Pine Island lies just west of Cape Coral. 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 located on the northwest coast of Pine Island in Pineland.
From Cape Coral, 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 fast and quiet jaunt through the stark alien landscape of the Little Pine Island wetland restoration area.
From the four-way stop sign at the middle of Pine Island, I turn right onto Stringfellow road. Grand entrances to half-built subdivisions encroach on the scenic space, threatening the way forward for 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 technique to the Tarpon Lodge. 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 the 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 latest York Times best-selling author, Randy Wayne White.
The principle building was originally in-built 1926 by the Wilson family. Later on it was owned and operated by I.B. and Mary Hunt Jones because the Pine-Aire Lodge. In 1986, a further dormitory building was added to the former Pine-Aire Lodge property. For the following ten years the property was known because the Cloisters, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. It wasn’t until 2000 when Robert and Phyllis Wells (who also own the restaurant at Cabbage Key) purchased the complex. They renovated the primary building and dormitory right into a restaurant and hotel…the current 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 principle structure, flooding the main dining room. A lot of the windows were shattered and all 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 method to check in to an overnight room. A fast tour and gracious hospitality are immediately offered by the kind woman behind the desk. After my Tarpon Lodge orientation, it is out to the car to collect the wife and belongings…we’re officially on Island Time.
Pineland is as laid back because it gets. This is not glitzy-neon Florida. This is not sweaty South Beach, or posh Worth Ave, or tacky Panama City, or plastic Orlando. Even Sanibel and Captiva look overpopulated and hectic when compared against Pineland. Individuals who visit the Tarpon Lodge don’t find yourself here on accident…they usually come here on the lookout 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 on the Tarpon Lodge, but space is restricted…especially in the course of the tourist and tarpon seasons. The small variety of rooms available adds to the allure of the lodge, and allows the staff to perform their goal of hands-on, personal service for each guest they host.
The 1926 historic house has nine rooms. Though this building has been renovated several times, you’d never know it. Loads of antique materials still exist. Most rooms even still have the original hardwood floors. A few 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 many oldest buildings on the Island.
There’s 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 on this building. Six of them have a water-view. All the water-view rooms within 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 though our visit is halfway through tarpon season.
The room is comprised of a cushty bed, a lamp, an armoire with a small television and a private bathroom. Crucial feature is the balcony overlooking the pool, the tropically-manicured grounds and Pine Island Sound. There is no phone in the room. There is not any wireless internet access, either. Both of those might be had in the main building…but I’ve come here to disconnect from the electronic ties that bind me everywhere else.
Once every thing’s lugged up from the car and we’re settled, it’s out to the balcony with a freshly popped bottle of red wine and two glasses. A couple wicker chairs and a table await us, along with all of the glory of unspoiled Southwest Florida.
A gentle, 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 couple of 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 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, of their early forties, emerge onto a balcony just a few rooms away. They’re on vacation, they usually’ve just checked in on the Tarpon Lodge. Within minutes they’re down at the pool in bathing suits, all 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 finally here they usually immerse themselves into the experience of Southwest Florida as quickly as they immerse themselves into the outdoor pool. That is all it takes. A commitment to relax.
I really like watching them gaze in wide-eyed wonder on the newness around them. With the curiosity of babies, they’ve emerged from the womb of their normal lives into the wonder of a spot so utterly different. Their heads rotate in wide arcs, taking the scenery in. When you end up gazing skyward in appreciation you will 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 Tarpon Lodge grounds by foot. We walk beneath flowers and foliage, low-hanging leaves and blossoms tickle our exposed skin. The rejuvenative scent of salt water is pervasive, massaging us with aromatherapy. The material of a shaded hammock hungrily grips on 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 is 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 Tarpon Lodge dining room and lounge it is come as you’re or as you want to be. It is a Sportsman Inn on Pine Island. It could be a colorful melting-pot of an affair at times. It’s a place where millionaire boat enthusiasts bump shoulders with young couples searching 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 on the Tarpon Lodge. Among the guests want to interact in polite conversation, others wish 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 numerous places they’ve ventured from on their journey to find yourself here, tones of the high level of service the management expects them to offer. For a spot 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 pleased with. In all interactions our needs were anticipated and catered to, most often with a mind-boggling accuracy.
The lounge on the Tarpon Lodge is paying homage to 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 full of beach sand and lightning whelk shells function candle-holders for giant 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 within 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 at the Tarpon Lodge, Jethro Joseph, hails from Grand Cayman. He loves to blend fresh Southwest Florida ingredients with Caribbean spices when creating his unique menu items. The top result’s a number 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 Tarpon Lodge Restaurant is consistently rated at four stars by visiting food critics. Live music, of the easy listening variety, is scheduled a pair times per week. There is an exquisitely appointed indoor dining room, however the tables you want listed 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 proper 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 filled with 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 Salad. Tangy hearts of palm and sweet snowpeas tossed with mixed field greens and crispy fried wonton strips, which add an extra crunchy texture to the salad. All of it’s 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 and sauteed until done. They are wisely paired with a garlic aioli which complements the flavors of the crab cakes nicely. That 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 used to be so delighted to hear our server verbal the dish at the start 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 unto itself. The Tarpon Lodge is among the few local restaurants which offers this fish regularly. In case you ever see it offered – get it, you won’t be disappointed.
Chef Joseph did it right, again, with the tripletail…only a gentle saute with salt and pepper. That’s all it asks for. It is a fish which doesn’t need to cover beneath sauces. It’s enjoyed best out in the open, on it’s own merit, minimalist, and pure….and enjoy it I did!
Somewhere along the road 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 after the other, the other diners leave the screened patio until we’re the last two people there, our only company a number of sips of red wine and what remains of a decadent chocolate dessert. Island-induced bliss.
Back at the room, my wife takes an extended, 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 bottom 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 pc-blue glow of a swimming pool at night?
Within seconds I’m stripped to my boxer shorts and jogging down the Island House hallway. I descend the set of stairs and surreptitiously slip contained in the gate surrounding the pool. I look nervously around, but no one’s watching. I break the hotel rules by sliding into the refreshing neon water of a pool closed for the night.
My surroundings are as vivid as a nice 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 sunshine breeze of pristine air picks up again. Fresh air. Pine-Aire.
Off in the gap, 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 within 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 on 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 Tarpon 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 one other light was thrown forth by campfires, and the stars were looked to for guidance and wonder.