Room to Breathe on Cabbage Key
By: Janet K. Keeler
Lounging on the dock of the Cabbage Patch Cottage on Cabbage Key is what a Florida getaway is all about. Luxury yachts and weathered flats boats cruise by, osprey perch on rustic pylons, and breezes riff off of the water. Mullet jump, box turtles get amorous, and the houses of exclusive Useppa Island across the water conjure Lottery win dreams.
Ah, time to breathe deeply.
In the evening, I walk a dusty lane to the Cabbage Key Island Inn Restaurant & Bar. Cuban laurels laced with twinkle lights mark the place where I sip a Cabbage Creeper cocktail, a pina colada with a coffee liqueur float. I order a plank of smoked salmon with housemade dill sauce. And then a pile of cold, peel-and-eat shrimp billed as an appetizer but plenty filling for a meal. I vow to have a cheeseburger in paradise before I start the journey home.
Cabbage Key is in Florida’s Lee County, not far from Fort Myers and the more well-known islands of Sanibel and Captiva. It is a 100-acre island on Pine Island Sound that’s mostly tropical foliage and reachable only by watercraft.
Some of the world’s best fishing is in the waters here, with anglers coming from around the globe to catch tarpon, red fish, spotted sea trout and snook.
Don’t have a boat? Not to worry. There are plenty of fishing guides and boat rental businesses, plus water taxis and excursion boats, to get you on the water or deliver you to Cabbage Key. Paddleboarders, canoers and kayakers love it here, too. Lee County’s Calusa Blueway meanders 190 miles along back bays, providing an up-close view of wildlife-laden mangroves. The trail is marked plus free maps and GPS coordinates provide guidance for newbies and pros. World-class shelling is prime activity on Cayo Costa Island, west of Cabbage Key. Cayo Costa is now a state park where shell seekers can find their fill of whelks, augers, cockles, jingles and, if they are super lucky, a brown-spotted junonia.
This is my second evening gazing at the water, the first spent at the Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island, to the east. At 18 miles long and two miles wide, Pine Island (pop. 9,000) is Florida’s largest island. It has its own tropical vibe with lush acres of mango groves (plus lychee and papaya) and a few markets that sell the fruit in summer. There are towns here and stores, plus paved roads, unlike Cabbage Key where the only vehicles are golf carts running on dirt.
Rob and Phyllis Wells bought Cabbage Key in 1976 and have lived here ever since. The historic 1926 Tarpon Lodge, built three years before Cabbage Key, was added to the Wells’ portfolio later. The Wells’ two sons were raised on the island and now run the properties. A night or more in both places is a one-two punch of island decompression.
Get to Tarpon Lodge by car (or boat; there are on-site docks) and settle into a room before dinner. Don’t miss dinner and know a reservation is smart in the busy winter months. Tarpon Lodge is a favorite spot with locals, especially the friendly bar with its live music and local fish taxidermy. The expansive green with white gazebo is a popular wedding venue, often booked in sync with sunset.
Tarpon Lodge’s restaurant is all about casual elegance, with white tablecloths and flickering candles. The chef is a master with local fish and the daily catch is the way to go, especially if it’s buttery-mild Atlantic tripletail. In contrast is the restaurant at Cabbage Key. Okay, you have to wear shoes but bathing suits and shorts are standard all day. The place can get busy midday when the excursion boat from Captiva drops daytrippers for lunch and maybe walks on the island’s nature trail. But when they head back on the Lady Chadwick to South Seas Island Resort, Cabbage key is yours again.
Eat outside with an unencumbered view of the water, on the screened front porch or in the back with a tropical forest view of more Cuban laurels, plus sea grapes and gumbo limbos.
Hanging from the ceiling and taped on walls is about $70,000 worth of dollar bills emblazoned with initials, names and love notes. Watch your step as you enter because you can’t help but look up, staring at messages from visitors from Milwaukee to Munich.
In the bar, are framed bills signed by John F. Kennedy Jr. and singer Jimmy Buffett. That latter started people saying the megahit Cheeseburger in Paradise was written on Cabbage Key, though Buffett’s “Parrotheads” claim it’s an ode to an American burger the singer found on the Caribbean island of Tortola.
Well, whatever. The cheeseburger at Cabbage Key, along with the view and solitude, is a big, juicy bite of paradise. No one can deny that.
If you go…
Tarpon Lodge is at 13771 Waterfront Drive, Bokeelia, Fla., on Pine Island in Lee County. More information at tarponlodge.com or (239) 283-3999. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner, plus there is complimentary continental breakfast for hotel guests. Accommodations are in the historic lodge, an adjacent modern building or cottages. Rates vary ($110 to $320 a night) with room size and season. Consider stopping in the colorful village of Matlacha on your way to Pine Island for lunch or a look through the art galleries. You pass right through on Pine Island Road.
Cabbage Key, which has no paved roads, is accessible only by boat or other watercraft. Water taxis are available from the Pineland Marina (13921 Waterfront Dr.;), which is next to the Tarpon Lodge. The concierge at the lodge can help with transfer to Cabbage Key. Two popular services are Island Girl Charters (239-633-8142) or Pine Island Charters (239-246-9577). They also offer shelling and sightseeing cruises. If you are staying at Tarpon Lodge, you can leave your car there.
Cabbage Key (www.cabbagekey.com; 239-283-2278) has seven cottages plus six rooms in the inn. Pricing is seasonal ($99 to $465 a night) spending on size of accommodations. One of the cottages has three bedrooms. The restaurant serves three meals a day.
Photos by Scott Keeler for VISIT FLORIDA