The restaurant walls are covered with $1 bills. Patrons sign and write their home ports on them. After the attacks of Sept. 11, local firefighters took down all the George Washingtons and sent them to the relief efforts in New York. “We ended up with just under $10,000,” says manager Ryan Doty. “It only took about six months before the walls had new bills hanging from them.”
Dollar bills also adorn the restaurant at the Cabbage Key Inn (www.cabbagekey.com). One bill, framed and hanging on the wall, gets particular attention. It’s signed by singer Jimmy Buffett. Lore has it that Cabbage Key Restaurant was one of the four hangouts where Buffett wrote “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Yes, the restaurant’s specialty is the cheeseburger, although it was too early for lunch when we toured the eatery and grounds with owner Rob Wells, who says his marina welcomes transients. “We just had a 74-foot Viking in here,” he says.
The inn includes seven cottages, each with a private dock, and six rooms in the main building. We climbed the steps of the 60-foot water tower for a spectacular view of the Sound and Gulf. The 100-acre Cabbage Key is just north of the Captiva islands and west of Useppa Island.
After taking a quick look at Useppa — from the water, of course — we shot over to Pine Island to check out the Pineland Marina (www.pinelandmarina.com) and the Tarpon Lodge (www.tarponlodge.com). Hurricane Charley pretty much wiped out both places, but they’ve been rebuilt. Photos of two destroyed dock houses at Tarpon Lodge are on the wall of one of the new dock houses, which are now guest cottages. The lodge features four buildings with a total of 23 units: the Island House, Historic Lodge, the Boat House and the Cottage. There are 26 slips, and boat size is determined by draft. The narrow channel is just 3 feet deep at mean low water. The four-star restaurant also deserves mention.
We were getting hungry, so after a quick trip to the northeast side of Cayo Costa to check out the public docks and the large anchorages of Pelican Bay, we headed back to Pine Island’s Jug Creek, which Rob says received its moniker after becoming a port for smuggling alcohol during Prohibition. We pulled into the Lazy Flamingo, which is part of the Four Winds Marina and Condominiums facility (www.fourwindsmarina.com). I had a grilled Cobia sandwich — one of the specials for the day — while Rob, eating like a landlubber, opted for a salad with grilled chicken.
After lunch we loosened our belts, or at least I did, and headed for the eastern end of Jug Creek, which spills out into Matlacha (MAT-la-SHAY) Pass. Rob stopped at the Matlacha Bridge. “They call it the ‘Fishingist Bridge in the World,’ ” he says. “You can get snook, redfish, anything here.”
Matlacha once was a thriving fishing community with mullet, crab and shrimp boats. There still are some fishing boats tied to the docks, but the village is now known for its bright-
colored art galleries. On the southeast side of the bridge is another colorful landmark: Bert’s Bar and Grill (www.berts bar.us). The building’s orange-and-blue exterior matches the colors of the sky when the sun sets. And when it does, look out. It’s time to party. Bert’s rocks the house with live music most nights.
The rest of the trip south through Matlacha Pass was peaceful and scenic, with mangroves sandwiching the channel. We were almost back where we started. Rob wanted to show me one last spot before wrapping up the tour. We motored to Picnic Island, a popular gunkhole for boaters. Unlike many of the other islands in Pine Island Sound, you are allowed to go ashore here. “It’s barbecue heaven on weekends,” says Rob.
We ended the day by wetting a line just south of the Sanibel Bridge. In about 20 minutes I hooked up with a spotted sea trout, bluefish and a handful of ladyfish. “You put us right on the fish,” I told Rob.
“That’s pretty easy around here,” he says.