Cabbage Key and Cayo Costa — barrier island paradises
Although it’s accessible only by boat, Cabbage Key is a familiar name to lots of folks in Florida. Sitting in Pine Island Sound, tucked up north of Sanibel and Captiva and inside the sheltering arm of Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key has been an isolated retreat for decades but is equally as well-known for its cheeseburger.
Jimmy Buffet, the musical poet laureate of Florida crooned about a “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and places have been jockeying ever since to be the known as the inspiration for that song. The restaurant at Cabbage Key has as good a claim as any.
With its dollar-bill bar, a Florida favorite type of watering hole in which patrons stick dollars all over the walls, ceiling and everything else, the restaurant has the makings of Old Florida legend all over it. Add in visits from Buffett before the iconic song of beef and belief was penned and, well, it just could be the place.
Certainly the cheeseburgers are extremely good. Ditto for the u-peel-em shrimp and key lime pie. You can eat outside on a big terrace under the Poinciana trees (especially nice when they are in bloom) or move to the inside for a shaded lunch. But you can get more than lunch, since there are guests here, the restaurant is open three meals a day and there are water taxis for dinner as well.
Aside from the cheeseburger claim, the island has its own story. But first you have to get there.
If you are lucky enough to have your own boat, head for MM 60 in the Intracoastal waterway in Pine Island Sound. If not, go to the Pineland Marina on Pine Island where there are several ferry/water taxi options. For more info go the Cabbage Key website.
The Cabbage Key Inn was built to be a private home by Alan and Grace Rinehart. They bought the island in 1929 for $2500 and spent another $125,000 creating their winter estate. Its isolation and charm have made it a great place to go ever since. The island is largely comprised of an Indian shell mound and sits 38 feet above sea level, a virtual mountain in this area. The original house (now the inn and restaurant) has six fireplaces, five porches and a 25,000 gallon water storage tank to capture rainwater. There are no paved roads, no cars, just sandy paths big enough for a golf cart to meander through the 100 acres.
Over the years cottages were added, one as a playhouse for the kids, one for the caretaker and a few for friends. In 1944 Larry and Jan Stults took over and opened it up to the public. They ran it until 1969 when Bob and JoAnn Beck took the helm. Current owners Rob and Phyllis Wells live on the island and have run it for three decades.
I have been there on a private boat and via water taxi and frankly, there is no bad way to arrive.
Coming up by boat you pass a couple of the rustic cabins that are for rent before getting to the dock that sits at the bottom of the hill from the restaurant and inn. Tie-up and head up the hill. Pick your spot, have your cheeseburger and take a walk around the tree-shaded island.
Or, book a stay at the inn or in one of the cottages and let your internal clock slow down to island time. You can hire a boat or a guide and try some fishing. The island is ringed in mangroves so no beach shelling unless you ferry over to nearby Captiva or Cayo Costa.
If you are on a day trip on the ferry, you can lunch at Cabbage Key and then head over to Cayo Costa State Park. There’s a tram from the dock that takes you to the beach and camping areas.
Cayo Costa State Park’s 2,426 acres take up most of La Costa. It, too, can only be reached by boat and gives visitors a chance to spend the day on a sparsely populated barrier beach island kissed by the Gulf of Mexico. If a day is not enough, and when is it ever enough, you can book camping spaces or simple cabin shelters. Bring everything you need, there’s no Publix here or even any potable water. There are restrooms and even cold showers but that’s the end of the luxury. Hike the trails, go fishing, go shelling, snorkel or just hang out on the beach.
This island has been inhabited for over 4000 years. That’s about as Old Florida as it gets. A succession of Native American cultures used it for fishing and much of the island is made up of their shell mounds. Cuban fishermen put up “fishing rancheros” to dry fish to take back to Cuba and in the late 1800s a quarantine station was built on the north end of the island to check arriving immigrants for yellow fever. In the early 1900s about 20 families lived here and had their own post office, school and grocery.
In 1976 Cayo Costa State Park was created. It shares the island with the Pine Island Wildlife Refuge and a few private homes.
To check out the cabin rentals in the park, go to the Florida State Parks website’s Cayo Costa page. Book well in advance, there are few cabins and tent sites and many who’d like to call them home if only for a few days.
© Copyright 2013: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison & Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.