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It’s the laid-back paradise Jimmy Buffett made famous when he met the perfect cheeseburger, a piano and a cold beer after a day of awesome fishing. Cabbage Key is an “Old Florida” island where the inspired rocker is reported to have written the famed song “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
Those who visit Cabbage Key, seek “authentic” Florida. (Or a cold, frosty beer.) It’s a club, a rite of passage, a badge of “authenticity.” I had never visited the island and knew it was time to experience the ambiance of this legendary island hideaway.
One small detail–you have to get there by boat. A few decisions you want to make: Either take your own vessel, which I highly recommend, or grab an island taxi leaving Pine Island. But a boat ride is a mere 12 minutes from Pine Island. Or if you prefer to leave from Captiva, Punta Gorda or Boca Grande, party boats leave daily. The island can be found near Channel Marker 60 in the Pine Island Sound.
Arriving at Cabbage Key, visitors are greeted by a harbormaster that oversees the small marina and boathouse. Spotted along the harbor are old white wooden cottages and a few private homes. Named for the abundance of cabbage palms, the Cabbage Key Inn & Restaurant and surrounding buildings were built by mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart and her son in 1938. Little has changed since then. An old refurbished water tower looms near the restaurant. Royal Poinciana trees and lovely palms dot the landscape. Ospreys and bald eagles soar overhead.
The main focal point is the inn and restaurant, which sit high on a Calusa Indian mound. Boaters arrive throughout the day to enjoy the casual dining. Guests can eat on the patio–in or outdoors–but don’t miss the collection of famed dollar bills taped to the ceilings and walls inside. Our server reported that there are over 70,000 dollar bills on the walls, with written names, sayings and graffiti. The tradition started years ago when a commercial fisherman, flush with cash, taped a few bills to the wall, ensuring he would have enough money to return for more libations. Famous celebrities are reported to have tacked their dollars such as John F. Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Carter and others.
We stayed overnight in the appropriately named Doll House, one of the most popular cottages. It was similar to those from my earliest childhood memories–hardwood floors, a screened-in porch, window A/C units–with a full mangrove view and gentle breezes.
By evening, and after the boaters retreated, the island is quiet and we reflected on what it must have been like when the Rineharts lived here. As Florida’s island outback, the mosquitoes alone must have been an interesting challenge. Admiring all the cabbage palms, one native plant stood out more than others. It was the remarkable abundance of night blooming cereus, which are cactus flowers that open after dark. The thin, spiny cactus wraps itself around trees and yield large buds that are spectacular when open.
The experience on Cabbage Key is all about boating and fishing. If you are looking for a beach stop, consider the nearby Cayo Costa, an unspoiled island with miles of open beach and nature.
Cabbage Key is a “must” for authentic travelers – whether stopping for lunch or staying the night – and a delightful reminder of “old” Florida and its past. Sigh.