The best souvenir from any beach vacation is a feeling of total relaxation. (Right, Barack and Michelle?)
But, the second-best prize is a haul of pretty seashells, which serve as scalloped reminders of days spent under palm trees. And if you want to crush the shell-collecting game this summer — hey, it's a noble goal! — the residents of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel have boatloads (ahem) of expert tips.
West of Fort Myers, Florida, the island locale has 50-some miles of white beaches filled with powder-soft "sugar sand." The beaches in this area lay claim to the best shelling in the United States — yes, "shelling" is a verb, and it's used with astonishing frequency here — and locals and visitors view collecting bivalves and gastropods as an Olympic-worthy sport.
On the mellow island, you'll spot plenty of pelicans, butterflies, and sea turtles. But an even more common sight is a beachcomber squatting down in what's known as the "Sanibel crouch." This position offers the best view of the 250 kinds of seashells on any local beach.
Collectors find anything from spiky Lace Murex shells to pointed, sleek Flame Augers and dainty Angel Wings. Find a rare Junonia — a spiraled white shell splattered with brown dots — and you'll get your photo snapped for the local papers. But, truth be told: "You don't even have to find a Junonia," says Spencer Richardson, outdoor education coordinator at Sanibel Sea School. "Anyone who finds a shell they're really proud of can usually get their picture in the paper."
If you want to up your odds of finding a cover-worthy Sailor's Ear, though, Spencer offers this tip: "The best time to find shells is at low tide. There are two low tides per day, and you'll want to go out during the lower low tide — but, I suggest going out an hour before low tide. That way, you can walk one way and then the other, and slowly scope everything out."
This tip, she adds, can be put into effect at any beach in the world: Just find a local tide tracker, and block off your shell-collecting prime time.
If you happen to be in Sanibel and get bitten by the shell bug, it's easy to keep the theme going. Many visitors opt to stay at family-friendly vacation rentals like Sundial Beach Resort & Spa, where decor is on theme — even the bathroom towels are folded into seashell shapes! — and activities include shell-frame making and sand art.
The island also houses the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, known proudly as "the only museum in the United States devoted to shells and the mollusks that make them." You'll even find love letters made of seashells here.
Another hotspot for shell fanatics is the historic Shell Mound House, which allows visitors to see part of an underground excavation that exposes layers of stratified shells. Plus — and you might have have guessed this — local restaurants serve up impossibly fresh seafood, with plenty of oysters and scallops. Try the cute Island Cow for a local meal that starts with a plate of complimentary chocolate-chip muffins. So, now you have your plans for National Seashell Day. Yep, it's a real holiday, and it's on June 21.
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