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Enjoy Florida's bounty on Cabbage Key

CABBAGE KEY — I'm cozy in a white Adirondack chair, staring at the flat-calm, glittering water of Pine Island Sound. Boats, small, medium and very large, bob gently at the dock, having been directed by a dockmaster who rules the anchorage with stern aplomb. Across the water is Useppa Island, an enclave for mavericks and millionaires. • Normally, I would be jealous of the fancy boats, upscale cottages and exclusivity of Useppa, but today I have my own piece of paradise on this 100-acre island off the coast of Southwest Florida. I am sharing it with some friendly ducks, a few frisky gopher tortoises and all manner of seabirds dipping, swirling and squawking overhead. Daytrippers come and go, but I am impersonating a local, having plopped my bags in Room 6 and awoken with the sun. • I stretch out my legs, feeling the sun just right because summer's humidity hasn't descended quite yet. My eyes flutter shut and I hear footsteps and then a voice. • "Well, you've got this figured out. You look relaxed." • That's the nicest compliment I've gotten in a long time.

Cabbage Key is a small tangle of tropical foliage in Pine Island Sound, about 20 miles northwest of Fort Myers. Nearby Cayo Costa Island State Park shelters it from the Gulf of Mexico. It's unknown to many people, overshadowed by its famous island neighbors Boca Grande, Captiva and Sanibel.

We discovered Cabbage Key more than 10 years ago as many people do, via a midday excursion on the Lady Chadwick. The Chadwick brings folks from South Seas Island Resort on the north end of Captiva to Cabbage Key. They disembark, have lunch at the only restaurant on the island, maybe walk the 45-minute nature trail and then pile back on the boat bound for Captiva. After taking the trip twice with visiting relatives, we vowed to return for an overnight visit. Finally, we kept our promise.

The cottages — there are seven, though several are more like large houses — and the six rooms in Cabbage Key Inn, which also houses the restaurant and bar, evoke a Florida not seen much anymore of tin roofs, screened porches and low profiles — just the sort of place you want to be when an afternoon thunderstorm blows through, though maybe not a hurricane. The rain on the tin roof and the breeze that ruffles just before a thunder and lightning show put you in synch with natural Florida. On the first day we are here, terrible storms and a few tornadoes rock Tampa Bay. We watch the sky darken in the rearview mirror as we cross the Skyway bridge. The storm front peters out as it moves east, but we are still treated to a wild night of nature, hail pelting the tin roof.

Having a few days on Cabbage Key allows visitors to get the rhythm of the island. Though it's accessible only by boat or other watercraft, it's hardly isolated. Some 700 people can inundate the place for lunch when the weather is grand and the water relatively calm. They don't come all at once, but the steady stream of sunburns and flip-flops is a spectacle to behold, especially as the restaurant staff rockets food and drink across the patio and through the crowded restaurant. I watch it all from my Adirondack chair.

In late afternoon and early evening, the pace mirrors the morning. The island and the staff breathe easy. And when the sun goes down and those pesky no-see-ums disappear, it's time for swapping stories at the bar, where there is no shortage of tales about the famous folks who've been here or 2004's Hurricane Charley. Charley passed right over the island on its furious way to Pine Island and Punta Gorda. Cabbage lost a lot of trees, and the buildings sustained some damage.

But Cabbage Key doesn't give itself up. Just one more notch in its character belt.

• • •

There's a persistent story that Jimmy Buffett penned his famous Cheeseburger in Paradise on Cabbage Key. Not exactly sure if that's true, but no one on the island is working too hard to verify it either way. After all, the folks here specialize in cheeseburgers, served classically with mayo, tomato, lettuce and thick slices of onion. It's not a big stretch to imagine it actually happened. The burger is good and the surroundings have their utopian tendencies. Buffett has been here for sure, though. His signed dollar bill hangs behind the bar. As does one from John F. Kennedy Jr., autographed in 1997, two years before he died.

Between the bar and the dining room, some 70,000 dollar bills hang from every surface overhead, the walls and even some support beams. About 10,000 fall off each year and are given to local charities. The bills are fun to look at; thick inscriptions and funny messages make a few stand out in a sea of greenback wallpaper. From the screened dining room in the back of the inn, I prefer another view, looking out, rather than up.

Wide Cuban laurels, cousins of the banyan, are wrapped with twinkle lights, and beyond them is a wall of sea grapes, gumbo limbo trees and other native species. As the sun sets and I nibble on delicious house-smoked salmon, I've got the best of both worlds, a jungle on my doorstep and civilization on my plate. The Cabbage Creeper — a pina colada with a coffee liqueur float — enhances both the ambience and my mood.

The inn and restaurant were originally a home built in 1929 by Alan Rinehart, son of famed mystery writer and journalist Mary Roberts Rinehart. She is sometimes called the American Agatha Christie, and she had a house on Useppa, where she wintered. The Cabbage Key home became an inn in 1944 and has only had a few owners since then. Rob and Phyllis Wells have owned the inn and cottages and most of the island for 30 years.

The Wellses live on the island, where they raised their family. If you have a chance, strike up a chat with Mr. Wells over a cocktail and hear his amazing Charley story. If you don't think it's a different lifestyle living on a small island, track down one of the Wellses' sons, Ken, the general manager at Cabbage Key, or Rob III, who runs the Tarpon Lodge, the sister property on Pine Island. They have some great tales about commuting back and forth to school via boat. Not a bad way to start and end the day unless sports practice runs late and a storm is brewing.

The best way to experience the island is to get off it. Pine Island Sound offers some of the best fishing (tarpon!) and shelling in the United States. Kayaking is popular, too, and the Calusa Blueway has nearly 200 miles of marked paddling trails. Return to Cabbage Key in the late afternoon with your own stories.

If you've come without a boat, there are guides who will take you fishing or drop you at a beach loaded with shells. (Keep an eye out for the prized junonia. You'll know it by its distinctive brown and white checkerboard pattern.)

In my nearly 20 years in Florida and many vacations to Sanibel, I've done all those things. Caught a tarpon and a redfish, walked the deserted beach at Cayo Costa and brought home bags of jingles, whelks and alphabet cones. We've even got a junonia in our collection. I love all those memories.

But for this weekend, I wanted to stay put. Swap stories with the staff and other guests, and think about the Rinehart family who gave Cabbage Key its start. Just like the island in the early morning before the crowds, I wanted to exhale.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

If you go to Cabbage Key

The 100-acre island is in Pine Island Sound in Lee County, not far from Sanibel and Captiva. The nearest major city is Fort Myers. Cabbage Key, which has no paved roads, is accessible only by boat or other watercraft. To get to Pine Island, where you'll catch a water taxi to Cabbage Key, drive south on Interstate 75 to exit 161, County Road 768, follow it to Burnt Store Road through Cape Coral (about 18 miles) and then turn right on Pine Island Road. You'll drive through the colorful fishing village of Matlacha, which will tempt you to stop with its art galleries and restaurants. Do it.

Once on Pine Island, take a right on Stringfellow Road and follow it until you see the signs on the left for Tarpon Lodge. Just another couple of miles and you've arrived.

Water taxis are available from the
Pineland Marina (13921 Waterfront Drive; pinelandmarina.com), which is next to the Tarpon Lodge. Two of the more popular are Island Girl Charters (239-633-8142 or northcaptivaislandgirl.com) or Pine Island Charters aboard the Tom Thumb (239-246-9577 or pineislandcharters.com). Both are about $30 round trip and offer excursions, including shelling trips and sightseeing on the water. They have regularly scheduled departures, and reservations are suggested. You can leave your car at the marina for a daily fee.

Where to stay: Rob and Phyllis Wells own the only accommodations and restaurant on the small island, the Cabbage Key Inn. There are six rooms in the main lodge that houses the restaurant and seven cabins of various sizes scattered near the shoreline. Some are big enough for large groups or families. The Dollhouse, Cabbage Patch and Tarpon cottages are cozy places with their own docks. Rates for the rooms are $99 to $139 a night. The cabins range from $145 to $414 depending on size and season. Rates are lower in the summer. Call (239) 283-2278 or go to
cabbagekey.com. Rooms in the inn are comfortable, though a tad noisy if the bar patrons get rowdy. Still, we found them comfortable and the experience quirky enough to be fun.

Next to the Pineland Marina on Pine Island is the Tarpon Lodge, also owned by the Wells family. Built in 1926, the lodge sustained major damage in Hurricane Charley and has been extensively updated. Furnishings are lovely, and beds are supremely comfortable. Rates are $115 to $295, depending on location and the season. Call (239) 283-3999 or go to tarponlodge.com. A night or two in each place will give you a satisfying sample of the area. The sunset from the Tarpon Lodge is spectacular.

Where to eat: Both inns have their own restaurants, and unless you bring food with you, you'll be eating three meals in the Cabbage Key restaurant, the only one on the island. I recommend the cheeseburger in paradise, their nod to Jimmy Buffett's contagious island song. It's prepared simply with the basic condiments, but really is delicious. At night, the dinner menu is extensive and the fish specials often local. We ate tripletail and lane snapper, prepared with interesting sauces. Both a hit. Don't leave Cabbage Key without having the house-smoked salmon served cold with a dill horseradish sauce ($8.99). Among the best I've had. For the three meals, plan on at least $55 per person a day, not including cocktails, which can really drive the cost higher. Cabbage Creepers, at $7 a pop, do creep up on you. Thankfully, no one is driving, because the Creeper and the Planter's Punch (also $7) are must-tries.

There are more places to eat on Pine Island, but if you're staying at the Tarpon Lodge, you'll need to drive to them. Dinner at the lodge is an elegant affair — though you don't need to dress up. We sat a table away from a young couple headed for their prom; he had on a cowboy hat, a reminder that you are not far from agricultural fields. Order the blue crab and roasted corn chowder ($6.95) for sure.

What to do: Fishing, boating and shelling in one of Florida's most beautiful spots are the top activities. I enjoyed finding a quiet spot on Cabbage Key to practice the art of people watching. Daytrippers descend from about 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on days of good weather for lunch — sometimes 700 of them! — and a little relaxation. When they clear out, the island belongs to you and whoever else is staying the night.

The passes of Pine Island Sound are home to the largest tarpon migration in the country. Offshore reefs and the gulf bring charter fishing and spearfishing opportunities. Sandy shores and barrier islands offer pier and beach fishing for flounder; the estuaries behind those islands feature crafty snook, redfish and sea trout as well as sought-after cobia, tripletail and those silvery tarpon.

There are a number of guides for hire for fishing and shelling trips. Cayo Costa Island just west of Cabbage Key is one of the best spots for shell hunters. Among the guides for half-day or daylong trips are Capt. Eric Flett of Native Attitude Charters, (239) 872-7841 or nativeattitudefishingcharters.com; Capt. Miles Meredith of CT & T Charters, (239) 574-6950 or mmeredith@embarqmail.com; and Capt. Jayson Rider of Searider Charters, (239) 283-5036 or searidercharters.com.

Kayaks are also available for rent (ask when you check in or make hotel reservations) along the Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail, which meanders 190 miles along the back bays and wildlife-laden shores. Markers guide canoeists and kayakers away from powerboat traffic and through calm areas that often are only a foot or two deep. Along with the posted signs, paddlers can use free maps and/or GPS coordinates, both of which are online at calusablueway.com. The annual Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival is Nov. 3-6.

Janet K. Keeler

Enjoy Florida's bounty on Cabbage Key 04/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 3:34pm]
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