LaBelle: Small Town and ‘Real Florida’
By Vanessa Caceres
In LaBelle, just a short drive from Fort Myers, Clewiston, and Lake Okeechobee, you’ll find small-town Southern charm.
This folksy destination along the Caloosahatchee River has been home to the Swamp Cabbage Festival for more than 50 years. Swamp cabbage, in case you don’t know, is a down-home, Florida name for the vegetable heart of palm, which grows in the sabal palm commonly seen in the Sunshine State.
At the town’s annual festival, you can try boiled cabbage, just like long-time Floridians have prepared it.
While you can have a grand time in LaBelle during the Swamp Cabbage Festival—whether you’re noshing on swamp cabbage fritters and gator tail, buying frog leg jam, watching an armadillo race, or taking in the rodeo and parade—those aren’t the only reasons you should visit LaBelle.
Start your visit at Barron Park and the LaBelle boat dock, and take in a tranquil view of the Caloosahatchee River. You’ll hear a variety of birds and see big bass jumping out of the water. (Fishing, anyone?)
You can watch cars and trucks crossing a bridge into town—LaBelle gets a number of snowbirds and tourist visitors driving east from the West Palm Beach area and making their way toward Fort Myers.
Then, take a short walk over to downtown LaBelle, which has efforts underway to attract more visitors with an upgraded look and a variety of stores and eateries.
Start your downtown time with Southern hospitality at Miss Patty’s Formerly Yours Consignment Store. The location has served as a dried goods store, lighting store, furniture store, and florist in its previous lives, said owner Patty Ellison. Now, visitors come on down to browse crafts and antiques from a variety of decades. “It’s like memory lane,” said store worker Peggy O’Ferrell, who came to LaBelle in the 1960s from North Carolina.
Miss Patty and O’Ferrell will offer you water or coffee and a clean bathroom. If you find a treasure but don’t have enough cash on hand (the store does not accept credit cards), Ellison offers IOUs, giving customers prepaid envelopes to send her the money for what they’ve purchased.
Your next stop is the Harold P. Curtis Honey House, a fixture in LaBelle since 1954. The Honey House has always been a popular place in town. Yet with today’s focus on supporting local agriculture and healthier eating, owner Rene Curtis Pratt—wearing a yellow shirt that says “Sweet Life”—has noticed a definite upswing in traffic.
The family’s bees busily make unfiltered sea grape, mangrove, wildflower, palmetto, and orange blossom honey from locales within a 70-mile radius, including citrus groves and Sanibel Island. Customers breezing through town for a day trip sample the different kinds of honey and pick one they like best, noting they make an annual visit to LaBelle for the honey. In addition to honey, you can load up on “gator sauce,” honey candy, gator jerky, and Florida-made jellies. Pratt also tries to educate customers about the value of bees.
Then mosey on over to downtown’s LaBelle Heritage Museum, where history expert Joe Thomas, who moved to LaBelle at age 10, said he fell in love with the town’s river in sixth grade. Thomas will answer any questions you have about the historical photos and artifacts at the museum. Make sure to ask about the photos of the big downtown hotel fire from the 1950s, and then check out the collection of fossils discovered within 15 miles of town.
If all this sightseeing makes you hungry, then no problem. Forrey Grill is right in the downtown area. Or, take a short drive up to Log Cabin Great American BBQ & Seafood, adorned much like a cabin in the woods with camouflage drapes and artwork of fish and cowboy boots. Despite its obvious BBQ focus, you can get an affordable Southern breakfast there, with items like biscuits and gravy or country fried steak.
Another choice is Two Peas Café, a clean, friendly place to try fried green tomatoes, large salads, or one of its famous Granny Ella pies. Coconut cream pie and strawberry pie are two favorites. Taquería San Julian serves up authentic Mexican food, with its tacos al pastor (a kind of pork taco).
If you’re ready after your meal for something on the artsy side, Barron Park House Gallery, located in Barron Park, sells locally made art and has art workshops. Then there’s the Firehouse Community Theatre in downtown LaBelle, featuring several shows a year.
Photos by Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA