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Following in the footsteps of fictional character Doc Ford in Sanibel and Captiva, Fla.

Patti Nickell, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Travel News

"There's a lot about this part of the state that remains a mystery," he says.

One thing that's no mystery is what lures customers here to Doc's namesake restaurant: the hope of seeing White, a frequent patron, get him to autograph one of the books found on restaurant book shelves, and engage him in some fishing talk.

But even when White isn't here, Doc Ford is -- in the form of souvenir baseball caps, T-shirts, and dishes on the menu named for principal characters. To get in the spirit of things, try Tomlinson's taquitos or Doc's favorite, shrimp with cilantro, chili paste and lime, washed down with a rum punch or a cold beer.

Of course, there's plenty to see on Captiva and neighboring Sanibel even if you don't know Doc Ford from Doc Martin. Captiva is renowned for the South Seas Island Resort where activities range from communing with manatees to snorkeling crystal clear waters.

Sanibel Island is famous for the colorful shells that wash up on its beaches (shell lovers can also check out the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, one of the best small specialty museums I've ever seen).

Sanibel Island Lighthouse and Sanibel Historical Museum and Village are also worth a look, and don't miss the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

A vast area interlaced with lagoons, swamps and mangroves, it's a reminder of what Florida looked like before unchecked development. There are some 250 species of mammals, birds, crustaceans, reptiles and amphibians. You can spot everything from American alligators to anole lizards, bald eagles to belted kingfishers, bobcats to bottlenose dolphins.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing to observe up close are thousands of tiny crabs that adhere to trees lining the mangrove swamps. While it might put you in mind of a B-horror movie, it is a sign of just how healthy this ecosystem is.

All too soon it was time for the ubiquitous Captain Jack to arrive and ferry me back to Pine Island for a final night at Tarpon Lodge. The waterfront hotel, operated by the same Wells family that owns Cabbage Key, is in a 1926 fishing lodge adjoining the Calusa Heritage Trail and about 15 minutes from the funky town of Matlacha, with its shops, boutiques and galleries housed in buildings that seem to have sprung from a psychedelic fantasy.

On my last night, I walked out on the balcony overlooking the marina and Sound to watch the sunset. A slice of orange bisected the sky, while a chorus of cicadas and frogs began tuning up for their nightly symphony.

As orange became purple and then black, two thoughts crossed my mind -- first that, thankfully, old Florida still does exist, and second, that I need to read another Doc Ford book very soon.

(Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at

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