Deb and Richard Donahue found paradise, but it wasn’t on a remote island halfway around the world. It was on Captiva Island, Florida, just a hop, skip and a passport-free jump from their New England home. So what do you do when you find paradise in your own continental back yard? Retire early. And encourage your family to move, too — or at least visit as much as possible. Deb shared with us how their plan to own a vacation home turned into an island lifestyle, where to find the best island fare and why Captiva’s sunsets have meant so much to her family.
When did you first discover Captiva?
In 1998, my husband surprised me with a very special trip to Captiva for a five-day vacation without kids. When we arrived in Fort Myers, Florida, we rented a car and drove across the causeway through wonderful vegetation to a magical island. We loved the sunsets and, most of all, the drives at night around the island with the top down. We marveled at the unbelievable sky and stars. It truly was magic. So we started looking at real estate.
And what did you find?
We found a house that was being built, and we bought it — mostly for the spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico, the sunsets and the stars. When we went back home and told everyone we were buying a vacation home in Captiva, I could not remember any details about the partially built house, but I could describe the wonderful beach, sunsets, and the true magic of the island. We were in love.
So initially, when you bought the house, it was just a vacation home?
We knew when we bought the house it would eventually be our retirement home. When we were still working, we could not wait for a short break. Even if for just three days, we would try to get down to the island. It was comical because as soon as we would get to Captiva, we would try to figure out how we could rearrange our schedules to lengthen our stay, even if by a few more hours. We hated leaving the island.
What was so special about it?
We always thought Captiva was so much like a “tropical island” — somewhere exotic — but it has the advantage of being in the continental U.S. We love the beauty and rhythm of the surf and life on the island.
What changed your plans?
In 2001, three years after we’d purchased our house, we actually helped my parents move to Sanibel Island. Then in June of that year my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and I started going to our Captiva house more often to care for her. My husband continued to go back and forth to work as a financial analyst in New York City and for his trailer-truck container company in Maine. After 9/11, he also spent more time in Captiva — Captiva was our one silver lining that year. My mother was so thankful to be in paradise, even though she was sick, and she often said how grateful she was to experience the island. It helped give her some peace in her last year of life.
Was that when you made the move?
After that, we were still dividing most of our time between Vermont and Florida. Then by chance I ran into my professional mentor who was now at Florida International University in Miami. She had just received a research grant, and she asked me to direct the study from Florida. I was so happy to be able to use my nursing education and still live in my little slice of heaven. We were officially Captivians from then on.
As an official Captivian, what’s your favorite local dish?
Not a fair question! My daughter is the executive chef at the best restaurant on the island. In fact, the woman who owns the restaurant has named it after her: Sweet Melissa’s Cafe. She is an incredible chef, and I could not pick my favorite dish. She changes the menu often and has a great talent for fresh-fish dishes with amazing sauces. My next favorite island dish is something cooked on the grill in our own backyard. My husband claims there is nothing better than a blackened grouper sandwich, especially from the pool bar next door to our house at Tween Waters Inn.
So your daughter lives on the island?
They were living in New Orleans and had major damage to their house from Hurricane Katrina. Their family moved to Captiva so my granddaughter could attend The Sanibel School, the local elementary school. They moved away after a year, but because the school in Sanibel was so spectacular and because Melissa had a career opportunity she could not pass up, they moved back. Now we not only have what we feel is the most incredible place on earth to live, we have my daughter, son-in-law and two of our grandchildren living nearby. We are also lucky because my two other children and their families — including my other four grandchildren — visit us often. My father also lives in Fort Myers for part of the year, not far from us. As he was pointing out to me recently, we are all here because of our love for Captiva.