National Post Sanibel Island, a real-life Truman Show

National Post - Wednesday March 2nd, 2011

My parents started spending their winters in Florida when they were in their mid-50s. When I say "Florida," of course, I mean Miami Beach. Where else would nouveau riche Jews from Toronto cluster, even in the 1960s, when anti-Semitism was on its way out? My parents found their white-broadloomed bliss overlooking the Atlantic in gated, lavishly marbled high-rises with car jockeys.

After their demise, I discovered there were other, glitz-free "Floridas" I preferred; and for our annual vacation, my husband and I gravitated to the low-key, low-security, low-rise simplicity of Miami's Hollywood Beach area, with its entertainingly retro boardwalk. Until we had grandchildren, we were content. But my sisters and our Toronto grandchildren prefer Florida's west coast, so this year we booked at a child-friendly resort on Sanibel Island, near the city of Fort Myers.

Do you remember the 1998 movie The Truman Show? Jim Carrey starred as an insurance adjuster whose whole trouble-free life has been a reality TV show. Living in a bubble, he alone doesn't realize that his "story" -his life -is being followed by millions of TV watchers. It was creepy, but I'm sure I was not alone in wondering what it would be like to live in a perfect, constructed world where every new day is as predictably wonderful as the day before.

I found out by spending a week on the set of what might be called The Sanibel Island Show: Fifteen miles of unspoiled beaches, 22 miles of bike paths, 50 types of fish, 230 types of birds, 250 types of shells and no stop lights.

The Sanibel Island Show producers rigorously monitor (and regulate) their set to preserve its ecological authenticity. Every beautifully sunny, warm morning, they arrange to have its pristine white beaches freshly strewn with millions of perfect shells of every colour and shape for small children to delight in finding. The local fauna are trained to love people. You can take a boat ride around the island, during which the captain whistles up the dolphins. They circle the boat and then race alongside, leaping and grinning at the passengers two feet away. There's a golf course. It has alligators in it, and they sometimes come out to laze in the sun, but they don't hurt people; they just mind their own business and look authentic.

The "residents" -the year-round actors -all own bikes. Visitors rent them (they give you a lock, but nobody bothers with them). You soon learn to ride around with a big smile for the oncoming bikers, who greet you with a chipper "Morning!" or who pass from behind with a merry warning: "On your left!" You see a lot of grey hair, but you don't see fat. Lean, chisel-jawed Boomer actors jog, play tennis and shop for arugula and a perfect avocado, which they take back to their condos in their bike baskets.

Most condos are low-rise and unobtrusive. Public beaches abound and none are crowded. There's a big, shaded community playground the kids couldn't get enough of. There's an Episcopal church on the main street and it's packed on Sunday (I wonder if the actors get paid overtime for this). I appreciated the set designer's eye for accurately pitched cultural details: A superb modern library (quaintly architectured) that has all the great British sitcoms and mysteries on DVD. You can take out 10 at a time! There's a sweet theatre (the Kingston Trio were there last week. Not the originals, of course, but apparently a fine cloning), and a centre for lectures and art courses.

Favourite Sanibel Show moment: We went biking to the lighthouse at the end of the island. Just as I was feeling thirsty but with no store in sight, we came upon a lemonade stand run by an adorable flaxen-haired child. Best, coldest lemonade ever. Nice touch, director! Her friendly "mom" strolled down from her unpretentious home to say hi. I tested her by mentioning The Truman Show. She laughed and winked.

There was only one wrong note. I went into a very cute shop and found that a bracelet I wanted to try on was tethered to its mannequin. The owner snipped the plastic handcuff apologetically, saying, "Sorry, but otherwise they just walk out of here." "What? Petty theft here in Sanibel?" I asked with a pang of chagrin. "Oh," she answered quickly, "not the locals -it's the folks from Miami ..."

I was tempted to respond, "But that would be me!" I didn't. I was afraid she might say, "Funny, you don't look Miamiish." Then I would have had to vote her off the Island.