It was only supposed to be a three hour tour. The game plan was simple: take a short and scenic cruise on Pine Island sound, grab a cheeseburger in paradise and catch the return boat back home. A three hour tour, five at most, just a small dose of the local waterways, that's all we wanted.
Across the Sanibel causeway we drove, heading for McCarthy's Marina on Captiva Island. Not a cloud in the sky. Light traffic and lush, tropical foliage surrounded us. Glimpses of glistening water and quiet beaches tucked themselves between trees and down side streets and driveways.
Once we reached the marina, we visited the office of Captiva Cruises, clutching half-off discount coupons and reminding ourselves how great it is to live in our little corner of paradise in the off-season. No crowds. No lines. Nothing but azure and emerald Florida in every direction.
Tickets in hand, we relaxed on the dock, absorbing the quiet beauty. Birds flitted along the shoreline. A few fishing tournament stragglers were trying their luck at the vast schools of silvery snook flashing in the shallows beneath the docks. The waterfront residences, empty and uninhabited, invited our eyes and imaginations. Those who can afford such houses very rarely have the time to occupy them. Those who would love to occupy them very rarely have the means to afford them. Capitalism and beauty seem to meet at a paradox.
The Lady Chadwick, Captiva Cruise's flagship vessel, patiently awaited us at the end of the dock. Two or three staff members were scurrying within her, preparing for the daily outing. When boarding time arrived, at 10:00 am, only a handful of others were there to take the trip with us.
The Lady Chadwick is a classic 65 foot long cruise boat, with a climate controlled main cabin and a canopied and open air upper deck. Both levels are carpeted. It has a full service cocktail bar, and spacious men's and women's facilities. It was built to carry 148 passengers. There were only 12 others traveling with us on this particular cruise. With such a small group, it felt like a private charter.
Our boat was on schedule to meander through Pine Island Sound towards its two ports of call. The first stop would be Cabbage Key, an "Old Florida" island hideaway with a restaurant and inn. The second was Useppa Island, an historic retreat and private club for the well-to-do. Somewhere along the course of our hour long narrated cruise, it became apparent we were the only ones getting off the boat at Cabbage Key. Everyone else had tickets to tour Useppa, leaving us wondering if we'd made a tragic mistake in choosing our itinerary.
Two midmorning Bloody Mary rounds from the ship's well equipped bar put our anxieties to rest, as we glided across the smooth sheet of sea past Upper Captiva and Cayo Costa. Quirky spoken-word histories of local significance were playfully passed down to us by the guide. There were stories of destructive hurricanes, creative artists and free land given away on Sanibel Island.
We'll be picking you up no later than 2 pm. If you're not on the boat by the time we sound the horn, they've got some great rooms...you can spend the night in on the island.
Before long we made the final approach to Cabbage Key. A few small cottages and docks teased the shore of the 85 acre mangrove island. The fauna was thick with cabbage palms (which give the island its name) and bougainvillea. A peaceful marina harbor with a tiny white boathouse and weathered docks awaited us. The harbormaster, looking like a hot and tired Hemingway, guided the Lady Chadwick into its temporary slip. The ramp was extended and we were escorted off the boat. Our cruise-mates waved goodbye as they pulled away and headed for Useppa island, leaving us behind.
The main focal point of Cabbage Key is the restaurant overlooking the harbor. The restaurant doubles as an inn with six overnight guest rooms. There are also six detached cottages available to rent. But it's the restaurant that draws most of the 500 travelers who visit each day of the in-season for lunch. That said...this is the off-season. Perched atop an immense 38 foot Calusa Indian shell mound, the restaurant and inn sits tranquil amidst the few royal poinciana trees surrounding it.
Long told local rumors pinpoint this restaurant as the inspiration for Jimmy Buffett's song, "Cheeseburger in Paradise". While Jimmy Buffett did visit this restaurant, and probably even ate the cheeseburger, I'm afraid I have to be the one to stop the perpetuation of this easily unproven factoid. Jimmy Buffett has repeatedly placed *the* "Cheeseburger in Paradise" at a small bar in Roadtown, Tortola. At Cabbage Key it's still a cheeseburger, and it's still paradise...but that's as close as the legend ever comes to truth.
Our appetites dragged us up the shell walkway to the front porch of the restaurant. Classic rock sang from outdoor speakers. A young male employee offered us the option of indoor or outdoor seating.
"Which do you suggest?"
"Our indoor seating is an interesting experience...the walls and ceilings are covered in thousands of dollar bills."
Indoor it was, and dollar bills there were, over 50,000 of them, to be exact. To walk through the piano bar and into the rear screened dining porch is akin to entering a cave made of money. Dollar bills wave in the island breeze, some are yellowing, some are covering other dollar bills, and all of them have two things in common: names written on them in black magic marker and lots and lots of masking tape.
Built in 1938 by mystery fiction novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart and her son, the restaurant and inn probably look just as they did almost 70 years ago. Everything is still in its original condition, from the rough wood floors to the rustic furniture. Even the dollar bills were around in those long gone days. The first bill was signed and taped up by a fisherman in 1941, as a way of ensuring he'd have the funds to purchase more alcohol on his return trip. The next time he arrived, he had money to spare and left the bill hung up where it was. Other customers soon followed suit. Now the roughly 3,000 bills that routinely fall to the floor each year are all donated to charities.
Throughout the years some noteworthy bills have shown up, including those signed by John F Kennedy Jr., Julia Roberts, Bart Simpson creator Matt Groening, ex-president Jimmy Carter, and one by the cheeseburger man himself, Mr. Jimmy Buffet (his was the first dollar bill ever taped onto the piano, but is framed behind the bar now). Walter Cronkite, Ted Koppel, Sean Connery, and Ernest Hemingway are also among some of the many celebrities who are known to have had a soft spot for time spent at Cabbage Key.
Stained and wrinkled menus led us to our orders of tropical mixed drinks and cheeseburgers. Cabbage Creepers sealed our fates, pina colada mixed with rum and a Kahlua float. Two-a-piece of these coconut mind-lubricants and spontaneity became our destiny. Comments became dangerous and day-changing. Peer pressure and an island-instilled sense of adventure led to new plans.
"Imagine what it would be like to spend the night here."
That was all it took to elevate our experience to the next level. Somewhere between the cheeseburger and key lime pie, from within the vibrant fog cast by the Cabbage Creepers coursing through our veins, the idle thought slowly began to become reality. Our waitress overheard our conversation and sent over a female manager. Minutes later she was giving us a tour of a two bedroom cabin, assuring us she could make all the arrangements with Captiva Cruises to stop them from coming to pick us up. She said she would make the necessary phone calls to have us picked up tomorrow. Are we really doing this? And before we knew it, we were down at the white-wooden boathouse gift-shop, giddy and giving her our credit card to charge the cabin on. I can't believe we're doing this. It was a done deal.
When the alcohol began to wear off we found ourselves completely stranded on an island with no paved roads and no general store. We were escaping the punishing humidity, sprawled out in the stark cabin, thanking modern-humanity for the air conditioning. The television had three fuzzy channels. The radio had one broken speaker. There were a few random magazines with last year's news shouting urgently from their covers. On a shelf was a Gideon bible. Our cabin had a large screened-in wraparound porch, the front facing Pine Island Sound and the rear facing mangrove swamp.
We trudged down to the tiny gift store by the docks, assuming they must sell bottled water. They sell T-shirts, Christmas ornaments, and novels by Randy Wayne White and John D. Mills. That's it. You'll find no water or snacks here. The restaurant on the mound is the only game in town. They've got you, and they know it. Tropical alcoholic drinks always lead to dehydration, and our tally for the six 12-ounce bottles of water we needed to bring back to our cabin was $15 before tipping the bartender.
It occurred to us, around this time, that we'd brought no change of clothes, no hair care products, no toothbrushes, no deodorant, nothing but cameras and money. We were stuck with our dirty and sweaty selves until 2 pm the next day. Looking at the clock, I saw it was 1:30 pm...only a little over 24 hours left to go.
The oppressive heat limited our entertainment options. Denial kept entering our minds, demanding there must be somewhere to purchase a few of the items and beverages we were craving. If only we'd come prepared. We told ourselves stories about how next time we're bringing a cooler full of water and soft drinks with us, extra clothes, hygiene products.
"What should we do now?"
"We could read some of that bible."
"Let's go for a walk...they've got nature trails.'
"You want to walk in this heat?"
"We'll just stay here for awhile and go for a walk when it cools down a little."
Cabbage Key forced us to talk and think. We talked to each other about the scenery. About nature. About family. About God. We talked and thought in ways we never would've without being stuck on an island with no way to leave. We faced our appetites. We pondered all the routine comforts we take for granted in our day to day lives, drawing the lines between simple actions and the abundant comfort those actions deliver us. Fresh clothes. A trip to the refrigerator. Our comfortable beds.
After 5 pm Cabbage Key quieted. Boat traffic ended and the population of the island dwindled down to the scant visitors staying overnight and employees (who all live there full time). A sedating calm fell over the grounds. A large gopher tortoise, sensing the tourists were gone, came out from wherever it is they come from and began patrolling the wide expanse of lawn. An osprey in a nearby tree minded the goings-on below. Dark clouds offered solace from the sun. Lightning in the near distance offered eye candy. A faint thunder rumble filled the air. The storms never approached.
We walked the nature trail, towards the depths of the island. Gumbo limbo, seagrape, live oak and more mangroves climbed the sides of the path, in some instances providing a canopy of green. Salty mud and organic decay filled the air, noxious perfume of low tide, death, rebirth, and the food chain. Geckos and fiddler crabs skittered across the way, ducking into undergrowth and holes in the marsh as we approached. A wrong turn in the poorly marked trail led us to a distant and overgrown, shell-scattered dead end.
Dinner reservations are taken at check-in. The proprietors must know an anticipated meal is a psychological balm in this setting. Ours were for 7:30. We gave in at 7:00 and headed for the restaurant.
Darker and lit with small twinkling lights, evening scents of night blooming flowers waft through the screened dining room. The dinner menu is limited and a bit pricey. Beverage refills are never free at Cabbage Key. Thick with atmosphere and the dull buzz of the few others among us, we ordered our food. Meals were cooked to perfection. The chink in this restaurant's armor was found in our waiter. The service was not commensurate with either the ambiance or the prices being paid. Mistakes in the final bill were many and a time-consuming inconvenience. With only a handful of tables occupied, there was no reasonable excuse.
Making the most of it, we put our dinner experience behind us and went to sit on the deserted docks. The harbormaster sat in a dark corner having an animated conversation on his cellular phone about an approaching tropical storm. Imagine weathering out the storm here. These moments felt film-noir, with the cinema-perfect island around us, subdued lighting on the looming restaurant, dark motionless sea water at our feet, and Key Largo palms bending in tropical form.
Back at the cabin, conversation soon turned to the ghost stories surrounding Cabbage Key. Printed on the internet and in haunt-hunter books, legend often places the apparition in room number 3 of the main inn. As the story goes, a guest of the Rhinehart's contracted tuberculosis in New York and came to the inn to recover. While waiting for her family to join her, she died of complications from the illness. Now, those who stay in this room are frequently woken by a woman entering from the private patio. She is said to have long, dark hair and is dressed in a blue skirt and long-sleeved white blouse. Wandering in, she often looks at those in the bed before retreating to the patio once again, without ever opening the door.
Staff members have been known to tell other chilling stories regarding physical manifestations of spirits in the main inn. Some involve objects moving significant distances with no one ever touching them. Other stories have more of a Calusa Indian burial ground slant to them. However, popular knowledge has it that the current owners do not want the haunting stories told, and will deny them when asked. Information must be gleaned from the employees who work there, and even then, only when the owners are nowhere to be seen.
Putting the lights out around midnight, the darkness was darker than it is at home. A strong wind was kicking up outside, and the cabin felt to slightly sway on its stilts. Images of ghosts and devious shadows smeared themselves across the insides of our heads in smudged mind-colors. I wish we had a night light. Spiders and alligators roamed in the imagined terrain surrounding our beds. Door locks were triple-checked. This is the closest I've ever stayed to home and the farthest away I've ever felt.
We woke to forgotten dreams and a new day, clean sun streamed in through the windows. There was blue sky and wispy clouds overheads as we took our traditional and reasonably priced breakfasts on the open veranda. Sun sparkling waves heightened our spirits, and those of the others around us, the dreadlocked vegan family and the romantic getaway couple. I wonder if their experience last night was like ours? The staff was bright-eyed and conversational.
Another spontaneous idea and a phone call to customer-service-conscious Captiva Cruises got our adventure adrenaline pumping again. They agreed to pick us up as they dropped today's Cabbage Key guests off. They would transport us to Useppa Island and then back home at no additional cost. Those half-off tickets got us quite a distance down the road.
Before the boat arrived to take us to storybook Useppa, and our incredible lunch at the Collier Inn, we climbed the water tower which is at the highest point of the mound on Cabbage Key. From 60 feet we looked at the green bumps protruding in batches all over Pine Island Sound, small islands where plants and animals grow undisturbed, much as they did before human beings ever existed. We weren't speaking, but I'm pretty sure that within us all a keen appreciation was settling in, an understanding that we'd learned more in the last 24 hours than we realized, that by escaping our routine way of acting we allowed ourselves to grow, to live, and to create a lasting memory which was still being formed as we sat there silent with late morning sun on our smiling faces.