Ocean’s Reach Condominiums is a vacation resort tucked away on secluded stretch of gulf front coastline on Sanibel Island. For over three decades, visitors to Ocean’s Reach have been admiring the Gulf of Mexico from their oceanfront balconies, wading in a swimming pool with a view unrivaled on Sanibel Island, and walking the fabled “nineteen steps” it takes to reach the shell-strewn beach. And now, thanks to the eco-conscious and diligent staff of Ocean’s Reach Resort, they can do it all with a clear environmental conscience. Ocean’s Reach is the first property to attain Green Lodging designation on Sanibel and Captiva Islands.
Regardless of where it begins, the last leg of any trip to Ocean’s Reach starts on the Sanibel Causeway. After several years of the noise and debris of major construction project, a larger toll building and the new three-part causeway bridge to Sanibel were finally completed in the summer of 2007.
The wife and I drive past the tollbooth and begin the steep ascent of the new high-span bridge. The original drawbridge is gone, and this sleek, precipitous beauty now stands in its place. The tallest bridge in Lee County. Anticipation builds, and my view is obstructed as I drive up its sheer, concrete face. My temporary blindness is rewarded as I reach the summit and a tropical fantasy land reveals itself with all the magnificence and grandeur nature can muster. Here is a magical place. Here is where the gentle curve of Sanibel stretches off into the distance. Here is where the waters of the Caloosahatchee River and Pine Island Sound merge with the salty tides of the Gulf of Mexico. Here is where bright Florida sunlight kisses the treetops on Fisherman Key and Picnic Island. Here is where the iron skeleton of Sanibel Island Light first comes into view. Here is where windsurfers challenge waves, pleasure boats drift aimlessly, and fishermen bait their hooks. Once I reach the top of that first bridge, I leave the whole world behind me, and immerse myself into the paradise that is Sanibel Island.
Improved landscaping graces the man-made causeway islands. Palm trees provide intermittent shade. A recreational vehicle is parked on the shoreline with its awning fully extended. Two vacationers doze in beach chairs beneath. A great blue heron stands sentry nearby.
A brown pelican races our car across the final bridge span, finally banking to the right and splashing in a sloppy dive into the water below.
Before long I’m on Periwinkle Way. The Australian pine canopy is gone, ripped out by Hurricane Charley. Nature always returns to a clean slate, given time. It steers us in the right direction, sometimes nudging, sometimes punching. Nature’s voice is always there, all we have to do is listen.
Sanibel’s done a good job listening on Periwinkle way. The invasive exotics were replaced with native species as a result of the Periwinkle Corridor Vegetation Restoration Project. Over three-thousand native trees were planted along with native under-story vegetation. Bald Cypress. Sabal Palm. Gumbo Limbo. Live Oak. Green Buttonwood. Strangler Fig. Seagrape. All drought resistant. All needing no fertilizer. All hardy enough to stand up to hurricane force winds. Native plants are good for conservation. Native plants are good for the environment. Nature loves native plants.
A couple turns later and the traffic is far behind me. I make a final turn onto quiet Camino Del Mar. At the far end of the road stands a series of four connected buildings, like a fortress on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico…Ocean’s Reach.
I pull my car into the covered parking area near the shuffleboard court and the “finest hard surface tennis court on Sanibel Island”. I walk past a well-maintained grilling and picnic grove on my way to check in.
The main office is abuzz with energy and enthusiasm as members of the staff review Green Lodging checklists and make last minute preparations for the Green Lodging On-Site Assessment about to occur.
I ask Ocean’s Reach manager, Andy Boyle, what the Green Lodging Designation process consists of.
“We put the formal process in motion about six months ago by filling out paperwork and making a request to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to be admitted to the program. Next we had to do a self-assessment to see where we stood in relation to their requirements. We had to institute a program of using all green-certified cleaning products, recycled paper goods, and environmentally friendly office products. We had to switch to all energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. We reduced our trash pickups and increased our recycling pickups. We developed a program to educate our guests on what we’re trying to do through written notices, email, and on our website. We needed to xeriscape our flowerbeds and ornamental areas for water conservation. We added Energy Star equipment and low flow shower heads and toilets. We had to educate our entire staff on green practices and keep them informed on a regular basis. We had to work with our vendors and ask for their help. Everything needs to be documented. It’s a lot of work, but the end result is worth it. We want Ocean’s Reach to be an eco-friendly lodging destination people can feel good about staying at.”
Construction began on Ocean’s Reach in 1973, one year before Sanibel Island incorporated as a city in an effort to fight back against over development. The developer and builder was Robert Hollopeter from Lima, Ohio. Sanibel then was not like the Sanibel of now. Modern and luxurious amenities were not standard fare. Most units were first sold without dishwashers or phone lines. Party lines were all that were available in those days. Early occupants of Ocean’s Reach recall a payphone hung on a shed between two of the buildings where everyone would line up to make calls. They recall beach erosion so significant that a city council member recommended moving the Ocean’s Reach gulf-front swimming pool behind the building so it wouldn’t get destroyed by a hurricane.
The pool never moved. The beach is now three times as wide as it was back then. I guess predicting nature will always be an imperfect science.
Lots of things changed over the years. But the changes still reverberating today at Ocean’s Reach came as a result of extreme weather. In August and September of 2004 the one-two punch of Hurricanes Charley and Frances battered the Ocean’s Reach complex. The water damage sustained was so extreme it necessitated all 64 condominium units at Ocean’s Reach to be stripped and gutted. Appliances, furniture, cabinetry, and dry wall were all removed and scrapped. All that remained were the cement block walls. The restoration took sixteen months. It was almost a complete rebuild of the property.
Although the emotional and financial costs of the hurricanes were dear to Ocean’s Reach owners, many of them credit the horrible storms with breathing new life into what was becoming an aging vacation resort. All of the interiors have been restored to mint condition. The condominium units have been modernized and redecorated. New appliances, new furniture, and new paint all surrounded by the same old Sanibel charm.
For Dru Anne Doyle, a member of the management team at Ocean’s Reach, the damage from Hurricane Charley was a turning point.
“Even though the major rebuild from Hurricane Charley was finished in 16 months, in some ways that was just the beginning, and the momentum continues to push us even now. We’re continuing to develop a better experience for our owners and guests. We’re continuing to reduce our ecological footprint and the impact our vacation resort has on the local environment. The disaster wrought by Hurricane Charley actually allowed us to make a series of important decisions, decisions that put us on the path towards our successful renovations, decisions that permitted us to make Ocean’s Reach a shining green example of what’s possible for the future of ecotourism on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. Here at Ocean’s Reach, we strive to be hospitable hosts helping to create unforgettable vacation memories for our guests; and we’re also proud to be conscientious stewards of the natural resources and beauty surrounding our buildings.”
Nature’s voice urges again. Ocean’s Reach has done a good job listening.
The condominium I check into is a far cry from the poorly equipped units of yesteryear. The first impression upon entering the unit is one of newness. Sparkling appliances. A completely equipped kitchen. A laundry area with a full sized washer and dryer. Clean paint on the walls. Fresh carpet. High-speed wireless internet. A CD player stereo. Flat screen televisions with DVD players in every room. I would never have guessed this place was built over thirty years ago. There is a phone, but who needs it. Imagine what all those guests waiting in humid lines at the legendary pay phone would have given for the cell phone world we live in today. Then again, they may not have called as frequently, but I bet their calls were more interesting. Technology is often a trade-off.
The king sized bed in the master bedroom is comfortable and has a world class view. Another sliding glass door opens out to the screened lanai.
The feature we’re most enamored of is the screened lanai overlooking the Sanibel shoreline. The sliding glass doors broadcast images of beach-front utopia in high definition reality. Suncapped waves glisten. Children run in high-kneed sprints through the shallow water. Sailboats glide across the horizon, harnessing clean energy. A slow parade of beach-walkers follow the path of water meeting land. In the distance, cumulonimbus clouds drop dark, hulking shadows on the ocean surface, ghostly leviathans swimming beneath bright, tropic waters. A view like this may cost you more than your monthly cable bill, but it’s infinitely more interesting to watch.
The wife and I change into swimming attire, grab the loud-colored body boards from our condo, and run out to the beach. Minutes later we’re splashing and carousing in the salty surf like the children we wish we were more often, but aren’t. The ocean temperature is in the low eighties. The air temperature is in the low nineties. An osprey makes its awe-inspiring dive into the deeper water and emerges with a writhing fish clutched in his talons. He twists the fish until it’s parallel with his body, to cut down on wind resistance, and then beats his wings and heads for the nest.
A little later on, we cook a quick lunch in the condo and unwind on the lanai as the afternoon crawls towards evening. One at a time, the tribes of beach dwellers disassemble their umbrellas and chairs, abandon their encampments, and head towards leisurely island dinners. Once the beach has cleared from the suntan and water recreation set, we take off our shoes and head outside.
The sun hangs low in the sky as the beachcombers, kitefliers, sunset watchers, and romantics report for duty among the omnipresent shell gatherers and fishermen. Couples and friends sit in beach chairs, drinking beers and glasses of wine while facing one of the natural phenomena. The sun falls in one direction. The solstice moon rises in the other. Between them both is the ebb and flow of a full-moon tide.
We walk along the coast, listening to the breaking waves seethe and hiss as they pound against the shore. The remnants of daytime activities litter the beach. Sandcastles. Seaweed mosaics. Holes dug in the sand. Subconscious art, structures derived from the fertile imaginations of children and guided by their primal instincts. Footprints. Umbrella holes. Stray towels and swimming goggles. Messages and love letters scribbled into the sand. All changing with the angle of the sun, all meeting the long shadows of dusky splendor.
The messages carved onto the beach start out playful enough. One says “Gulf of Mexico”. Another says, “Live Clam Farm – 49 cents each”. It has some arrows pointing towards a bed of pastel coquina clams. As each advancing wave exposes them, they wiggle and dig themselves back into the protective sand.
The further we walk, the more the sand graffiti begins to take on personal significance. One reads, “Happy to be here!!!”. The most poignant message written into the sand says: “STOP”. For some reason, this one word of shoreline literature resonates within me. I follow the instructions being given to me by the beach, and stand still for a few minutes. I stop pushing ahead and think on what’s important in my life. The present, this ever-fleeting moment we’re always within and so rarely take the time to appreciate. I invite my wife to STOP with me. We embrace each other on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. We take it all in. Listening to the white noise song of the ocean. Smelling the scent of salty, moist sand. Seeing the sunlight and moonlight touching the water simultaneously. And feeling the touch of the coastal breeze and each other. Completely in the moment and outside of time.
The clouds on the skyline look like a range of snow-peaked mountains, stubborn in the summer heat. The highrise buildings of Bonita Springs and Naples shimmer along the vanishing point of the horizon like a heat mirage. Young vacationers pose for Facebook photos and the camera flashes on the beach mirror the sporadic rhythm of the heat lightning overhead. A thin layer of water on the low tide sand reflects the final vestiges of red light bleeding from where the landscape meets the sky.
In the end, most all light is extinguished for the sake of nesting loggerhead sea turtles and the future of their species. All that remains is the path of moonlight on the waves, the signpost nature uses to lead the turtle hatchlings back to their oceanic home.
The only people still on the beach are the ardent shell collectors with flashlights and a few men fishing in the dark The laid back disposition of Sanibel allows them to fully and fanatically embrace their passions. I meditate on their bliss as I drift off to sleep.
The ominous rumble of morning thunder wakes me the next morning. The early rain passes just in time for me to catch the sunrise from the beach.
On the way to the shoreline, I get sidetracked for a quick dip in the Gulf-front swimming pool. There’s no one else around. The warm air, pre-dawn haze, and mixture of whispy and threatening clouds overhead grant a dreamlike quality to the entire experience. Everything is covered in a thin layer of moisture that begins to glint and sparkle as the first rays of sun break from behind the clouds.
I jump out of the pool and run down to an empty beach to see what the storm and the full moon tide has brought in. A snowy egret basks in the rising sun. A white ibis pushes its curved orange beak into the wet sand digging for crustaceans.
On my short walk I’m able to gather several lightning whelks, a few Florida fighting conchs, a single alphabet cone, and a handful of the more prevalent, but still aesthetic, scallop shells. I also find one of the largest intact sand dollars I’ve ever seen, but it’s still alive, so I have to throw it back.
Only a few of the previous day’s sand castles have made it through the night, and those look battered and bruised. The holes have been filled. The shells and seaweed scattered. All the messages have been erased from the sand. The whim of the ocean has wiped the slate clean, the way it always does again.
By the time I’m heading back to the condo, the early risers are out on the beach, mostly joggers, Sanibel stoopers, and fishermen. It’s nice to have company, but I cherish the time I shared alone with the beach this morning.
After the sunrise excitement, I rejoin my wife in the condo, and we opt for a lazy morning doing nothing. Outside the sliding glass doors, we watch families lugging their umbrellas, chairs, coolers, and toys back down to the ocean’s edge. Patient mothers smear white sunblock on the backs of anxious children itching to run the wide expanse of open beach and tumble in the briny sea spray. Not far from shore, a pod of dolphins surface, exposing their dorsal fins to the sunlight and the world. No one on the beach even notices.
Flicking through the channels, looking for a newscast, I come across a Travel Channel show titled, “Best Florida Beaches”. I happen to arrive at the channel just as they’re introducing number nine, Sanibel Island. My wife and I look at each other in shock. What are the chances? I look at the television screen. I look out the window. I look at the television screen again. I look out the window again. I turn off the television screen, and take off my shoes to go back outside.
I don’t care what number they rate Sanibel Island…I’m just happy to be here now.
The lodging industry is one of Florida’s largest commercial sectors. In 2005, according to research conducted by VISIT FLORIDA®, 83.6 million people visited Florida with about 50 percent of those staying in a hotel, motel or bed & breakfast. With this many visitors, the lodging industry can have a significant and positive impact on Florida’s natural resources. You can do your part by staying at a Designated Green Lodging Property during your next vacation. If your favorite lodging establishment is not a Designated Green Lodging destination, ask them why not.