Sanibel and Captiva are jumping-off points for island-hopping boat trips to barrier islands and Keys teeming with ancient legends and Robinson Crusoe-style beaches. You don't have to get completely lost out here, however, because several islets have comfortable inns and restaurants. The trip itself across shallow Pine Island Sound is a sightseeing adventure, with playful dolphins surfing on the boat's wake and a variety of cormorants, egrets, frigate birds, and (in winter) rare white pelicans flying above.
Captiva Cruises (tel. 239/472-5300; www.captivacruises.com) makes daily trips from the South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island. One vessel goes to Cabbage Key, departing at 10am and returning at 3pm. It stops at Useppa Island, going and coming, daily. Another vessel goes to Boca Grande by way of Cayo Costa State Park, departing daily at 10am and returning at 4pm. These day trips cost $45 for adults, $35 for children 6 to 12 to Boca Grande; $35 for adults, $20 for children 6 to 12 to Cabbage Key or Useppa. Reservations are required.
From Pine Island off Fort Myers, Tropic Star Cruises (tel. 239/283-0015; www.tropicstarcruises.com) operates daily ferry service to Cayo Costa. Tickets are $35 for adults and $25 for children 7 and under.
Where Chocolate Grows on Trees -- From December to February, the area's Black Sapote trees bear a most interesting fruit. Known as the "chocolate pudding fruit," it is round with thin olive-green skin and contains a mass of glossy, chocolate-colored pulp that's soft, sweet, and mild, very much like pudding. It makes a tasty and healthy dessert, a delicious pie filling, or an exotic tropical beverage when mixed with pineapple juice. The Sunburst Tropical Fruit Company, on Pine Island (tel. 239/283-1200), has the fruit for sale, so you needn't pick from the trees.
You never know who's going to get off a boat at 100-acre Cabbage Key and walk into the funky Cabbage Key Inn, a rustic house built in 1938. Ernest Hemingway liked to hang out here, and novelist John D. MacDonald was a frequent guest years later. Today, you could find yourself rubbing elbows at the bar with the likes of Ted Koppel, Sean Connery, or Julia Roberts. Singer and avid yachtie Jimmy Buffett likes Cabbage Key so much that it inspired his hit song "Cheeseburger in Paradise."
A path leads from the tiny marina across a lawn dotted with coconut palms to this white-clapboard house that sits atop an ancient Calusa shell mound. Guests dine in the comfort of two screened porches and seek libations in the library-turned-bar, its pine-paneled walls now plastered with dollar bills left by visitors. The straight-back chairs and painted wooden tables show their age, but that's part of Cabbage Key's laid-back, don't-give-a-you-know-what charm.
In addition to the famous thick, juicy cheeseburgers so loved by Jimmy Buffett, the house specialties are fresh broiled fish and shrimp steamed in beer. Lunches range from $6 to $13; main courses at dinner are $18 to $29.
Most visitors come out here for the day, but if you want to stay overnight, the Cabbage Key Inn has six rooms and six cottages. The more expensive cottages, four of which have kitchens, are preferable to the rooms. Although the units have private bathrooms and air-conditioners, they are very basic by today's standards, and some of their original 1920s furnishings have seen better days. Service for overnight guests can leave a lot to be desired, and there's no place on the islet to buy snacks or sundries. If you do decide to rough it, rates are $99 to $139 single or double for rooms, $150 to $389 for cottages. For information and reservations, contact Cabbage Key Inn, P.O. Box 200, Pineland, FL 33945 (www.cabbagekey.com; tel. 239/283-2278; fax 239/283-1384).
Short of Lost, you can't get any more deserted than at Cayo Costa State Park (pronounced Cay-oh Cos-tah), which occupies a 2,132-acre, unspoiled barrier island with miles of white-sand beaches, pine forests, mangrove swamps, oak-palm hammocks, and grasslands. Other than natural wildlife, the only permanent residents here are park rangers.
Day-trippers can bring their own supplies and use a picnic area with pavilions. A free tram carries visitors from the dock on the sound side to the Gulf beach. The state maintains 12 basic cabins and a primitive campground on the northern end of the island near Johnson Shoals, where the shelling is spectacular. Cabins cost $40 a day, and campsites are $22 a day year-round. For camping or cabin reservations, call tel. 800/326-3521 or go to www.reserveamerica.com. There's running water on the island, but no electricity.
The park is open daily from 8am to sundown. There's a $2-per-person honor-system admission fee for day visitors. You can rent single-seat kayaks for $40 a day, two-seaters for $50 a day; for reservations, call Tropic Star Cruises, on Pine Island (tel. 239/283-0015; www.tropicstarcruises.com).
For more information, contact Cayo Costa State Park, P.O. Box 1150, Boca Grande, FL 33921 (tel. 941/964-0375; www.floridastateparks.org/cayocosta). Office hours are Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm.
Upper (North) Captiva
Cut off by a pass from Captiva, its northern barrier-island sibling is occupied by the upscale resort of North Captiva Island Club, P.O. Box 1000, Pineland, FL 33945 (tel. 800/576-7343 or 239/395-1001; fax 239/472-5836; www.northcaptiva.com). Despite the development, about 750 of the island's 1,000 acres are included in a state preserve. The club rents accommodations ranging from efficiencies to luxury homes. There's scheduled water-taxi service with Island Girl Charters (tel. 239/633-8142; www.islandgirlcharters.org). Call for rates, as they change often.
Useppa was a refuge of President Theodore Roosevelt and his tarpon-loving industrialist friends at the turn of the 20th century. New York advertising magnate Barron G. Collier bought the island in 1906 and built a lovely wooden home overlooking Pine Island Sound. His mansion is now the Collier Inn, where day-trippers and overnight guests can partake of lunches and seafood dinners in a place with country club ambience. You can also visit the Useppa Museum (tel. 239/283-1061; www.useppa.com/society.html), which explains the island's history and displays 4,000-year-old Calusa artifacts. Admission is by $5 donation.
The Collier Inn is the centerpiece of the Useppa Island Club (tel. 239/283-1061; www.useppa.com), an exclusive development with more than 100 luxury homes, all in the clapboard-sided, tin-roofed style of Old Florida. For information, rates, and reservations, contact Collier Inn & Cottages, P.O. Box 640, Bokeelia, FL 33922 (www.useppa.com; tel. 888/735-6335 or 239/283-1061; fax 239/283-0290).
Just about 40 miles north of Sanibel Island and 30 miles north of Fort Myers is Pine Island (www.pineislandfl.com), a tiny 17*2-mile island connected to the mainland by a causeway that's time-warped back to Old Florida circa the 1950s and 1960s. Known for palm tree nurseries, fishing villages, mango orchards, and a burgeoning artist's colony, Pine Island features a year-round population of 10,000. As small as it is, it's composed of five small villages -- St. James City, Pine Island Center, Pineland, Bokeelia, and Matlacha. At the island's southern end is the Calusa Land Trust's St. Jude Nature Trail, featuring spectacular ocean views, bald eagles, herons, roseate spoonbills, egrets, and osprey.
In Pineland, farming is alive and well with a slew of nurseries growing organic veggies, palm trees, hibiscus, and mangoes. Also in Pineland is the Tarpon Lodge & Restaurant, 13771 Waterfront Dr. (tel. 239/283-3999; www.tarponlodge.com), an old-school Florida resort-lodge dating back to 1926 and known for its blue crab and roasted corn chowder. Rooms and cottages have views of Pine Island Sound, and rates range from $110 to $320. Over in Bokeelia, you'll see some nice beach homes, a few condos, and art galleries. The Bokeelia Tarpon Inn , 8241 Main St. (www.tarponinn.com; tel. 239/283-8961), is a bed-and-breakfast overlooking Charlotte Harbor with rates ranging from $159 to $299. If you'd rather rough it, try the Jug Creek Cottages (www.tropicstarcruises.com; tel. 239/283-0015), on 5 acres of state parkland in Bokeelia, featuring rustic accommodations with kitchenettes, bathrooms, and air-conditioning, at $90 a night. In Matlacha, you'll discover a groovy group of cottages, art galleries, and restaurants priding themselves on catching the freshest fish from their very own "World's Fishingest Bridge." Among the best restaurants here are Moretti's Waterfront Seafood Restaurant, 4200 Pine Island Rd. (tel. 239/283-5825; www.morettisseafoodrestaurant.com), and Bert's Bar & Grill, 4271 Pine Island Rd. (tel. 239/282-3232; www.bertsbar.us), a lively watering hole featuring great food and live music. If you can't stay overnight, Pine Island is definitely worth a day trip, with an emphasis on the word trip. This is as trippy as this area gets!
To get there, we suggest stopping at the Sanibel Chamber of Commerce, where they will guide you through a somewhat tricky set of directions. If not, try following these guidelines, which came straight from a Pine Island resident: Take McGregor Boulevard S.R. 867 and get to College Parkway, where you will take a left, heading to Cape Coral Bridge. Exiting the toll plaza at the bridge, you will be on Cape Coral Parkway for several miles until you come to Chiquita Boulevard. Then turn right (north) and go all the way to the Pine Island Road S.R. 78 intersection. Left here (westerly) will land you in Matlacha and Pine Island.
In Spanish, it means "little mouth," but in terms of traveling through Southwest Florida, Bokeelia means "heaven." West of Fort Myers on the northern tip of Charlotte Harbor, Bokeelia joins Pine Island and St. James City as peaceful places where they've yet to pave paradise. The Bokeelia Tarpon Inn, 8241 Main St. (tel. 866/TARPON-2 [827-7662] or 239/283-8961; www.tarponinn.com), is set in the historic Poe Johnson House. Johnson's lineage dates back to 1914. Revamped as an inn, without ruining its historical charm, the six-room house has pine floors and walls, a fireplace, Indonesian wicker furniture, and spacious rooms with louvered shutters and queen-size beds. Because the waters around here are swimming with tarpon, the inn has a fly-tying room where a local fisherman demonstrates the finer points of fly-fishing. The inn can also arrange boat charters. Complimentary breakfast, wine, and hors d'oeuvres, as well as stunning views of Boca Grande and Charlotte Harbor, mean there's absolutely no reason to leave this unfettered little piece of Starbucks-free paradise.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.