It's one of those Florida days in early summer when mornings are gloriously hot with crisp blue skies and evenings take a mysterious turn, morphing into a spectacle of thunderbolts. Eager to reach my destination - Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island - before the heavens dump buckets of rain, I leave North Fort Myers behind, whizzing across causeways and bridges and cutting through Matlacha, a fishing-village-turned-artist-colony where brightly colored shacks blur into a rainbow as I speed along. The final leg before arriving on the 17-mile-long Pine Island is a stretch of wetlands where telephone poles serve as canvases for local artists who paint decorative fish, hibiscus and manatees on them. I like this place already.
On Stringfellow Road, Pine Island's main drag, there are no swanky resorts, golf courses or paths leading to sandy beaches. Instead, hundreds of palm trees from fat, frilly foxtails to the cabbage variety, the state's official palm tree, line the thoroughfare. Dirt roads intersect with the asphalt one I'm on; pickups towing boat trailers pass me; and occasional clusters of no-frill homes and vast nurseries make up the scenery.
Snaking off onto Pineland Road, I arrive at the Tarpon Lodge, greeted by still more palm trees - areca, royal and coconut - with no beach or storm in sight. Owner Rob Wells III greets me with a slightly Southern twang: "Welcome to Tarpon Lodge!" My own celeb look-alike (he bears a slight resemblance to Matthew McConaughey ... I think it's the wavy hair combed back), is to be my guide to the outer islands, a cluster in Southwest Florida's Gulf waters that doesn't usually make the must-see lists simply because it's only accessible by boat. (See "How to Island Hop".) But that's what makes this place a fisherman's haven -- and Wells tells me the tarpon are biting. After growing up on neighboring Cabbage Key, he should know.
When Wells was 3 years old, his family moved from North Carolina to the Gulf island. "We were touring in the area and my dad saw it as an opportunity, kind of a pioneering thing. I think he was lucky with timing, as the area [namely, Sanibel and Captiva] really started booming," says Wells of the family's purchase of the Cabbage Key Inn back in 1976. He and his brother, Ken, would ply the blue-green waters of Pine Island Sound by boat to get to school. "We had no phone or power, just a generator," he recalls. But the island purchase was only the first half of Wells senior's plan. In 1999, he bought the Tarpon Lodge. "My dad kept driving by this piece of property year after year. He's an avid fisherman and thought it would complement Cabbage Key," Wells elaborates. The family set it up as an old-school fishing lodge, a real throwback to Old Florida, only with an "upscale" spin to appeal to the ladies, kids and diehard fishermen who like to kick back at night with TVs in their rooms and a gourmet meal in the restaurant.
My first sampling of these upscale efforts arrives at dinner with a bowl of the blue crab and roasted corn chowder made with fresh corn that still has its crunch. With a look of pride and amusement, chef Jethro Joseph, who hails from the Cayman Islands, tells me the soup has made the "100 things to eat before you die" lists that pop up in magazines and on the Internet. In between the soup and the local tripletail fish sautéed in olive oil with garlic and olives, a plate of freshly sliced mangos makes its way to our table, courtesy of hotel manager Nancy Glickman's backyard. Her seven very large mango trees, along with her technique for harvesting the fruit, have made her somewhat of a celebrity on Pine Island. "The way to get them to full ripeness afier picking them is not to expose them to cold air," she says. Glickman puts them in a brown bag in a warm room until they are sweet ? a timing trick that comes only from experience. Her crop has been turned into mango pesto and mango crème at the restaurant many times over.
As I sip my glass of Whitehaven New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I notice the view across a lush green lawn, past a white gazebo to the inky waters of Pine Island Sound. The pounding of rain on the tin roof signals the summer storm has picked up momentum. But as we natives know, that can also signal beautiful weather in the morning.
ALL ABOARD It's 9 a.m. and Wells and I are on the deck where the cooing and cawing of the channel island's healthy bird population can't be ignored. I can see the thatched roof of the neighboring Pineland Marina. This is where day-trippers hire boats like a cool orange Harley-designed speedboat or hop on the Tropic Star to Cayo Costa State Park and Cabbage Key. On board Wells' 21-foot Avenger, a custom-made bay boat with a 10-foot tower, we set sail, picking up a welcomed cool wind that offers relief from what promises to be a 99-degree day. Straight ahead is private Useppa Island with multimillion-dollar homes, and off to the north are dead-tree-stabbed rookery islands where frigatebirds rule. As we round Useppa's edge, the Wells family's Cabbage Key and Cayo Costa State Park come into view; a sharp turn south puts us en route to North Captiva. You can reach just about any of these islands in less than 20 minutes, Wells tells me as he climbs the tower to scout for wildlife.
It isn't long before I hear "Look over there!" Three tarpon come into view through the green waters, but before I can truly appreciate the beauty of these very large, prized coastal fish, my eye is diverted to a spotted eagle ray that is an even more dramatic sighting. In these shallows, the underwater show is obstructed only by the water's clarity, but gazing out I see fins playing peekaboo in the near distance as a family of dolphin romps about. Wells speeds up to create a bow wave for the sea mammals to breach.
The action isn't always beneath the water, though. We navigate into North Captiva's Safety Harbor, where a huge osprey nest rests on one of the dock's posts. Carefully, Wells controls the boat to move closer. Much to our surprise, the mother bird is not intimidated by our approach and proudly sits there, scrutinizing us with an I-dare-you-to-come-closer look. Just when we're in range to photograph her and her chicks, the boat accidentally taps the dock and she jumps, wings afutter, just to settle again on the babies. Her maternal look makes it clear that this is our final warning, so we ease back into the bay preferring the scenery of North Captiva's developing coast.
The island, four miles long and a half-mile at its widest part, separated from Captiva afier the 1921 hurricane and created the Redfish Pass channel. Today its shore is lined with examples of the latest in residential architecture: striking copper-hued tin roofs that when glistening in the sun bring to mind the finish of a highly polished antique copper kettle. We admire these beauties before disembarking for lunch at the locals' place, Barnacle Phil's. Wells quickly recognizes owner Brett Powell, the 23-year-old grandson of the late Phil Kinsey who owned most of the island back in the 1970s. The funky restaurant is known for its black beans and yellow rice and an interior covered with dollar bills that patrons have taped onto the walls over the years. As they reminisce, Wells shares an old story. "My 91-year-old great granddad and Phil Kinsey, who was in his 70s or 80s at the time, took me flying in a single-prop Cessna [once]. We landed on an island airstrip that Kinsey had set up. Gee, my mom would have died if she knew I was out flying with these two old guys," he chuckles at his boyhood memory of this now-elite island.
Inside the blue-trimmed wooden beach shack, we ease into the last red-vinyl booth and order cold beers along with a jerk-chicken rice bowl and grouper with pesto that arrive in yellow plastic baskets. At the neighboring table, Susan and Craig Scott, who came over from Captiva where they're building a home, tell me they've been coming here for years. "They have the best jambalaya. It's an easy boat ride and we usually see dolphins," Susan says. When asked where their dollar bill is, she replies, "We put dollar bills up a long time ago; now we only do it when we bring guests."
ARRIVING IN OLD FLORIDA Later, en route back to Cabbage Key, we travel parallel to the western side of Cayo Costa, a nine-mile stretch of softly curved white-sand beaches. Nestled between these shores and the mangrove swamps on the other side are cabbage palms, small oaks and pines, but nowhere do we see people strolling or sunbathing. Plenty of folks arrive at the state park's dock and board the tram headed to the beach side, but with few creature comforts, the barrier island attracts beachgoers in search of undisturbed nature. In other words, those willing to make the effort to get here.
Before dropping me at Cabbage Key, Capt. Wells has a final Cayo Costa hideaway to explore. Steering the boat into a tiny bay, he circles around as we scrutinize the murky waters for manatees. Finally, a dark shadow glides by, and two nostrils surface in a spray of water. The resident manatee has made its appearance.
Clipping along North Pine Island Sound at a nice speed, we're refreshed by the wind as we approach Cabbage Key. The first house we spot on the island is rustic with a neat little greenhouse. Wells quickly points out the structure is home to the owner's pool table, not orchids, as one would think. Next we glide past his parents' house where a sign on their dock reads: "Wells Residence." "My mom and dad live on Cabbage Key, and they're just totally embedded in the lifestyle out here. It's not just a business to them. It's a whole lifestyle kind of thing," he explains. Our last sighting is of the smallest of the seven rental cottages on the key. Named the dollhouse, the tiny white bungalow dwarfed by oaks and gumbo-limbo trees retains a quaint personality.
When we reach the dock, it's bustling with sunset arrivals. A buff blond guy in board shorts pulls himself out of the water and shouts to his mates, "You're going to love this bar." These financial executives from Tampa - who earned a weekend fshing trip at work - follow their leader up the path to the lodge, and we're right behind them.
Ken, Wells' brother, and Marlene, his right hand, greet us with the same warm, enthusiastic welcome that Wells delivered only days ago - it must run in the family. The white lodge with evergreen trim and gingerbread detail has a screened-in front porch with a dozen paddle fans whirling above and no air conditioning, making it a truly authentic Old Florida experience. The fishing guys make a beeline to the bar and back dining room, both decked out with more dollar bills. I'm convinced there's a story behind this running theme and later a local tells me that way back when, fshermen would pin a dollar to the wall to cover their next drink in case they returned empty-handed - or just plain broke.
After being shown to my room off the main porch, which boasts air conditioning and plenty of antique details such as heart-of-pine ceilings, timeworn Oriental rugs and enamel-and-brass doorknobs, I head out to explore the island on my own for the first time. I start at the 1930s landmark water tower and am not the only one seeking the cooler air and the view. Bruce and Julie Young, dressed in stylish beachwear and sunglasses, have also climbed the 60-foot wooden stairway. They tell me how they rented a house on Captiva for a family reunion and boated over to Cabbage Key. "We live in Orlando, but this [Pine Island, where they own a second home, and the outer islands] is where our hearts are," Bruce says as he waves his arm across the vista past Useppa Island in the distance.
Looking down on the 100 acres, of which only 20 are developed, I decide it's time for a hike before the evening thunderstorm rolls in. By chance I meet Ken bouncing along in his golf cart and he gives me a lift, stopping long enough to show me his orange A-frame tucked inside the forest. Set on an Indian mound, the nature trail is 38 feet in elevation. I come across the usual live oaks and salt-tolerant sea grapes and stop to study the wild pineapple and read the plaque by the buttonwood, learning that the wood yields a high-quality charcoal used by pioneers to smoke meat and fish. By the time I finish the loop, the skies have darkened and a squall is approaching. The fronds on the coconut palm in front of the lodge are blowing straight up as I watch Nancy Frainetti and her husband fight the winds to secure their brand-new electric boat.
Every boater here seems to have a story, and Frainetti's is about her eight-day journey in the "green" watercraft her hubby designed. Three days ago, they left St. Petersburg cruising at 5 mph, with their final destination being Hutchison Island on the Atlantic side of the state. Offering me a beer from her cooler, the brunette talks rapidly about crossing the peninsula via the Okeechobee Waterway and how $1.50 to recharge the battery beats the price of gasoline. The next day I talk to a die-hard fisherman who scoffs at the whole idea, opting for his 250-horsepower gas-driven outboard that travels at 50 mph.
Hours later sitting at the Tarpon Lodge bar, I'm struck by the beauty of the silver tarpon hanging over the fireplace in a space that served as a library back in the '40s. I order the house special, the Cabbage Creeper made with white rum, cream of coconut, coffee liqueur and pineapple juice. It's an odd combination, but Tim the bartender confirms that he sells a thousand a day in season. I read the dollar bills - "Go Noles," "Happy 70th Birthday Evelyn" - and examine the one framed with a picture of Jimmy Buffett. Alone on the other end of the bar sits a guy who's obviously enjoyed too much sun. He has a raccoon look about him, the result of sun exposure while wearing oversize sunglasses. Striking up a conversation, I learn his name is Jayson Rider, and he's a light-tackle fishing guide with Searider Charters. "We live in a giant livewell," he says, then elaborates on the tarpon that thrive in the 80-degree waters from April to September.
OLD MEETS NEW Waking up on Cabbage Key, where no televisions or Internet interrupt your connection with nature, is a good thing. I watch ducks vie for a spot at the local water pail and listen to the poinciana trees' woman's-tongue pods rattle in the breeze before meeting Wells. Our first stop is a community of fish houses that looks totally out of place in the waters north of Captiva. Wooden shacks built on stilts, the houses are anchored to sandbars, and some have artificial reefs underneath their decks. Wells explains how they once served as icehouses for fishermen but are now used by private owners for fishing or "camping" overnight. A bright-red fish house with a long pier and outhouse boasts a green Polk County sign. We wave to the man busying himself on the deck, but like these houses, he seems to be in a world of his own.
Contrasting with the primitive fish houses are the mansions on Useppa Island. I hop on a golf cart to explore some of the state's most prized real estate on this notoriously private island. A pink path, croquet court, life-size chess set and footbridges peek out from the lush foliage. The island's centerpiece, the Collier Inn, is distinguished by a long, sparkling white stairway, giving the historic inn a regal air. Land developer Barron Collier owned the resort back in 1908. Inside, old photographs hint at its history, but a neighboring museum provides the lowdown on the island's elite visitors - the Roosevelts, Henry Ford, Tomas Edison, even Shirley Temple. Useppa also has a less glamorous past; it served as the CIA's secret headquarters during the planning of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Today it's home to 140 properties, priced upward of $1.5 million.
THE SKIPPER Back on Cabbage Key there is one more thing to do before heading home: take a skiff out to Cayo Costa for a swim. Delighted with my adventurous spirit, Ken remarks, "Most folks are nervous to take it out." Jeff, the sun-bleached dockmaster, is quick to prepare the skiff and gives me the simplest instructions on how to operate the 9-horsepower outboard motor. My traveling companions - my teenage daughter and a friend - are equally dying to swim, so the three of us board the small boat. As captain, I pull the cord and the motor comes alive. We're rolling (or at least I thought so) until I slip into a way-too-relaxed mode and - oops - hit a sandbar. My daughter is eager for the challenge and takes over, perfectly navigating to the hidden post where we dock along a mangrove coast. A short hike through scrub brings us to Cayo Costa's pristine sands and pale-blue waters, where we're forced to admit that despite all the great fishing, boating and nature exploring, nothing really beats a beach on one of the hottest days of the year. tarponlodge.com, cabbagekey.com, fortmyers-sanibel.com