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Charming Palm Island relaxing by nature

You won’t find too many cars on Palm Island, which can be reached only by ferry or boat. Instead, most visitors opt to travel around on golf carts, on bicycles or on foot.

Brenda Ehrke | Special to the Times

You won’t find too many cars on Palm Island, which can be reached only by ferry or boat. Instead, most visitors opt to travel around on golf carts, on bicycles or on foot.


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.

Pirate music

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.

Shells aplenty

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.


Palm Island

Take Interstate 75 south to Exit 191. Turn right on River Road. After crossing State Road 41 ,continue for 7 miles. Turn left onto Pine Street. In another 7 miles turn right onto Panama Boulevard (just before Johnny Leverock's Seafood House). Drive to the end of Panama Boulevard and proceed to the car ferry. The ferry operates seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Once on the island, follow Gulf Boulevard to the end.

Accommodation at the Palm Island Resort includes one-, two- and three-bedroom villas. Rates start at $145 a night. To make reservations or to reserve a boat-slip, call toll-free 1-800-824-5412 or go to

Good to bring, depending on what you want to do: hat and sun screen, food and drinks (villas have full-size refrigerators), mask and snorkel, fishing rod and tackle, plastic shovel and bags for shell collecting, and shell and bird identification charts.

Side trips

Off Palm Island, I drove 9 miles to Gasparilla Island, the 7-mile island supposedly the one-time home of infamous pirate Jose Gaspar. Visit the wooden U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse Boca Grande Lighthouse, built in 1890, at Gasparilla Island State Park & Recreational Area. If you like lighthouses, there's the lofty Boca Grande Rear Range Light. It was moved here from Lewes, Del., in the 1920s. Other nearby state parks are Don Pedro Island State Park and Cayo Costa. Other historical points of interest in Boca Grande include the Railroad Depot, Boca Grande Theater, several majestic churches and the infamous Gasparilla Inn built in 1912.

Shopping: In Boca Grande, I visited numerous quaint shops along Park Avenue. Upscale boutique shops, antique shops, numerous art galleries, pubs and jewelry stores. One of my favorite shops was Fugates, which reminded me of Fast-Buck-Freddies in Key West with lots of clothes and shoes.

Brenda Ehrke

Charming Palm Island relaxing by nature 09/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 11:28am]
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