Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Take a bite of... paradise

Florida's Gulf Islands a good place to start

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TO me, munching on a cheeseburger in a classic old Florida island resort’s restaurant is paradise.

And if you're a Parrothead, you've already starting to hum a song because it turns out, I really am eating a cheeseburger in paradise.

Behind the bar on Cabbage Key, one of the Gulf Islands near Fort Myers, Florida, is not just one, but two, autographed photographs of singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet. Seems when Buffet's career was starting out in the early 1970s, the bar was one of several places he plunked down with his guitar and sang.

And ate cheeseburgers.

Out of that, legend has it, came Buffet's legendary song Cheeseburgers in Paradise.

Whether the legend is true or not, it's nice to think about it as you eat the cheeseburger, have Key Lime Pie for dessert, and wash it all down with the beverage of your choice. And as you look around the room in the Cabbage Key Restaurant and Inn you realize many people have taken in this part of paradise. Dollar bills autographed by numerous patrons hang from every square inch of wall, ceiling and post. It has become almost an obligatory way to leave your mark behind.

It's for a good cause too, our server says that every so often about $10,000 in bills are taken down and given to local youth charities.

Past donations have hardly made a dent in the cash because at any time it seems thousands of dollars are on display.

There's only one way to get to this paradise, by water. There are no roads or bridges out here.

The easiest way is to book a spot on Captiva Cruises. The two-storey boat sets out from Captiva Island, located just north of Sanibel Island, at 10 a.m., with a choice of either going to Cabbage Key or Useppa Island. Either way, the crew says there is always a strong chance that dolphins will be spotted either on the way to Cabbage Key or on the way back.

It seems we were only in the Gulf of Mexico for a few minutes when suddenly the crew guns the engines and before we know it a few bottlenose dolphins are having fun leaping from the waves created in our wake. The passengers are urged to cheer them on with clapping and shrieks and they respond by following us for several minutes. The water is so clear we can also see manta rays underwater gliding along too.

During the safety talk by the boat's crew before our voyage, they assure us that even if the worst happened, and the ship sank, we'd be fine.

Turns out the water is about three metres deep and because the boat is about four metres high, if we ran into trouble we'd simply walk to the upper storey where we'd be high and dry. Not sure whether it would be a situation for us to sing My Heart Goes On.

The boat has a bar and a snack concession on board with both an indoor area to look at the view or an open upper deck.

Cabbage Key is also notable for being built by the family of, and with input from, author and playwright Mary Roberts Rinehart in the 1930s.

Rinehart, considered the American Agatha Christie and author of several novels including The Bat, is responsible for the line "the butler did it".

Current owner Rob Wells, during a quick golf cart tour of the resort with my family, said the restaurant and inn is built on a mound constructed of sea shells collected by the ancient Calusa Indians in the area. He said the island is only about 100 acres in size and the guest accommodations are spread out in several one and two bedroom cottages.

Wells, who has owned the island for almost three decades and has raised his family there, is proud as he points out the numerous trees and plants on the island's nature trail, but he admits a lot of it was flattened when Hurricane Charley tore through the area in 2004.

You get a good view of the island and the surrounding waters from the tall water tower which, with a white painted staircase, also doubles as an observation tower.

At the dockside for the trip back, we look in vain to see if there's any Manatee in the water -- the local sea cow -- before our boat heads over to Useppa to pick up the passengers who decided to go there.

Useppa is a different experience: while Cabbage Key is rustic Old Florida, Useppa is a private upscale island club. As such, it even prevents people from docking without prior reservations.

A museum on the island tells about its history with the Calusa Indians as well as its notoriety of being the training base for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Back at Capitva Island, the area is filled with hotels, resorts and mansions.

A quick drive south over a short bridge takes us to Sanibel Island, an island also filled with hotels, resorts and mansions. However, this island also has attractions, shops and art galleries.

One of these is the Hirdie-Girdie Gallery. This artists co-op is filled with art produced by artists who live locally or winter here.

It's open Monday to Saturday from November to May, but it has more limited summer hours. We purchased a collage of a lighthouse by an artist, but there's also oil paintings, stained glass, and pottery, all at reasonable prices for original works.

The island is also home to the world famous J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge -- all 6,000 acres of it -- takes up a large portion of the island. It is home to numerous wildlife including alligators, birds, and raccoons. USA Today ranks the refuge as the top birdwatching destination in North America.

The easiest way to tour the refuge is to take a 90 minute narrated tram tour, but there are also foot paths and a six-kilometre scenic drive.

Back on the mainland, a quick toll causeway away, Fort Myers has several attractions.

But of all of them, the most notable is the one devoted to two famous snowbirds.

Inventor Thomas Edison, who invented hundreds of devices including the incandescent light bulb, purchased a 14-acre winter home here in 1886 and built a laboratory and experimental gardens. A few years later, another innovative titan of the era, Henry Ford, built a home on a three-acre piece of property next door to his good friend Edison.

The two estates are bundled as the Edison and Ford Winter Estates museum.

The museums are a historic site, but about 90 to 95 per cent of it is wheelchair accessible. For auto enthusiasts, the the property has a display of vehicles, manufactured by Ford of course, dating back to 1914.

Cruises, wildlife, art and history, there really are a lot of options if you decide you don't want to hit the local beaches for a day or two.

But I'll never know whether Edison or Ford ever ate cheeseburgers in their section of paradise.

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

If You go

Flights: Southwest Florida International Airport is in Fort Myers, and about a 20-minute rental car ride away from the toll causeway to Sanibel. Westjet, Air Canada, and Northwest Airlines all fly to the airport. There are also plenty of rental car agencies a two minute walk away from the baggage carousels.

Attractions: Fort Myers and Sanibel and Capitva Islands: Cabbage Key information and reservations can be found at www.cabbage-key.com Captiva Cruises information can be found at www.captivacruises.com or (239) 472-530. Information on J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is at www.dingdarling.fws.gov For information on the Edison and Ford Winter Estates go to www.efwefla.org

Tourist information: Both tourism authorities publish wonderful guidebooks which can be ordered by telephone or on line. To get information on Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades call

1-239-225-1013 or go to www.paradisecoast.com From May 1 to Dec. 15, the Paradise Coast tourist bureau is also offering a VIP (Values in Paradise) listing all of the discounts and deals in the area. For Fort Myers and Sanibel information, call 1-800-237-6444 or go to www.fortmyers-sanibel.com The state of Florida also produces a myriad of information on both places and other areas at www.visitflorida.com

Wheelchair information: With a family member who uses a wheelchair, we find the best way to enjoy the sand and surf is to rent a beach wheelchair. In this area, Better Life appears to be the only company that rents them (and judging by the number of people who came up to us during the week to ask where we got it, they're a well kept secret). It cost us $125 for the week. Call (239) 430-2220 to reserve one and to get delivery charge and pickup information.

Shopping: There are numerous factory outlets, malls and shops for you to help stimulate the American economy. The largest factory outlet mall in the area is Miromar Outlets between Fort Myers and Naples.

There's also a Tanger factory outlet on the highway to Sanibel just before the causeway. Coconut Point is a massive outdoor mall laid out with a street containing fashion outlets on either side including Hollister and Aeropostale. The Gulf Coast Town Center has other big box stores including Bass Pro Shop.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2009 E4

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