Visiting the Home of Cheeseburger in Paradise

Muffy Clark Gill -Dollar Bill Bar at the Lodge at Cabbage Key

On the second day of our most recent adventure we had a light breakfast at Tarpon Lodge and walked up the street to board the Tropic Star, the ferry to Cayo Costa State Park.  The boat was originally built by a ship works in Mississippi as one of three boats to be put into service at Disney World. When the finished hulls were complete, the Disney team found them unacceptable for their needs and refused to buy them. In order to pass Coast Guard seaworthiness inspection, they had to burn one of the boats. The two remaining boats were then sold to private owners. The two boats,the Tropic Star and the Sister Star are in service today as the ferry boats for the park. We had last ridden the Tropic Star well over 20 years ago. Tropic Star makes several daily runs to Cayo Costa State Park with stops in between for lunch, and then a second stop at the park. We chose the Cabbage Key run with two hours at the beach on Cayo Costa.

It took us about 3/4 of an hour to reach the park. It was a beautiful day out but cool and blustery, as we spied huge flocks of white pelicans flying overhead and an occasional dolphin would briefly escort us. By the time the boat docked at Cabbage Key it was 11:30. The lodge is said to be the inspiration for Jimmy Buffet’s song, “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. (There are several other Caribbean places who lay claim to this as well). The main lodge was built as a hotel in the 1930’s by  Alan Rineheart, the son of author Mary Roberts Rineheart.

The water tower at Cabbage Key
The cottage where she did most of her writing remains today as one of the guest cottages. The Rob Wells family, owners of Tarpon Lodge bought the Lodge and most of the island in 1976.The island took a beating from Hurricane Charlie in 2004. It did over $750,00 worth of damage. Thankfully volunteers helped the lodge get put back together again.

Sign from the 1937 vintage boathouse and dock

 We hurried up the steps to the lodge to the restaurant dining rooms to grab a seat on the porch(we were told that at least two more cruise boats were coming from Punta Gorda and Captiva Island). The porch, a part of the Dollar Bill Bar, is a special place. The ceiling and walls are lined with hundreds of dollar bills that have been signed by customers and then attached to the ceiling (see above photograph). The tradition of taping dollar bills to the ceiling began back in 1971 and has been going strong ever since! As they gradually fall down they are replaced and given to selected charities.

We had a fish chowder that warmed us up with Tia Maria and coffee. The black grouper platter that we shared was huge!

(One of my favorite shots!)

After lunch we hiked the nature trail around the island when I came across this beautiful scene with a roseate spoonbill and a pair of ibises fishing among the mangroves.

Returning to the boat we went back to Cayo Costa. The tram to the beach was taking a break so we walked the almost mile to the beach on the Gulf side of the island.  It was a beautiful beach day.

The winds had churned up thousands of shells on the beach with huge pockets of sea urchins piling up on the shore.
We finally walked back to the ferry landing for the ride back to Pineland,returning to Tarpon Lodge for a rest and then dinner in the Lodge’s dining room before retiring.
The next morning after breakfast I crossed the street to the Randell Research Center to walk the Calusa Heritage Trail and learn more about the first settlers to the island.  The Calusa Indians had built a almost city size complex with canals, homes on stilts and huge mounds with platforms made of discarded shells.The Randells bought 70+ acres of the land in order to preserve it as some of the land had been mined and filled. A research lab run by the University of Florida  was built to study the ruins as well as a museum. They try to offer tours daily at 10 am, but the trail had many descriptive signs to read and I went on my own.
Sadly it was time to go. We packed up the car for the 90 minute drive to Naples. We’ll be Baaack!


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