Great Calusa Blueway
On the Great Calusa Blueway on Florida’s west coast, conditions range from the Gulf of Mexico’s open water, through the bays of Sanibel and Captiva, and into sheltered mangrove creeks. The bird-watching is sublime, with dolphin and manatee sightings common.
Click to see a map
Here's the journal of Bill and Mary Burnham's trip on the northern portion (phase II) of the trail.
Feb. 22, 2006 (Happy Birthday, Mom!): Day One on the Great Calusa Blueway
We’ve been working entirely too hard – paddling and interviewing and hiking by day, editing the Florida Keys Paddling Atlas by night. So we’ve decided to pretend we’re on vacation, just like the rest of the folks we see having fun in sunny Florida – families on spring break, retirees and the like. We’re also determined to post on the blog everyday, as long as we can get online, so stay tuned!
Someone watching us load our boats said: “You do this for a living?” incredulous that we get to kayak and write about it. That was a wake-up call to take more time to smell the roses and watch the sunsets.
Today we started a 10-day adventure paddling the new leg (Phase II) of the Great Calusa Blueway, roughly 100 miles just north of Ft. Myers. Let’s call it soft adventure. Since there’s only a couple of places to camp, we’ll be staying in wonderful inns and resorts most of the way (thanks to the Lee County CVB!)
We refueled, rested, packed (and did laundry) at the Boca Grande Beach Club on Boca Grande Island, our launching point.
The short paddle from Boca Grande lighthouse to Cayo Costa State Park, where we’re camping for two nights, was short but exciting. We’d heard vastly different advice on crossing this 30-foot deep channel. One boat captain said he’s rather put a gun to his head than cross it in a kayak. But the park ranger said people do it all the time, so of course, we did it.
It was calm, with southeast winds about 10 knots. We were advised to time the crossing with an incoming tide. We had some stomach-turning swells from motorboats plying the channel, but nothing too threatening. We could see how with rough seas and high winds, this could be pretty scary, and it's certainly not for the inexperienced paddler.
We pulled up to the state park landing on the bayside of the island in about an hour. We learned that the campground is on the other side of the island, about ¾ of a mile, and that the park will shuttle your gear in golf-cart trams, but not our boats. We decided to venture around the north tip of the island and paddle to the campground instead. (We like to put our food in the kayaks at night to keep it from the raccoons.)
The island sustained a lot of damage in Hurricane Charlie (2004) and the eroded beach is lined with dead palms. But the beach is still gorgeous, and as the sun got lower, the sand started to glow pink.
Bill went for a little walk and saw three baby feral hogs. He said they were cute, black with little tusks. I can’t believe I was so afraid of them up in the Big Bend. But if you saw the damage they do rooting on the beach, you’d understand. They are non-native and quite detrimental to sea turtle eggs.
We did work at night, at the picnic table, on our laptops. Once in awhile, though, I’d take break and look up at the stars. Normally Orion’s Belt stands out as a dominant feature, but in this dark sky it’s surrounded by so many clusters and constellations that we usually don't see.
It’s been a very good day. And we are tired, a good tired.
Feb. 23: Day Two on the Great Calusa Blueway
What a luxury waking up to an "on-island" day. We don't press ourselves to get on the water early. Rather, we take time and experience the rhythm of island life. A 24-hour snapshot, yes. Even so, it's enough.
Cayo Costa is a big island compared with many we've visited. Long and skinny, it covers 4,500 acres Like most, it has a long history of human habitation dating from the Calusa Indians to modern day private in-holdings. The handful of big houses stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise wild landscape of water, dunes, mangrove, slash pines, cabbage palms and a lush understory of small trees like sea grapes, coco plum and southern bayberry.
Unfortunately, there may be more houses. I learned late today that a surveyor had visited with a proposed development plat showing homes, roads and everything. It's doubtful such large-scale development will happen, for a variety of reasons. But it really sticks in my craw that of all the islands in this Pine Island Sound/Matlacha Pass area, people can't bear leaving one island alone for the birds and animals and trees and plants.
Cayo Costa is so big, we decided it would be fruitless to hike it all. Rather, our goal was to make it through Lovers Tunnel, a narrow mangrove-lined creek about mid-point on the island, and then return for a nature walk with Ken Mudge in the afternoon.
We met Ken and his wife by accident. He was staring at my boat at the kayak launch when we walked up from behind. "I wasn't going to take it for a ride," he insisted. With Ken, I'd learn, you never know. There's a mischievous side to him.
I noticed the kerchief around his neck read "Ithaca BSA." Turns out, he is an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University, and a self-proclaimed lover of trees.
But first, Mary and I paddled. Our launch site has these cute little signs warning us about an alligator that supposedly lives in the lagoon, but we saw no evidence of the creature, and so proceeded blissfully on our way. The sun was shining and the wind was – well, it's always a head wind, so it's hardly worth noting.
Lovers Tunnel showed ill-effects from Hurricane Charley, which made landfall in this area of Florida in August, 2004. The mangrove trees that once canopied the stream were dead or dying. Water level was low enough, however, that we could see bottom. Schooling juvenile sheepshead -- we nicknamed them "jail bait" because they have stripes on their side like convict uniforms – sped under our boat. There was a very interesting coral or calcareous algae or hard sponge marine-type plant and/or animal (I think that covers all possibilities) on the bottom, colored orange, very crinkly, hard and attached to just about anything submerged, be it dead branches, the bottom, or shells. I'll get back to you on the positive i.d.
Where the creek empties into Murdoch's Bayou, unseen fishes zigged and zagged out in front of our boats. Mullet jumped for joy two, three even four or five times. Mary spied a small landing in the mangrove, and from it, a foot path led back toward the beach. A large bald eagle perched high up on a dead tree snag caught our eye, and below it, a nest with Momma Baldy sitting on her eggs.
We were back at the campsite by 1 p.m., and Ken was ready. I have to describe his get-up: a long sleeve shirt, with cuffs rolled up to his elbows. Shorts with a multitude of pockets. Plant i.d. cards sticking out of the shirt chest pockets. A hand glass around his neck. Short brimmed hat, with eye glasses and sun glasses. A waist-pack with water and a multi-purpose tool and perhaps a knife, some plastic bags, a journal, and probably much, much more.
I make note of this because, should you see me in a similar get-up, you'll know who to blame.
Earl Raymond, a state park volunteer, joined us for a hike that led up the Cemetery Trail, across the Scrub Trail, an back down the Quarantine Trail. Like Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Cayo Costa served as a quarantine station in the days of yellow fever and malaria. Mike Kwoka, a park ranger, attributes some of the exotic flowers on the island, the vincas in particular, to the doctor's wifes' indiscriminate green thumb.
Hiking is a generous term for what ensued over the next three, four hours. Rather, every few feet, we'd stop and Ken would point out a tree or shrub and ask: "What's that?"
Sometimes he knew, sometimes he didn't. Really, his question was a test: what factors – leaf structure, tree shape, bark, flower, fruit, nut and even smell – combined to bring forth an identification. It's the gestalt, a mixture of all these factors, that leads to an i.d., Ken said.
Oh, and no common names, either. Must be Latin. Family, Genus, Species.
Forget Latin. I was still stuck on, "What's that?," which can be a tough question to answer when it comes to plants. I know a pine is a pine (pinus), except if it's an Australian Pine. But what's the difference between a slash pine and a long leaf pine (slash has two or three needles per "bundle," the long-leaf has only two needles per bundle). Or a live oak versus a myrtle oak versus a sand live oak. I could go on and on.
(Before I go any further, Ken, if you're reading this, I apologize for my use of the lay terms. I haven't transcribed my tape yet, and the terminology most certainly reflects my amateur botanist status.)
We looked at lantana, whose flower arrangement is called a "chyme of inflorescence." (I imagine that's the difference between a florist and a botanist: the florist says "flower arrangement." The botanist says, "chyme of inflorescence.") We looked at southern bayberry (myrica cerifera). Myrica is a genus widely distributed in the tropics, Ken says, in part because of its nitrogen-fixing qualities. There's a whole lot more going on behind this statement that I won't even begin to explain, mostly because I don't understand it. Yet.
(Again, Ken, if you're reading this, feel free to interject.)
One plant had us stumped, until Earl proclaimed it to be Joe Berry. Still, we weren't certain. We hemmed. We hawed. Then Ranger Mike Kwoka pulled up on his Club Cadet 4x4 Carryall.
"What plant is that," we asked, pointing to Earl's Joe Berry. Mike keeps a small greenhouse on the island and propagates native plants. Surely he'd know.
"That is a green plant with four yellow fruits on it," he said.
We ended up calling it "Earl's Joe Berry." It only exists on this trail, and perhaps, only for today.
This was a special day for me. Wherever I walk, every plant – familiar or not – jumps out at me. I want to stop and look closely at each one, ask it: What is your name? Why are you here? What adaptations do you have that make you suited for this spot? What does your presence tell me about the surroundings? Are you on high ground? Low ground? Dry sandy soil? Wet moist earth? What animals do you shelter or feed? How do you survive?
So many questions, so little time. Thanks to a few hours walking with Ken and Earl, I expect more answers than questions the next time I walk through the woods.
Feb. 24 Day Three on the Great Calusa Blueway II
(Mary's writing this one; we're alternating days!)
A little reluctantly, we left our campsite on Cayo Costa this morning. Island living is so darned relaxing! As soon as we landed here two days ago, we found our pace slowing, our thoughts drifting from emails and deadlines to plant identification and bird-watching, our eyes drifting out to the azure Gulf waters and being lulled into a sense of peace.
As we carried gear down to the kayaks, I stopped to snap a photo of purple morning glory. They close up in the harsh sun of midday. (Ken – let me know if I’ve got the name wrong!)
The campground was once a shady forest. Hurricane Charlie and subsequent removal of Australian pine and other invasive non-natives were the one-two punch that turned it into a wildflower meadow – a little daunting for humans seeking shade, but a boon for sun-loving flowers.
We’d heard tell of an alligator in the lagoon where we left our boats, but hadn’t seen him yet. What I thought was a log, I jokingly told Bill was the gator. Turns out it was!
“Only” about four feet long, his eyes sticking up out of the water, watching us. We’d intended to float our boats right to where he was to save us carrying them. We took a few steps his way, and he stood his ground. We decided it was his territory and we’d just have to take the long way around.
Our paddle today would be about 10 miles, first northeast to the tip of the island, then east to Bokeelia Island. I turned on the weather band and guess what? The forecast was for 10 to 15 knot winds from the northeast, shifting to east! Just our luck, headwind all the way.
But we had all day, the weather was pleasant, in the upper 60s, and the slightly overcast skies gave us a break from the sun. I felt positively elated as Bill pushed me off from the beach into the aqua blue surf and I rode the Gulf swells.
On the other side of Cayo Costa we encountered two pods of dolphins playing, rolling (maybe feeding?). There were perhaps 4-6 in each pod, swimming so close together they almost touched. Once in awhile, one would roll showing his white belly. We sat and watched them for a few minutes before moving on.
We passed through the waters of the Pine Island National Wildlife Refuge, a grouping of mostly uninhabited mangrove islands, picking our way among the oyster bars. We stopped to have lunch on one of them, giving new meaning to eating at an oyster bar.
Entering Jug Creek on Pine Island, we began to see more signs of civilization and more sport fishermen heading out in their boats. We also saw the signs for the paddling trail. Bill didn’t want to stay in the busy channel, so he found a side route through a beautiful mangrove tunnel.
We popped out at the top of Pine Island into Charlotte Harbor, hung a left, and found the landing for our night’s lodging: the Bokeelia Tarpon Inn. Innkeeper Cynthia greeted me with the key to a golf cart to bring our gear up. I’ll never forget the look on Bill’s face when I pulled up to the beach! That was a first for us.
The owners have renovated the century-old house into a bed & breakfast catering to the upscale fishing crowd. There’s a library with a stocked bar and the materials to tie your own flies.
After much-needed showers, we headed with laptops to the upstairs screened porch overlooking the harbor.
And here we sit on rattan lounges, enjoying Cynthia’s hors d’oervres and some hot tea. The wind is really kicking up now, gusting to 25 knots or more. The seas are choppy and the palms are rattling. Glad we’re off the water. Yup, island living is pretty good, whether it’s from a primitive campsite or a cozy inn!
Feb. 25: Day Four of the Great Caluse Blueway II
(Not sure who wrote this one. Some damn pirate must've stole my computer while we slept.)
Aaargg, yee scurvy dogs. What cursed fate brings ya to this web page, eh?
Perhaps a story? Well, that I can deliver. But yee be mindin' yer manners, cause a patient man I'm not.
This fool-hardy voyage on the Great Calusa Blueway has entered its fourth day, and still no sign of the promised dabloons of gold and silver so often reported from these here parts. Perhaps it's all a story, like the smoke a'risin from this here camp fire. But pursue it we will, fer it's the luck of the Irish I feel a coursin' through my buccanner blood.
True enough, maties. But we have found treasures of another kind. Bokeelia, fer one, a quaint town ripe fer the plundering if ever there were. Me thinks the Bokeelia-Tarpon Inn may be spared such ravages, for offering us poor cursed souls an evenin's respite. Aaargh, a mattress never felt s'good, and the innkeeper, Cynthia, of good Irish stock, so too she may be spared.
Paddle forth we did, choosin' the shelter of Jug Creek -- named for a good man, God rest his soul, who was known to throw down a jug or two of Nelson's blood before terrorizing the waters of Charlotte Harbor. Take his head, they did, and put it on a spike they did. And for that, we be warned of the fate that lay in store for all who sail under the blood red flag.
Our spirits took a hammerin' when, out of Jug, a hardy stiff wind blew its ill will our way. For it was to Smokehouse Bay we set our sights, be there reports of birds a plenty, and perhaps a fish or two fer the pan.
True enough were both, I tell ye. The mullet were forever jumping, but not into our boat. And the snook darted away before we could draw aim on their slippery shadow.
A hungry we would go, and across the choppy water we sailed, up into Big Dead Creek. If ever a place were to draw the bootleggers, then this har be it. For in the tight quarters of the mangrove that twist and turn, a man could scarce find his own shadow.
But navigate it we did, guided by the goodly advice of our host Curt Peer. Fer by the magic of the newfangled telephone did we reach out and aquire his voice, so that our way to the dockside of The Sun & Moon was as wide as a moonbeam on a clear night.
Here we must leave ye, fellow traveler. Our sore muscles are a beggin' fer time in that cauldron of hot steamy water. Later, there be grub and libations 'round a fire, where no doubt the tales will grow taller than the flames.
Take yer leave and mind ye manners, else I may be payin' ye a call.
Feb. 26: Day Five of the Great Calusa Blueway II
We almost didn’t get on the water today at all. A bluster of a rainstorm passed through Matlacha at about 8 a.m., followed by 15 to 20 knot north winds – gusting even higher. But they would be tail winds for us, so we loaded up for the day’s 11-mile paddle.
Innkeeper Curt Peer and friend Dominick helped pass our heavily-loaded boats over the bulkhead and sent us off. It was really nice to have a welcoming and farewell party for a change. We investigted a lock up the canal from The Sun & Moon, and when we passed by the inn's dock again, Curt came running out, holding something: A silver pendant of a sun and moon, the namesake of his fishing lodge.
Touring the historic fishing village by water, we stopped first at Gulf Coast Kayak where John helped Bill find just the right piece of foam for a quick-fix of his broken kayak seat.
Next we paddled past the Old Fish House Marina, where a man was peeling shrimp and feeding the leftovers to some pelicans. We pick up a pound of fresh grouper for our evening campout.
Some 20, 30 years ago, Matlacha was the kind of place where, if you wore shoes, people knew you weren't local. The two-lane bridge from Cape Coral to Matlacha had the strange nickname of "Fishing-est Bridge in the World," alluding to the volume of people who fish off it. All the houses and buildings were built on docks over the water, something codes would never permit in this day and age.
In 1992, the State of Florida passed by voter referendum a ban on net fishing, popularly called the "net ban." It was a political reaction to a very real problem, that being the fact that gill netting often caught a whole lot more than mullet. This by-catch, as it was called, consisted of fish popular with recreational anglers, who by-and-large funded and pushed the net ban referendum.
What effect the ban had on working watermen is forever inbedded in Curt's mind. He grew up in Ft. Meyers, and today owns and runs The Sun and Moon B&Breakfast/Fishing Lodge.
Back in 1992, however, Curt remembers staring out across the water from Ft. Meyers, toward this small fishing village. All of Matlacha seemed on fire, he said. The fishermen had shot holes in their boats and set them alight. Thanks to the net ban, their livelihood was gone.
Today, Matlacha is an artsy community. Oh, there's a few shrimp boats tied up to the working docks. And everyone swears you can see the holdouts from the mullet fishing days about town, grisled, with long beards.
Those fishermen used to live and work in the over-water shacks and bungalows now decked in bright funky colors and housing art galleries and restaurants. Even the telephone poles have murals. Famous musicians, Jimmy Buffet among them, drop into the local bar and play a set, unannounced. The place has cache.
Matlacha is also a great kayaking town. There are at least two lodgings you can pull up to in your boat. The Sun and Moon B&B is one; the other is the Bridgewater Inn, at the foot of the Matlacha Bridge. Gulf Coast Kayaks operates rentals and tours from a phone booth-sized shack on the water west of the bridge. A new full-service outfitter, Backwater Outfitters of Cape Coral, has opened up a shop on the main drag.
Add great paddling to all these amenities. In Calusa, Matlacha means "shallow water." And there's plenty of it. Mangrove creeks lead into hidden lakes where the Jacks and snook are waiting. Roseate Spoonbills, flocks of ducks and many heron congregate out of the wind in tidal pools and wetlands at the top of Little Pine Key.
The Great Calusa Blueway winds down the east side of Matlacha Pass, through places with names like Big Dead Creek, Mud Hole and Buzzards Bay. Even on our two day trip through the pass, with winds honking 20 plus knots first from the south, then the north, we managed to find enough shelter to make it bearable.
And there’s virtually no development along this entire 11-mile stretch (also few places to get out and relive oneself. We did find the St. James Creek Preserve a nice stop to stretch the legs, with a boardwalk and benches.)
You can discover all this for yourself. In early June, the town will become the headquarters for the first local paddling festival. Keep posted to this web page, or the offical festival page, www.calusabluewaypaddlingfestival.com, for updates.
Evening found us on Picnic Island, a very popular spot for pleasure boaters, given the preponderance of toilet paper in the woods – perhaps a porta-jon is in order? But with these winds we had the island to ourselves, and we were thrilled to find a place to set up the tent out of the wind just in time to watch the sun set.
It was an idyllic evening: fresh grouper, a fire, the sunset, followed by watching a movie in the tent on the laptop!
Feb. 27: Day Six on the Great Calusa Blueway II
We awoke on Picnic Island to the sight of our boats a full 100 yards from the shoreline! We’d come in at high tide, and low tide had brought a huge mud flat. We figured it was a sign to take it easy this morning!
I told Bill we’d been paddling five days straight and should have a day off. Our destination, Sanibel Harbour Resort, was just two miles off (albeit into a headwind).
We landed on the resort’s beach just in time for lunch by the pool. The towering resort has two pools, by the way, and a spa that is so famous, everywhere I went people said: have you been to the spa yet? It was named one of the Top 10 Spa Resorts in the U.S. by Condé Nast Traveler. Our “couples massage” is booked.
So this is our day off: lounging by the pool, catching up on email (and catching the new episode of “The Apprentice”). Tomorrow will be a very active day on Sanibel Island: Bill’s paddling and I’m renting a bike to explore the beaches and shopping!
Feb. 28: Days Seven and Eight on the Great Calusa Blueway II
This was a "separate day" for Mary and I; she stayed on land and surveyed beaches of Sanibel and Captiva, while I paddled J.N. "Ding" Darling NWR. I hit Ladyfinger Lake first, a restricted area in the refuge, but this I didn't learn that until later (signs blew away in the hurricanes), so I enjoyed its many nooks and crannies without guilt.
Working the south end in search of a creek that would lead to some interior wetlands, I found a small hole in the shoreline and pushed aside a few overhanging mangrove branches. Inside, the water was still and a film of dirt swirled on the surface in paisley-like patterns, indicating no flow in or out.
I drifted maybe 20 feet, my eyes focused on a white blob in the trees at the far southwest end of this small lake. I am not a real good birder, but the shape and size told me this wasn't an egret, the only other white bird of such size that would be perched in a tree. I fumbled for my binocs and finally raised them up. Sure enough, it was a wood stork.
We've only seen these endangered birds flying high above us - they have such a distinct profile: neck stuck way out in front; legs stuck way out in back; and a wide, wide wing span.
If you knew nothing else about the bird, however, you'd recognize it for its head: adults are "bald" and the bird's nickname, "Anvil-head," indicates the rough texture of the brown plate that covers the bird's crown.
The wood stork proved a good omen, for a few minutes later, I found another creek, this one with a strong flow from the incoming tide. I rode it in, barely paddling, looking below the water whenever I passed over a sandy spot, hoping I'd see a snook or some schooling mullet.
With every turn, the creek narrowed, until finally it dumped me out into a wide, shallow bay. My boat rolled up onto a shoal where the incoming tide had deposited a bunch of sand. I sat there, staring across at a Roseate Spoonbill feeding on the far side.
This truly was a treat. The Roseate is Florida's only breeding pink bird. Jerry Lorenz, the Audubon Society's man in Tavernier, Florida, calls the Roseate a "Canary in a Coal Mine." Meaning, this bird's fate, either good or bad, is an indicator of how the general health of the Everglades and Florida's environment.
But first, something about the Roseate: besides color, the other solid identifying trait is it's bill. This is a funny shape, almost spatulate bill - wide and flat at the tip, narrower near the head. When feeding, the bird swishes the bill back-and-forth in the water, as if it's shaking its head "NO." This is called tactile feeding, because the bird is literally feeling around for food.
A wetland like the one I'd stumbled upon is a bonanza for this bird. At low tide, it's probably mostly exposed mud flats, but as the tide comes in, it's perfect for the Roseate to forage about, as I watched it do for 10 minutes or so.
The Audubon Society in Florida is studying Roseates pretty seriously, in part because so little is known about their habits. Plume hunters nearly wiped out the population of Roseates and by the mid-1900s, Bottle Key in Florida Bay was one of the only, if not THE only spot where they nested. Now new threats, primarily the loss of wetland habitat for foraging and the alteration of natural water flow regimes in the Everglades, has forced this bird to migrate.
Apparently, one of its new favorite places is the Tampa Bay area. Rob Heath, a Tampa-area naturalist and founder of Wildlife Fellowship, Inc., described the shoals offshore of the mouth of the Alfia River in Hillsborough County, FL., as one of a major roosting and nesting habitat for Roseate Spoonbills.
Rob and I paddled in Cockroach Bay a few weeks ago and saw two of the birds. He was on the look out for ones that had been banded previously by the Audubon Society, but we saw no indications of a band on either.
So Florida Bird Watchers, if you see a Roseate, look on its leg for a band and report the color to your local Audubon Society. Besides where you saw the bird, try to remember the date, time, temperature and other physical conditions, such as whether the bird was feeding or roosting.
You can go online at http://www.audubon.org/states/fl/fl/science/spoonbills.htm to learn more and submit a sighting report. In the Keys, call the Audubon's Tavernier Science Center (305/852-5318). They're a great bunch down there, and always happy to hear about your bird sighting.
Sanibel Island is for bikers, the non-motorized kind. There are bike racks and trails everywhere. Once you get through the traffic on the bridge causeway (they’re building a new one, without a pesky drawbridge), park the car and rent one.
The bike paths run parallel to nearly every road, and they’re not just a shoulder dubbed a bike path, they’re dedicated, separate paved pathwys, with stop signs and markings, and cars do stop for you.
I went everywhere I wanted to go on my 7-speed with a big basket rented from Billy’s Bike’s (only $10 for four hours). Once off the main road (Periwinkle), Casa Ybel and Tarpon Road are lined with nature preserves named for magnanimous donors.
I went to two beaches, the general store for supplies, the Ding Darling NWR where I met Bill for lunch (he kayaked the refuge), and finally Periwinkle Place for some shopping therapy. Here chains like Chico’s mix with those with local crafts like Island Style.
March 1: Day eight on the Great Calusa Blueway II
Just north of Sanibel and connected by a short bridge is the quieter island of Captiva. Tween Waters Inn is lengendary – has been here for 75 years, withstanding Mother Nature’s ravages. The resort spans the width of the island at its narrowest point.
Pool, jacuzzi, kitchen in the room, two restaurants. Gulf beach on one side, bay marina on the other, with manatees and kayak rentals. From their beach access to the gulf you can walk for miles in either direction.
This was a 17-mile day. Too tired to write more.
March 2: Day nine on the Great Calusa Blueway II
North Captiva Island is accessible by boat only. The southern portion is state park and virtually undeveloped. Land anywhere on the beach, which runs along the gulfside. At one point, the island is so narrow, you can run from bay to Gulf in seconds. Watch the birds in the mudflats on the bayside (white pelicans, white egrets, plovers, pelicans), then jump into the cooling aqua blue waters on the gulf, where there’s some wave action. Except at low tide, you can paddle through a small channel that cut the island in half during one of last year’s hurricanes. This stretch of the island actully turned over on itself during the storm, from gulf to bayside. There’s great shelling, so walk for miles on this wild island beach.
Getting here: Launch from Captiva Island. Only experienced kayakers should attempt going through the channel between Captiva and N. Captiva due to dangerous currents, getting to whitewater conditions with the right (or wrong!) tide and wind conditions. Instead, land on the bayside where the island is narrowest and walk over to the ocean beach.
March 3: 10th and last day on the Great Calusa Blueway II
Cabbage Key: This really is “Old Florida,” a place one reads claims about, but seldom truly encounters on the tourist trail. It’s a place Jimmy Buffet has actually endorsed as the inspiration for his Cheeseburger in Paradise (it’s on the menu).
“You could be away for 20 years and come back to visit, and things won’t have changed much at all,” says proprietor Ken Wells, son of the couple who purchased the 100-acre island and 1920s inn about 25 years ago.
There’s no beach, no pool, no TV, and no room keys. There are pine floors, about 70,000 dollar bills plastered to the ceiling by patrons, and a nature trail.
A resident great white egret, mallard ducks and some gopher tortoises greet the lunch boats that bring hundreds of people a day in season. There’s not much for folks to do but have lunch and wander the nature trail with native trees noted with plaques.
That’s the charm of the island – not much to do but relax and slow to island time. And if you’re lucky enough to be staying in one of the inn’s six rooms or guest cottages, things really get quiet when the tour boats leave and the staff readies for dinner.
The music switches from classic rock to jazz. The food and service are top-notch, and while you can certainly get a Margarita (to go with the Cheeseburger in Paradise), you can only get it on the rocks. Blenders are too noisy, the owners say.
Reluctantly we left Cabbage Key for the five-mile paddle back to Boca Grande Lighthouse and our car.
We'd logged 10 days, 145 miles, and some of the finest lodgings in southwest Florida. We'll be back.