Situated on a barrier island, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway in Charlotte County, a sliver of land called Palm Island seems almost hidden. In fact, just a few miles away in Englewood, some neighbors haven't heard of it. And that's just the way folks who have found their way here like it.
Could it be the azure water, lack of cars, the opportunity to observe more than 100 Eastern bird species, plus manatees or nesting sea turtles that merit the covert status? Maybe the 7 miles of mostly vacant beach dotted with seashells and sharks' teeth has something to do with it.
The island is accessible only by boat or ferry, adding to the exclusive feeling. Just minutes from mainland Florida, it feels a million miles away.
• • •
Capt. Brad, sitting high atop the Katie B car and passenger ferry, smiles and gives the signal for boarding. Eight cars roll forward and take their positions on the deck. Capt. Brad backs Katie B away from the mainland for the seven-minute trip across the Intracoastal. Once at the Palm Island dock, cars, golf carts and pedestrians roll off. It's officially Island Time.
Gulf Boulevard leads to the entrance of the Palm Island Resort, just a short distance from the dock. I'm greeted by Mike, one of several bellmen driving stretch golf cars. In the parking area, luggage is loaded onto golf "taxis" and private vehicles are left behind. Transport on and around the resort is by golf cart and bicycles; private motor vehicles are not permitted.
Opulent green and gold tropical foliage mark the landscape around clusters of two-story villas with tin roofs. Light gray shutters complement the paint scheme. The tableau looks like a life-sized watercolor painting.
As I'm taxied along the crushed shell road, stately Washingtonian palms nod and towering Australian pines bow with an airy grandeur. I feel the mainland stress slipping away.
Friday night entertainment is provided fireside, under the stars, by friendly resident pirate Capt. Red Beard. The swash-buckling storyteller plays guitar, sings and recounts legends, entertaining children with seafaring good humor and talent. A bright green parrot with a canary yellow face assists him with the silly antics.
I ate dinner at Rum Bay. The main dining room is decorated with sizable game fish, including a sailfish, and tarpon mounted high above tables. Scattered frames contained images of long-ago anglers displaying trophy lunkers. The fare is what you would expect, lots of seafood and tropical drinks with colorful names like Rum Bay Smashes, Tropical Splashes and Key Lime Kisses.
Along the resort's 2-mile stretch of beach, the shelling is great. Perfectly preserved relics and prized shells of various sizes and shapes are scattered everywhere. I almost felt giddy as I filled a bag with jingles, whelks and multiple cat's eyes.
Stump Pass, at the tip of the island, is where more treasures are hidden. I bent over to scan shells along the shoreline and heard a woman kneeling nearby call out "They're shiny and black." I smiled and continued scanning. A few minutes later, she moved closer and asked, "Have you found any yet?" She extended her hand; in it was a large scallop shell half filled with gleaming sharks' teeth of various shapes and sizes.
I dug into my pocket to show her mine. She nodded approvingly and told me what type of shark each came from. As she walked away, she called out one last time and motioned toward the incoming waves. "A guy found a real big one out there, along the edge of the water last week; that's the best place to dig for them . . . Good luck!"
Back to nature
Back in my room, I considered a game of tennis for about half a second, but didn't have the energy to put on sneakers. I wanted to rent a kayak and catch a glimpse of a manatee gliding through inland Rum Bay waters down by the dock. But I was too busy doing nothing and the time slipped away.
On the island, nature is the recurring theme. Care for each of the inhabitants that call the island home shows in subtle and educational ways. Signs feature information about the nesting sea turtles that arrive in May. Bobcats, raccoons, rabbits and numerous birds all call Palm Island home at various times throughout the year.
Palm Island isn't for everyone. There are no rowdy spring breakers, tiki-hut beach bars, swim-up pool bars, shopping malls or chain restaurants.
I can hardly wait to come back again.
Freelance writer Brenda Ehrke, a native Floridian and outdoor enthusiast, lives in Largo.