We were stumped.
The ceiling and walls of Cabbage Key’s breezy back patio were dripping with dollar bills. Where on earth would we leave our “donation” ?
Affixed with gobs of masking tape and mounted with the precision of a leaf blower, it was impossible to see an inch of available space. Thousands of travelers had come here over the years and it looked as if everyone had left a George Washington behind scrawled with graffiti in thick black ink: “Tommy 2014!”, “I used my last dollar”, “Love from Minnesota” and “BH + ER were here!” were just a few of the many notes I could read from my seat.
Now it was our turn to contribute. But where?
We each scanned the room for a sliver of prime real estate. Our waitress, having seen this scene play out a hundred times before, brought us cigar-sized Sharpies and rolls of masking tape as soon as she’d cleared our plates.
I saw a speck of wood above a window behind our table and I went for it, using two large pieces of adhesive to keep the dollar secured. I’d written a little promo in block letters “The Insatiable Traveler, ~17.” (Not particularly creative but it got the job done.)
It was a silly game for sure, but one we couldn’t pass up.
When in Rome….
An hour and a half earlier, I’d arrived at McCarthy’s Marina on Captiva Island, a thin stretch of land north of Sanibel Island connected by a single main road and a barely there bridge, for a half-day of Island hopping as a guest of Captiva Cruises. There were six of us in total.
Captiva has been a favorite of vacationers for decades. It’s relaxed vibe, colorful kitsch, good food, water sports, beaches and western-facing sunsets, much of which is in walking distance of each other, has made it the kind of place families make an annual tradition.
Our cruise would take us north through Pine Island Sound with a stop at Cabbage Key for lunch, followed by some beach time and shelling on nearby Cayo Costa, then back to Captiva.
We boarded a large powered catamaran called the Santiva. Half open, half enclosed, with simple bench seating. The boat holds up to 49 people but being that we were only six, we had plenty of room to spread out.
As one might imagine, cruising from island to island was not hard to take. Living in the heart of New York City with its concrete and steel, the salt air, the vastness of the ocean, and the island views were a welcome change of pace.
John, the First Mate and naturalist, narrated the trip with facts about the region and its history. When we passed a particularly scraggly portion of North Captiva, he pointed to two juvenile bald eagles in a tree nest the size of a bathtub. They were far away but I could still make out the top half of their bodies. Goodness they were big. As adults, their wingspans can reach as wide as 7.5 feet.
(Fun Fact: Florida has the second largest population of bald eagles in the country after Alaska.)
I kept my eyes peeled for bottlenose dolphins which frequent the area, but no such luck. With wildlife, it’s always a crap shoot.
As we neared Cabbage Key, John gave us the scoop on Useppa island to the east. In the early 1900’s it was owned by the billionaire Barron Collier who hosted the likes of Rockefeller, Edison and Ford. They spent their days tarpon fishing and their nights hobnobbing. Today, the entire island is a private club. Captiva Cruises has exclusive touring rights enabling visitors to explore a limited area, visit the History Museum and have lunch at the exclusive Collier Inn.
Cabbage Key is 100 acres of “undeveloped paradise” according to the Visit Florida website, with one inn offering a variety of cozy bungalows and a restaurant by the same name. The restaurant greets visitors from its perch on top of an ancient Indian shell mound raising it 38 feet above sea level. It’s also the home to a rather large gopher tortoise.
In addition to the aforementioned dollar bill decor, Cabbage Key is known for its cheeseburger. Legend has it that Jimmy Buffet was inspired to write “Cheeseburger in Paradise” after dining there. Whether true or not, I can testify that the cheeseburger was, in fact, delicious and the size of my head. I’d also recommend the Caramel Turtle Fudge ice cream pie. I’m a sucker for anything made with caramel and peanuts.
After lunch we navigated to nearby Cayo Costa Island, a 2,426 acre Florida State park in the shape of a shark. (At least I think so.) We docked on the east side of its thin southern tip and walked about two minutes to the west side via a sandy path flanked with palm trees to find a long strip of pristine beach.
While the others dove into the wake I chose to take a stab at shelling. Sanibel, Captiva and Cayo Costa are key destinations for avid shellers and its easy to understand why, there seems to be as many shells as there are grains of sand. Many are very tiny, others the size of a dimes or nickels, but I found a few that were larger.
Tip: If you’re a sheller, check out Pam Rambo’s (the resident shelling guru) site, iLoveShelling, for tips on where to go, when to go, identifying your shells, and how to clean your finds so that they look fabulous.
I looked for sea urchins but, alas, there were none to be found. We stayed for an hour before it was time to head back. I was grateful for the brevity, I could feel my lily-white skin, though covered in sunscreen, starting to fry.
A family lounging a few hundred yards away from us relaxed under a large beach umbrella and I remember thinking it was a smart investment if I ever planned on being out there for any length of time.
On the way back to Captiva, our beach and food fixes sated, we sat in silence soaking up the view.
From beginning to end the excursion was approximately four hours. Once docked, we said goodbye to Jorge and John and walked about 5 minutes from where the Marina was located to the opposite end of the road to the The Mucky Duck, a very popular beachside pub with live music, picnic tables and ice-cold beers.
Granted it didn’t have a dollar bill decor, but we managed to settle for a spectacular view of the sunset.
Here’s how you can go island hopping from Captiva
Captiva Cruises operates from two locations on Captiva Island: McCarthy’s Marina and South Seas Island Resort. You’ll be told which dock when you purchase your tickets.
The company offers multiple tours that focus on various activities, dolphin watching, shelling, dining, and sunset cruises. Prices range from $27.50 – $50.00 per adult and from $15.00 – $35.00 per child. You can check out their tours here.
The combo we did, Cabbage Key and Cayo Costa, is not offered as a single tour unfortunately. You either have to take two separate tours or arrange for a private charter. Rates are $375/hour with a two-hour minimum and a 49 person maximum, so the more the merrier and cheaper per person.
While on a boat you can purchase both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Meals are not included in the price of your ticket. The Santiva didn’t have any cup holders or trash receptacles for passengers so be prepared to hold your glass until you reach your destination.
Bring everything you think you may need
No matter what cruise you decide to take bring everything you’ll need with you such as sun-screen, hats, towels, beach umbrellas and food, especially if you’re going on a full day tour. There’s nowhere to buy anything once you’ve boarded the boat.
If You’re Not Staying on Captiva
Captiva Cruises is the go-to company for scheduled cruises and private charters for those staying on the island, but if you’re not staying on Captiva and you don’t want to drive all the way there, there are other companies that depart from Sanibel and Fort Myers. Here is a list I found on the Sanibel Island & Captiva Island Chamber of Commerce website. I have not tried any of them except for Captiva Cruises but it’s a good place to start.
I can vouch for a small company called Endless Summer Cruises which is strictly a charter business and leaves from Sanibel. It mainly caters to avid fishermen but my family and I went on a great day-long charter cruise that began with fishing in the morning, then Cabbage Key and Cayo Costa, followed by a long ride around Pine Island Sound where dolphins played in our wake. (There’s some cute video if you click on the link above.)
Bonus video: I was playing around with the Adobe Spark app and it inspired me to put this little ditty of the trip together. Check it out.
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