Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge: Florida's Drive-Thru Paradise

The place is quiet but for birdsong, wind and arthritic groan of the mangroves themselves. The only loud colors are on the snails that seek out the Gumbo Limbo trees, a relief from floral apparel.
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The largest mansion in the gated community abutting J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is an unappetizing, beige wedding cake with a statue of a cherub out front and a series of non-load bearing columns providing the critical phallic touch necessary to achieve true tastelessness. This building sums up everything that is awful about Florida not only because it is terrible -- and it is stunningly terrible -- but because it has the gall to be so goddamn hideous right next to so much natural beauty.

Over the course of the last twenty years, most of Sanibel island, a bicep of sand connecting to Fort Myers by a lone ligament of highway, has been covered in winter homes and small boutiques selling Tommy Bahama shirts, sailor's knot bracelets and the sort of sunglasses that are always arranged on spinning displays decked out with tiny mirrors. Though the beach is still a roughly 15-mile-long stretch of soft sand patrolled periodically by dolphins and famed among shell-seekers, golf courses and tennis courts cover much of what was once wild.

Sure, there are still small sanctuaries: One even sports two strangely juxtaposed signs warning visitors to "Watch out for Aliigators" and "Clean up after their pets" -- prompting a body to wonder how many severed Bichon Frise parts may have been discarded in a nearby bin. Still, the island is more resort than reserve. Sun aside, visitors wouldn't know they were in Florida if it weren't for the proliferation of sea grape and the license plates on the beamers.

None of this makes Sanibel singular or a particularly damning example of runaway development. What makes Sanibel unique is that a piece of it has been left so absolutely wild and so full of pelicans that it is literally impossible to visit without humming the theme song to "Jurassic Park".

Ding Darling, named for a pro-conservation cartoonist, presents sunbathers with the opportunity to drive their rental cars down one of the last wilderness roads in Florida, the chance to spot alligators and, even better, to stroll down trails while worrying about imminent attack. Florida was always a terrifying swamp -- politically it still is -- and it's refreshing to remember that. To get back in touch with the primordial fear that once bordered the beach.

But no one really goes to Ding just to see the gators. The birds are the main attraction and, what with all the preening, they seem to know it. Flocks of egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Pelicans and Grebes crowd together on the sand bars that emerge from the shallow waters at low tide. They splash and sing and keep an eye on the Osprey, busy carrying off fish in their outsized talons.

The place is quiet but for birdsong, wind and arthritic groan of the mangroves themselves. The only loud colors are on the snails that seek out the Gumbo Limbo trees, a relief from floral apparel.

Ding Darling feels very far from the rest of Sanibel even though power lines are occasionally visible about the trees. The place is expansive and, come evening, a golden shade of grey. Though cars are central to any visit, the place captures them in their best light, giving even Honda Accords a chance to look like expedition vehicles.

The expedition doesn't last long. The refuge is large but not massive and, an hour or so after paying five dollars at the park entrance, travelers find the exit and the gated community sitting next to it.

Looking back and forth between the water twinkling in the gloaming and the architectural equivalent of a wet willy, it is hard not to consider the way an alligator might slink across a manicured lawn only to lie in wait beneath a garden statue, enjoying the warmth radiating off a pea stone driveway and contemplating revenge.

J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge