walking the white-sand beach and enjoying picnics, while waiting with the locals and tourists alike to take in the spectacular sunsets, and there have been a few of those.
Even in the lap of luxury, white-sand beaches and stunning sunsets to entice, there was nothing I wanted more than to head to Sanibel Island and breathe in the symbiotic essence of J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the most visited wildlife refuge and one of the hottest birding spots in the country, with ~ one million visitors yearly.
The story of how this sanctuary came to be is one built on passion and a reverence for the world’s natural resources. The man, Ding Darling, was best known for what paid his bills, a career as an esteemed editorial cartoonist, appearing in 150 newspapers nationwide, which earned him two Pulitzer Prizes. But it was his passion for nature and wildlife that breathed life into this most precious of refuges.
In the early 1940’s, Ding was distressed by news that the State of Florida was ready to strike an agreement with developers to sell off over 2200 acres of Sanibel Island’s virginal mangrove wetlands. He sprang into action and with the help of a few friends, convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lease the land, protecting this important wildlife habitat.
When Ding passed away in 1962, admirers and friends came together to form the J. N. “Ding” Darling Foundation. Their 5-year struggle to take these leased lands, acquire them, and place them under the Federal ownership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service secured these pristine wetlands for an abundance of wildlife, our enjoyment, and secured the profound legacy of this very special man – J. N. “Ding” Darling.
Land meets sea, saltwater melds into freshwater, and temperate climate kisses tropical warmth as you step inside this wildlife preserve. The 4-mile drive takes you through sea grass meadows, tidal flats, and mangrove forests, with birders and photographers waiting around every curve to share their knowledge and love of this precious refuge.
We arrived as the gates opened at 7am. The quiet beauty of this place greeted us and we knew we had come at the perfect time. We meandered along the drive, stopping when yet another unique bird made her appearance. We then walked four miles of trails in the hopes of finding a few other hidden treasures. Neither alligators nor the resident crocodile greeted us, although we are assured of seeing plenty of both during our stay later this month in the Everglades.
I could not entice some of the birds to get within my lens’ reach, particularly the roseate spoonbill, who is on the top of my “up-close and personal” to see list. For that treat, I urge you to check out Raven and Chickadee’s (better known as Eric and Laurel) post on Sanibel Island, or Ingrid of Live, Laugh, RV, who didn’t have to trek to Sanibel to see this “pretty in pink” beauty.
Sanibel Island is best seen on bike, sporting 22 miles of paved trails and is the ultimate way to afford stress-free travel, as the roadways onto and off the island get pretty congested. Some of the best shelling beaches in the world can be found here at Sanibel, although we could not attest to the variety of shells we had seen in photos. That might be because I didn’t practice my “Sanibel Stoop”, digging with a net along the shoreline for these little treasures.
From Naples we head to Midway Campground in Big Cypress National Preserve, where we venture into the swamplands of the Everglades. I am told we may be without both cell phone and internet coverage so until we return to civilization once again, have a wonderful week! 🙂