When you think of Florida, you might think bright, colourful Art Deco Miami. You might think bright, colourful Disney Orlando. Then again, if you’re reading this, you’re probably more likely to think dark, decadent Ernest Hemingway. Here, Gabrielle Sander discovers a lesser-known side to Florida – the west coast retreats of Fort Myers and Sanibel…
‘Please be advised, this area is prone to frequent alligator sightings’. Eleven words you do not want to see at the start of a nature trail, especially one on a remote island, far away from any medical facility. ‘Warning rattle snakes..’, another sign that should have you turning on your heels and heading in the opposite direction. Yelping at the sight of a reptilic stick or snap of a branch, I continued to walk against the fear of the unknown (or indeed, known, in this instance) through the tropical vegetation of Cabbage Key, tactfully positioning myself in the middle of the group, and dreading every moment to the end. On a plus, adrenalin is a great builder of appetite, and by the time we reached the restaurant, fear had turned to famished; fit for the huge platter of Stone Crab claws I was about to order.
This was the penultimate day of our trip round Fort Myers and Sanibel, a stretch of South East Florida, edging the Gulf of Mexico, a world away from the regular tourist traps of Orlando and Miami. It’s for when you’re tired of queuing and goofing around at Disneyland; when you’re not quite up for the bright lights of Miami. It’s laid back and outdoorsy, bursting with wildlife and full to the brim with beautiful beaches, nature reserves, and super little places to eat and drink.
For now, it’s back to Cabbage Key, a 100-acre island off mainland Florida, made up of cabbage palms (hence the name), mangroves, hibiscus, bougainvillea and frangipani-dotted nature trails, and a small selection of self-catering cottages. The main attraction, aside from the resident free-roaming turtles and picturesque location, is Cabbage Key Restaurant and Inn, which is plastered floor to ceiling in multiple layers of dollar bills. Tens of thousands of them have been signed and taped up over the years by passing tourists and VIP visitors from Tom Hanks to Jimmy Carter. Some, wafting under the breeze of the ceiling fans, look like they might fall at any moment; if they do, they’re scooped up and given to charity. It’s a tradition said to have started when a fisherman headed there to celebrate a good day’s catch, then handed the bartender a dollar to nail behind the bar, for a less fruitful day.
Thankfully, the only place to eat and drink on the island serves a pretty decent lunch. While I tucked into the Stone Crab claws – succulent and sweet, having been netted less than an hour before – my friends opted for cheeseburgers, having heard from the captain on the boat ride over from Captiva Island that Jimmy Buffett was inspired to pen his catchy 1978 song, Cheeseburger in Paradise, after a trip here. The trip with Captiva Cruises, direct from McCarthy’s Marina and peppered with surprise dolphin displays, stops there twice a day – to drop off and pick up. The only other way to get there is to bring your own boat and dock up with the help of the on-hand harbourmaster.
After lunch it was back on the boat and back to the Westin Cape Coral Resort, our hotel for the duration. Cape Coral is restricted by a rule that only allows you to build your home to the height of the tallest palm tree. That is, with the exception of the 19-storey, Westin Cape Coral and a couple of adjacent, similarly-sized, apartment blocks. The five-star hotel was originally built for residential purposes, and as such, even the entry level room is around the same size as the average one-bed studio flat in London. The one and two bedroom suites are fit for a family, with separate living and dining spaces, fully appointed kitchen, laundry room, walk-in wardrobe, marble bathroom and spacious bedroom with king-size, bespoke Heavenly Bed.
The hotel sits on the edge of a full service marina, Tarpon Point, and every room boasts balcony views over the glassy San Carlos Bay pouring off it, blanketed by a nature reserve made up of lush mangroves. It’s a view you’ll miss when you leave, looking out onto one of the largest breeding areas for dolphins and sea turtles, and a haven for some of the area’s 300 species of birds and the state’s official marine animal, manatees. Tarpon Point Marina sprawls neatly at its foot, and is filled with the kind of boats you could travel the world in; grand, shiny things with names such as Hassel Free II, No Pier Pressure, and my personal favourite, Sail La Vie.
At the hotel’s entrance, is a row of little independent stores, selling everything from beachwear and art to homemade fudge, and at the far end, Pinchers Crab Shop, where our Florida food journey began. This must-visit, neighbourhood restaurant sells all manner of shrimp and crab dishes, caught locally, and boasts an ‘all day, every day’ happy hour. Don’t do what I did, and order the (albeit very nice) fish cakes over the delicious, signature pinchers. You’ll regret it as soon as you see your table mates smugly tucking into them. Do finish off with a slab of key lime pie and sample one of the Florida ales.
We continued to feast handsomely during the trip, managing to stay relatively close to home. Ford’s Garage was a non-negotiable pit stop for the novelty factor, considering one of Fort Myers’ famous former residents was Henry Ford. There are a handful of these dotted around, each dressed in the same 1920’s gas station/prohibition bar-inspired, industrial décor, and a gallery for Model Ts, with the cars positioned out front and hanging from the ceiling like giant chandeliers. Here, where soft rock and pop entertains from the speakers and the latest game plays on big screens, it’s all about the burgers; and what excellent burgers they are.
Each one of the 20-odd choices, topped with a Ford logo-imprinted brioche bun, is dedicated to a local resident inducted into the Cape Coral Burgers of Fame, a new list of which is unveiled each January. This year, the Black-N-Bleu is dedicated to the Lee County Sheriff, Mike Scott; my ridiculously good, sushi-grade Ahi tuna steak burger, Tuna Me Up, was dedicated to Florida Weekly Founder and CEO, Pason Gaddis; and who else to name next to the spicy Chilli Con Queso Burger, than the local Fire Chief, Donald K Cochran. For the ambitious, there’s Henry Ford’s “Hub Cap”, a 10-pound Black Angus Beef burger with the works, which, if you complete it in less than two hours, is free. Otherwise, it’s $125 and enough for 15 people.
Gabrielle’s trip around Fort Myers, Florida, continues tomorrow…