Pine Island is a quiet, undeveloped island located on the Gulf Coast of southwest Florida. In addition to the excellent fishing, talented artists and ancient archaeological sites, there are also several utterly unique "Old Florida" experiences not to be missed. Chief among these is the Tarpon Lodge Sportsman Inn; restaurant and bar are located on the northwest coast of Pine Island in Pineland.
The ride to Pineland is scenic and relaxing. A straight shot down Pine Island Road takes me past thick native vegetation. Fishermen and artists bump shoulders with photographers and eco-tourists amidst the hallucinogenic colors of Matlacha. Then it's a quick and quiet jaunt through the stark alien landscape of the Little Pine Island wetland restoration area.
From the four-way stop sign at the center of Pine Island, I turn right onto Stringfellow Road. Grand entrances to half-built subdivisions encroach on the scenic space, threatening the future of long enduring roadside vegetable vendors and the lush, desolate labyrinths of palm tree nurseries. The onward push for bigger, better, faster, more is visible, even here.
A fish-emblazoned sign at the corner of a side street points the way. Magnificent shell mounds raise the ground on the right side of the road. Sparkling Pine Island Sound soon comes into view on the left. A short distance ahead stands stately Tarpon Lodge Sportsman Inn and Restaurant. It's right across the road from the Calusa Heritage Trail and practically next door to the home of New York Times best-selling author, Randy Wayne White.
The main building was originally built in 1926 by the Wilson family. Later on it was owned and operated by I.B. and Mary Hunt Jones as the Pine-Aire Lodge. In 1986, an additional dormitory was added to the former Pine-Aire Lodge property. For the next ten years the property was known as The Cloisters, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. In 2000 Robert and Phyllis Wells (who also own the restaurant at Cabbage Key) purchased the complex. They renovated the main building and dormitory into a restaurant and lodge – present day Tarpon Lodge. It opened for business in June of 2001. When Hurricane Charley made landfall on Pine Island on August 13, 2004, it severely damaged the roof of the main structure, flooding the main dining room. Most of the windows were shattered and all of the docks were destroyed. After the storm, work ensued, and the property was restored again. The restaurant reopened on December 15, 2004. The inn reopened during the New Year's holiday and immediately hosted a family gathering for former President Jimmy Carter and his family.
Royal palms and banana tree leaves shade the front entrance. Red flowers and green leaves come alive in the soft breeze as I walk by them on my way to check in to an overnight room. A quick tour and gracious hospitality are immediately offered by the kind woman behind the desk. After my Tarpon Lodge orientation, it's out to the car to gather the wife and belongings – we're officially on Island Time.
Pineland is as laid back as it gets. This isn't glitzy-neon Florida. This isn't sweaty South Beach, or posh Worth Avenue, or tacky Panama City, or plastic Orlando. Even Sanibel and Captiva look overpopulated and hectic when compared with Pineland. People who visit the Tarpon Lodge don't end up here by accident; they usually come looking for one of a few things: fishing, history, nature, romance or solitude. If they're lucky, they'll get a mixture of them all.
There are several types of rooms available, but space is limited, especially during the tourist and tarpon seasons. The small number of rooms available adds to the allure of the lodge, and allows the staff to accomplish their goal of hands-on, personal service for each guest.
The 1926 historic house has nine rooms. Even though this building has been renovated several times, you'd never know it. A lot of antique materials still exist. Most rooms even have the original hardwood floors. Some of the rooms in the main building have water views. All of them have convenient access to the restaurant and lounge. Another major selling point is that these rooms offer the distinctive opportunity to become a part of Pine Island history, by staying overnight in one of the oldest buildings on the Island.
There is one cottage and a restored 1926 boathouse. Both have kitchenettes, porches and fantastic water views. These options are perfect for those planning extended stays.
Our room is in the Island House, a stilt building behind the main building. There are twelve rooms in this building. Six of them have a water view. All of the water view rooms in the Island House have small balconies facing west, allowing a one-of-a-kind vantage point to mind-blowing Pine Island Sound sunsets. We're lucky enough to have snagged one of the water view rooms even though our visit is halfway through tarpon season.
The room is comprised of a comfortable bed, a lamp, an armoire with a small television and a private bathroom. The most important feature is the balcony overlooking the pool, the tropically-manicured grounds and Pine Island Sound. There's no phone in the room, no wireless internet access either. Both can be had in the main building; I've come here to disconnect from the electronic ties that bind me everywhere else.
Once we're settled, it's out to the balcony with a freshly popped bottle of red wine and two glasses. A couple of wicker chairs and a table await us, along with all the glory of unspoiled southwest Florida.
A steady, cooling breeze caresses our skin and flirts with our hair. Alternating patterns of bright sunlight and cloud shadows intermingle on the well-kept lawn stretching towards the water. A few errant seagrape leaves blow across the grass. Love bugs mate mid-air. A green anole extends its brightly colored dewlap and bobs up and down. Our entire view is of an unhurried and idyllic paradise: swaying palms, huge watercolor skies and the wide expanse of Pine Island Sound.
The horizon is occupied by steadfast and uncelebrated islands and keys. Wood Key. Black Key. Part Island. Inaccessible by foot or car, these unspoken-about places play at the imagination. Who owns them? Does anyone live on them? Minds wander to the ancient Calusa heritage of this area, filling in these blank islands with colorful and storied pasts. Shell mounds. Unfound Indian art. Sacred burial grounds. Untold secrets.
Birds break the surface of the water, diving beneath to hunt for fish. Fish break the surface of the air, jumping up to grasp at bugs. Small boats ride the borderlands, skimming across the rumpled surface of Pine Island Sound, sometimes docking at the Tarpon Lodge, sometimes heading for the Pineland Marina conveniently located nearby.
An excited couple, in their early forties, emerge onto a balcony a few rooms away. They're on vacation. They've just checked in. Within minutes they're down at the pool in bathing suits, huge smiles. This is the place they've been looking forward to visiting, marking big black x's each day on their calendar, an excruciating countdown. Now they're here and they immerse themselves into the experience of southwest Florida as quickly as they immerse themselves into the outdoor pool. That's all it takes. A commitment to relax.
I love watching them gaze in wide-eyed wonder at the newness around them. With the curiosity of babies, they've emerged from the womb of their normal lives into the wonder of a place so utterly different. Their heads rotate in wide arcs, taking the scenery in. When you find yourself gazing skyward in appreciation you'll know you've begun to unwind. Wild eyes absorb the tropical moments, romanticizing, writing to memory. Between playful splashes in the pool they reconnect in ways only a change of scenery can allow.
The lure of the landscape is strong. Before long we're out of our chairs and exploring the grounds. We walk beneath flowers, foliage and low-hanging leaves. Blossoms tickle our exposed skin. The rejuvenating scent of salt water is pervasive, massaging us with aromatherapy. The material of a shaded hammock hungrily grips at the curves of our bodies as we gently sway back and forth. Then it's off for a tryst with the virgin-white gazebo.
We escape the sun by running beneath long-fronded coconut palms. We gaze up at their clusters of exotic fruit and run our hands along the ridged terrain of their stone hard trunks. Out on the dock, it's tongues of water lapping at wood, birds singing suggestive mating songs, and fish frantically splashing – all beneath the tattered linen of Egyptian cotton clouds. In less than a half hour we've gotten intimate with nature.
In the dining room and lounge, it's come as you are or as you want to be. This is a Sportsman Inn on Pine Island. It can be a colorful melting-pot of an affair at times, a place where millionaire boat enthusiasts bump shoulders with young couples looking for romance. Vegan eco-activists dine in the same room as crusty fishermen and archeology professors. Differing styles of dress and speech are the backdrop of the social scene. Some of the guests want to engage in polite conversation; others want to be left alone with their books and thoughts.
The service staff adds its own tones to the lively and vibrant mix, tones of the varied places they've ventured from on their journey to end up here, tones of the high level of service the management expects them to provide. For a place off the beaten path, and on an island known for the carefree nature of its service employees, General Manager Rob Wells III has amassed a staff he can truly be proud of. In all interactions our needs were anticipated and catered to, most often with a mind-boggling accuracy.
The lounge is reminiscent of an old-fashioned New England style pub, something from Revolutionary War days. Magnificent dark wood floors run past a cavernous bar towards a primitive brick fireplace. Tasteful tall vases filled with beach sand and lightning whelk shells serve as candle-holders for large white candles which glimmer dimly every evening. Trophy fish are mounted on the wall, along with the hideous saw of a small-tooth sawfish (now a protected endangered species). Simple photographs of ancient fishing conquests abound. Sack-back Windsor chairs line several tables, and personalities from all across Pine Island come to indulge in the libations and excellent food.
Three unshaven men, fresh from a day on the water, crowd the small bar trading emphatic fish stories. A married couple, from nearby Bokeelia, dine from the lounge menu. From across the room they engage my wife in conversation: life on the island, trips to Hong Kong and Dubai, the presidential race. Between the twists and turns of an animated discussion, the wife and I share a Caribbean Shrimp, Mushroom and Spinach Dip appetizer. Topped with Monterey Jack cheese and served with seasoned croutons, the subtle curry flavor of the dip was a pleasant surprise.
The amiable hostess introduces herself and explains how the chef, Jethro Joseph, hails from Grand Cayman. He loves to blend fresh southwest Florida ingredients with Caribbean spices when creating his unique menu items. The end result is some of the region's most innovative food. Traditional classics given a South Florida update share menu space with fresh catch delicacies, while exotic flavors of the Cayman Islands reveal themselves in surprising and unexpected places.
The restaurant is consistently rated four stars by visiting food critics. Live music, of the easy listening variety, is scheduled a couple times a week. There is an exquisitely appointed indoor dining room, but the tables you want here are out on the screened dining patio overlooking the postcard-perfect sunset on Pine Island Sound.
The hostess seats us at a corner table on the patio with an unobstructed water view. The live musical guests this evening are the David Sarchet Trio. Their blending of classic and modern jazz stylings mix with the fresh Florida air and provide the perfect atmospheric backdrop for a magical dining experience. Within moments, our professional server provides proper wine service on the bottle we chose from the limited and affordable wine list. Glasses full of Steele Pinot Noir are raised for a toast in the dusky light. Crystal clinks and our leisurely-paced meal begins.
Salads, bigger than life, appear before us. My wife goes with a Green Leaf Spinach Salad made with baby spinach leaves topped with roasted red pepper and mushrooms, finished with a warmed sweet bacon vinaigrette. The fluctuation of temperatures plays with our senses. Crisp cool spinach collides with the warm bacon dressing – absolutely stunning. Mine is a Hearts of Palm Asian Sala – tangy hearts of palm and sweet snowpeas tossed with mixed field greens and crispy fried wonton strips, adding an extra crunchy texture. All is lightly smothered in an Asian vinaigrette with sesame and ginger tones. Magnificent.
My wife's Pine Island Sound Crab Cakes definitely live up to the legendary word-of-mouth status they've earned over the past couple years. Jumbo lump crab meat combined with Chef Jethro Joseph's inimitable blend of seasonings, formed into two gargantuan crab cakes, sauteed until done. They are wisely paired with a garlic aioli which complements the flavors of the crab cakes nicely. This is southwest Florida food done right.
My choice is a sought-after fresh catch special that's hard to track down, but oh-so-worth-it when it's found – Sauteed Local Tripletail. I was so delighted to hear our server verbalize the dish at the beginning of our meal. Tripletail is something of a closely-held fisherman's secret here in south Florida – delicate, flaky, pearly flesh with a mild, slightly-meaty flavor completely unique. The Tarpon Lodge is one of the few local restaurants that offers this fish regularly. If you ever see it offered, get it, you will not be disappointed.
Chef Joseph did it right, again, with the tripletail – just a gentle saute with salt and pepper. That's all it asks for. This is a fish that doesn't need to hide beneath sauces. It's enjoyed best out in the open, on it's own merit, minimalist and pure. Enjoy it I did!
Somewhere along the line the sun dips below the horizon and a pastel explosion splatters across the sky. Long shadows fall beneath the palm trees and the playful jazz music wanders out into the darkness of nighttime air on the coastline. One by one, the diners leave the screened patio until we're the last two people there, our only company a few sips of red wine and what remains of a decadent chocolate dessert – island-induced bliss.
Back at the room, my wife takes a long, hot shower. I decide to wait for her on the balcony. Nighttime is in full bloom and a wall of spotlights shine up from the ground illuminating the undersides of several palm trees and the gazebo. The closed swimming pool still glows against the darkness. Is there anything more inviting than the computer-blue glow of a swimming pool at night?
Within seconds I'm stripped to my boxer shorts and jogging down the hallway. I descend the set of stairs and surreptitiously slip inside the gate surrounding the pool. I look nervously around, but no one's watching. I break the rules by sliding into the refreshing neon water of a pool closed for the night. My surroundings are as vivid as a pleasant and otherworldly dream. Majestic, dark palm trees show in silhouettes against the night-tide sky. The tropical air has cooled drastically. A soft chlorine scent emanates from the water, then disappears each time the light breeze of pristine air picks up again. Fresh air – Pine-Aire.
Off in the distance, purple and white electricity dances in the form of silent heat lightning. Twinkling, white Christmas lights ride the perimeter of the historic inn, strung along the full length of the eaves. The blue-tinted haze of half-watched TV screens smolders from the windows of overnight rooms, where adventure-weary travelers drift off toward dreams.
The pool light reflects off the gentle waves I'm creating and flashes across my skin in streaks and blurs. The only sound is the desert-island rustle of palm fronds in the invisible breeze and the electric whir of an improperly balanced ceiling fan on the porch of the Island House. I ease onto my back and let the water support me. Weightless, I float on the surface, eyes aimed skyward. The stars above glow with a ferocity and brightness I've never witnessed before, huge burning spheres, floating in the sky as I float in this pool.
I look at the heavens and look back in time, witnessing antique light finishing its impossibly long journey towards Earth. The starlight I see tonight began its trek long before the lodge existed. Before the Cloisters. Before The Pine-Aire Lodge. Before the Wilson family cleared this land or built this house. The starlight I see tonight was formed when Calusa Indians ruled this piece of land, when the only other light was thrown forth by campfires, and the stars were looked to for guidance and wonder.
Tonight I'm in an ancient place, watching ancient light arrive the way the ancients saw it. It's so quiet it's almost as if I'm the last person on Earth.
Then the noise of a sliding door breaks the silence, and I see the shadow-outline of my loving wife on the balcony, patiently waiting for me to come back to the room.
See more of Eric Taubert's articles on Southwest Florida at the Cape Coral Barometer.