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Eighteen Months after Hurricane Charley, South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island
  is Open to Tourists Again; Blackstone Group Spending Upwards
 of $140 million on Renovation

By Fabiola Santiago, The Miami Herald
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 28, 2006 - CAPTIVA -- The belle of the island is back.

Eighteen months after Hurricane Charley ravaged its luscious canopy, battered flat its protective mangroves and destroyed multimillion-dollar beach villas, the South Seas Island Resort is open to tourists again.

Beloved as the South Seas Plantation, when it was one of Florida's top luxury vacation spots, the 330-acre resort remains under construction and is not quite yet in ball-gown status. That's why the public's first glimpse on St. Patrick's Day was "a soft opening" and a celebration isn't scheduled until May 1.

But the South Seas -- a consortium of privately and resort-owned homes, villas, condos and time-shares recently bought by The Blackstone Group -- has undergone a $14 million beach restoration and completed a major portion of a $140 million renovation.

The marina, which can hold vessels up to 120 feet, has opened, sporting a new restaurant, the Harbourside Bar & Grill.

"Within 24 hours it was all full," Bill Waichulis, the resort's director of operations, says of the marina.

The trolleys that ferry tourists from one end of the 2 1/2-mile resort to Captiva's quaint town center at Andy Rosse Lane are sporting a new look, San Francisco-style, but in a sky-blue paint job.

Other projects nearing completion include a redesigned and upgraded nine-hole golf course, landscaped with fountains, coconut and sabal palms and $1 million in decorative rock. It's scheduled to open May 1.

A MAMMOTH JOB

Restoring the resort has been and remains a mammoth job, mired by a multitude of complications, including insurance problems and the island's isolated location.

"It's very difficult to get materials and workers into the island," says Mark Stevens, a general contractor working on a pool and the restoration of another restaurant, Mariner's Hall. "There are weight limits on the bridge, and that makes it all the more difficult."

Although the greatest devastation was caused in August 2004 by Hurricane Charley -- a Category 4 storm that was the first hurricane to hit Captiva and Sanibel in 30 years -- the tony islands also were wind-whipped by Ivan, Jeanne, and Wilma.

"The damage from Charley was staggering," says Chris Van Der Baars, the South Seas' general manager, who, along with Waichulis, was the first to arrive by boat after Charley. "The road was 15 to 20 feet deep in fallen trees, debris, power lines. Not a leaf was left on bushes, the mangroves were flattened. There wasn't a single building that wasn't damaged. Most of them had the roofs completely torn out. We had to dredge 20 tons of stuff from the marina just to get it operating."

Just hauling debris has cost $458,000.

CANOPIES MISSED

The most striking loss -- to both the islands -- is the loss of the legendary canopies.

The mangroves around South Seas are slowly coming back but remain somewhat of an eyesore amid the luxurious renovations. The $1.3 million cleanup and restoration had to be done by hand, without machinery, with the assistance of environmental agencies. Some dead tree trunks were left intentionally to remain as a habitat for nesting birds.

But some good came of nature's wrath.

"We've got water views on both sides now," says Cathy Aquila, who owns a beach house with her husband, Francis, a New York lawyer.

The hurricane also exposed centuries-old Calusa Indian mounds that were intact. "Archaeologists from Florida Gulf Coast University came and found no damage and took some artifacts to study," Waichulis said.

The resort plans to build a boardwalk to the site and turn it into a learning center on Calusa life.

The re-opening of the South Seas is good news for small-business owners.

"Sure, we've been hurt by their closing," Ron Roth, a salesman at Seaweed Gallery, says of the South Seas.

LAID-BACK FEEL GONE

Roth, who has been coming to Captiva every season for the past 15 years from New Jersey and working while he vacations, mourns another loss -- the laid-back, old Florida feel.

On Andy Rosse Lane, compact Italian and Mediterranean-style villas now share the road with traditional wood cottages such as the purple and lime-painted Key Lime Bistro; the yellow grocery mart, The Island Store; and The Bubble Room, decked out in pink.

All the new homes sport "vacation rental" signs.

"When I started coming here there were none of those fancy houses, just Florida cottages," Roth says. "They call it progress."

Other Captiva veterans remain more optimistic, more so now that the South Seas' new owner, Blackstone, "is known for investing in their properties," says Francis "Frank" Aquila.

The Aquilas of Basking Ridge, N.J., are typical South Seas owners.

They first came in 1988 lured by an article in Gourmet. They fell in love with the beach, the seclusion, the security for their three daughters.

They continued to rent every year until they took the girls on "a see America tour" over the next two years.

'After that when we asked them where they wanted to go on spring break, the girls said, 'South Seas/Captiva,' " Frank says. "We decided to buy."

They bought the beach villa for "just under $2 million" in January 2004 and were here Aug. 12, the day before Charley hit, when they had to evacuate to Miami.

EXTENSIVE DAMAGE

Their home suffered roof damage, and water seeped into the air-conditioning system and the walls. The structure stood, but the walls had to be ripped out because mold grew after the house remained without power for a month.

It's all been restored to the stronger "Dade County code," as one hears people say here, and all the windows are impact-resistant.

They are here to stay, the Aquilas say.

"The threat of hurricanes make you think of preparing, but it doesn't make you leave," Cathy says. "Once you've seen a perfect sunset on that perfect beach, you are hooked. You keep coming back hurricane or no hurricane."

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

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