Island Tales
A Cabbage Kind of Night ©
- Libby Boren McMillan

As we eased out of the Intracoastal Waterway at Channel Marker 60, exclusive Useppa Island was off our starboard side. It was the funky little mangrove island to our left, however, that was our destination for the next 24 hours. We were on our way to historic Cabbage Key, Southwest Florida's coolest place to hang out and hide out.

Small and accessible only by water, 100-acre Cabbage Key lies approximately nine miles north of Captiva and five miles south of Boca Grande. It's both famous and infamous in boating circles as the place to stop for a beer, but there's more to Cabbage than a cold brew. This alluring little hideaway sports a full-service restaurant (operating 365 days a year), as well as overnight accommodations. Not everyone is there only temporarily: The island is home to several friendly mallards and a handful of unique Cabbage Key employees who have retreated there, leaving reality far behind.

The docks at Cabbage are so busy on weekends that Terry, the dockmaster, has become an icon in Southwest Florida. He has a last name, of course, but like other celebrities who reach a certain stature, he is referred to by one name only. Through his many years of friendly, personal service, Terry has become a cherished friend to literally thousands of visitors who consider Cabbage "their" special hangout. Cabbage wouldn't be the same without the warm greeting of this favorite island son.

The island literally oozes Olde Florida ambiance. Once the private estate of the son of mystery-writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, Cabbage Key is crowned by its restaurant, located in what was the family's main house, built around 1930. Constructed of native Florida pine and cedar and painted white, its sprawling tin roofs and giant screened porches offer a welcome respite from the Florida sun. The restaurant sits atop a grassy hill covered with postcard-perfect tropical palms and a sprinkling of Adirondack chairs. So far atop, in fact, that at 38 feet above sea level, the restaurant at Cabbage Key is the highest point in Lee County. Remarkable for its height alone, Cabbage has a rich history that precedes the Rinehart family by a few thousand years, at which point this tiny refuge was home to Florida's Calusa Indians. The giant mound that today is Cabbage Key was, in fact, created from the shell remains of the Calusas' diet staple.

Autograph your dollar bill before contributing to the decor

Shellfish is available there still, in the form of charcoal-grilled gulf shrimp and stone crab claws. The lunch menu is lighter fare; dinners are elegant in a rustic setting, and diners wear everything from Useppa Upscale to shorts and T-shirts. The evening we dined there, we ordered steak and were very pleased with our evening meal. The food has a lot of competition for any visitor's attention, however, as the restaurant walls are covered in thousands and thousands of one-dollar bills, each autographed by an island visitor wanting to leave his or her mark. Bills falling from their perch are donated to child-related charities.

As if a breezy porch, legal-tender wallpaper, and great food weren't enough to intrigue, several well-known visitors have dropped in through the years. At the risk of making Cabbage sound more like "CK: The Designer Island," which it most definitely is NOT, I can reveal that chairs there have held the likes of Ted Koppel, Norman Schwarzkopf, Katherine Hepburn, Rob Lowe, James Taylor, and a particularly dashing member of the Kennedy clan.

These illustrious visitors are not the most widely celebrated aspect of this tiny getaway. Fame has come because of a little ditty sung in nearly every bar in America. This song was allegedly written after a visit to Cabbage Key by none other than the world's most famous tropical troubadour, Jimmy Buffett. Perhaps you yourself have sung the words, "Cheeseburger in Paradise ." One little boat ride and you really can eat those words for lunch.

Before turning in, we opted to hang out in the tiny bar adjoining the restaurant. With only about four tables and as many barstools, seats are at a premium, but we got lucky and were able to perch right at the bar. When asked what was in the famous Cabbage Creeper drink, the illustrious Terry, who had stopped by for a moment, smiled and informed us that the ingredients were "unknown but lethal."

Boaters and overnighters can enjoy live entertainment Thursday through Saturday evenings. Nature provides her own nightly show on this magical hill as giant star-filled skies float dreamily over the watery surroundings.

Our overnight accommodations at Cabbage were as charming as the rest of the property. Six rooms and six cottages are available for those visitors who are not sleeping on board. The cottages vary in size, sleeping one to four couples. As we visited the island on a less-than-rambunctious Thursday night, we chose a room located in the historic main house. Dark and cozy, the cedar walls shut out the rest of the world. A comfortable bed, soft sheets, and a large bathroom with plenty of towels rounded out the amenities. Rooms at Cabbage are extremely affordable, particularly in off-season. (Early-to-bed visitors may want to consider a room farther away from the bar on weekends.)

After a hearty farmer's breakfast the next morning, we were off, bidding a fond farewell to Terry, until our inevitable next visit. You can always take a boater out of Cabbage, but you can't take Cabbage out of a boater.

Cabbage Key, 941/283-2278. P.O. Box 200, Pineland, Florida, 33945.
Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week since 1942. "Always open no matter the weather."

To get there by boat: Cabbage is located just adjacent to ICW marker #60; follow the marked channel to the marina. Overnight dockage is available for boats up to 80 feet.
Water taxi is available from Jensen's Marina on Captiva: up to six people, $130 round trip, reservations recommended. 239-472-5800.
Lunch excursions run daily from Captiva via Captiva Cruises. Call 239-472-5200 for details and reservations.

* Originally published in Times of the Islands - Spring, 1998
© Libby Boren McMillan - Legal Rights Apply

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