We had not realized this until one of our coworkers came back with a glowing report from her holiday vacation, but some people take a beach vacation solely so they can walk the beach with their head fixed downward, scouring the sand for seashells. Stone-skipping we understand. We totally get the appeal of throwing a flat rock back in the water after first conducting a little physics experiment dealing with surface tension and concave shapes. In fact – a story for another day – we once judged the International Stone-Skipping Championships on Mackinac Island, Mich. But shelling? Well, after listening to our coworker talk, we might be convinced to give shelling a try. And here are some of the places we’d like to hone our shell-collecting skills:
Sanibel Island, Fla.: Pretty much everyone agrees that Sanibel Island is the shell-collecting capital of the U.S.A.. It’s a matter of geography: Gulf currents are gentle, but Sanibel sits on the windward side, juts out into the water and just rakes in the shells. It’s hard to describe just how many shells are on Sanibel and its sister island, Captiva, just for the picking-up; we’ll call it “great googobs of shells,” and leave it at that. Shell-hunting is a great family activity; the kids usually start, and before long you’re in on the act, too. Sanibel itself is pretty enough and very laid-back; for entertainment that doesn’t involve stooping and scooping, there are 22 miles of bike trails and excellent kayaking. Consider renting a condo for your stay, and you’ll want to rent a car to explore the nearby Fort Myers area.
Marco Island, Fla.: About 60 miles south of Sanibel is Marco Island, a more heavily developed island with no shortage of beaches, shells, or creature comforts. Many of the same recommendations about Sanibel apply here: Rent a car, rent a condo, rent some kayaks for the day, and allow yourself more time than you’d think to explore South Beach and Tigertail Beach and gather shells. If you’re looking for a different sort of day trip, the Key West Express makes daily trips from Marco Island to Hemingway’s old hangout. It’s a nice change of pace that depending on your attitudes toward Key West may make you appreciate the serenity of Marco Island that much more.
Galveston, Texas: Houston is one of America’s hottest cities – literally and figuratively – and Galveston Island is Houston’s getaway. The west end of Galveston Beach is the best for shelling, especially after a cold front blows through, but the beach is a fun walk any time of year. It’s equal parts Atlantic City – the good old pre-casino Atlantic City – and Margaritaville, and there’s always something going on, from live music to beach volleyball. Further down the long, narrow barrier island, Galveston Island State Park offers good shelling, kayak tours, beach and surf explorations, bird walks, and fishing clinics for nothing more than a $5 parking fee. Grab some salt-water taffy from LaKing’s and you’re all set.
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Ga.: If your dream is to have long stretches of sandy white beach all to yourself, to browse for shells at your leisure or just stare out at the surf rolling in, there are few places in America that can satisfy that urge like the Cumberland Island National Seashore. The park has 17 miles of beautiful Atlantic Ocean beach, and while the shells don’t outnumber the grains of sand the way they do on Sanibel, there are sand dollars and other seldom-seen shells galore, and no competition. The seashore isn’t the easiest to get to – you have to take a ferry from St. Mary’s, Ga., and reservations are highly recommended – and the best accommodations and nightlife are in Jacksonville, 45 miles south. But the beauty of this place and the variety of wildlife – even wild horses! – are the main attractions. And what great attractions they are.
Hawaii: Okay, so no one takes a trip to Hawaii just to go shelling. We don’t think they do, anyway. But if you happen to find yourself on a beach in Hawaii – which has been known to happen on a Hawaii trip or two – the shelling can be surprisingly good. This especially applies to Waikiki Beach, which normally is thought of as the Dan Ryan Expressway of beaches. Cowries shells in all their various shapes and colors are particularly common here, along with more exotic shells like harp shells and augers. If the idea of shelling on Waikiki doesn’t appeal to you, Hanalei Bay and Tunnels Beach on Kauai have shells in abundance, and fewer people who might look askance at you for focusing on seashells instead of the other numerous sights. Just remember: In Hawaii, not all the best shells wash up on shore, so don’t be afraid to wade in the water to pick up a souvenir or two to take home.