Unspoiled nature far away from big hotels, architectural gems from Florida’s Golden Age, and a wide range of restaurants by the water – if you are looking for these three things and more, the Sunshine State has you covered. With their beautiful nature, historic architecture and culinary delights Cayo Costa, Cabbage Key and Pine Island are the perfect destination for your boat trip in Southwest Florida.
"Welcome to the real Florida" – this sign greeting visitors perfectly sums up Cayo Costa. Even today, the large barrier island north of Captiva presents itself like it did 500 years ago, when the first Europeans arrived.
Like in old times, Cayo Costa can only be reached by boat. Apart from the facilities of the national park, there are no houses on the island, let alone cars. Instead, visitors find an untouched wilderness and a 9 miles long stretch of beach – one of the most beautiful in the whole of Florida.
If you need nothing but white sugary sand and turquoise waters, you have come to the right spot. At Cayo Costa beach you can not only swim and enjoy the sun to your heart’s content, but also collect colorful shells and observe dolphins and porpoises off the coast. These animals have a good reason to come here: Cayo Costa´s waters are teeming with fish. Just cast your rod directly from the beach to reel in snooks, trouts, redfish, shepsheads and tarpons.
The best mooring spot is Pejuan Point at the island’s southern end. The gulf side is restricted for boats, but of course you can always take a walk there. From May to October, intriguing signs can be seen at the beach. These are placed by conservationists to mark the nests of sea turtles. Thanks to this work, their population has been able to stabilize recently.
If you want to stay longer in this paradise, you can leave your boat at the Bayside Park Dock complete with sanitation facilities. Afterwards it is time to explore the island. Hiking paths run alongside old, gnarled trees that are home to many birds such as herons, ibises and fish eagles. Spring and autumn are particularly good times for bird-watchers, as many migrating birds stop at Cayo Costa. If you want to learn more about the island’s biodiversity, you should head to the ranger station. Rental kayaks are available at the docks and provide the perfect opportunity to explore the mangrove coast. If you are lucky, you might even spot Florida’s manatees. Besides all that, Cayo Costa also houses an interesting sight for history lovers: the old cemetery where the island’s pioneer settlers were laid to rest.
Located 1 mile from the docks is the camping ground with toilets, showers, drinking water, picnic areas and enough space for 30 tents. The site can be reached via the free shuttle service. There is no electricity – just plenty of nature and a starry night sky that city dwellers can only dream of. Cayo Costa remains a refuge for all who want to lodge in perfect harmony with nature. But if you are looking for a little more comfort, you can also rent a wooden hut with beds.
Once a fishing ground of the Calusa Indians, Cabbage Key has been privately owned since 1934 and makes for a perfect stopover on your way to Cayo Costa. Even from afar this islet pleases the eye with its lush, tropical vegetation.
Only a few buildings stand here, among them the Cabbage Key Inn. This restaurant is not only known for the many dollar bills stuck to its wall and donated to charity once a year. The menu satisfies guests with good old American comfort food like burgers and sandwiches, as well as fresh seafood and the grilled catch of the day. You should definitely leave some room for the Inn’s signature dessert: refreshing Key Lime Pie topped with whipped cream. With so many treats, the beautiful ocean view is only the icing on the cake.
Afterwards, you can enjoy a short walk – literally, as the islet is only 0,6 miles long. However, Cayo Costa features an interesting highlight: Wild Gopher Tortoises, some of them weighing up to 11 lbs, live on the island and feed off the lush vegetation. Nobody really knows for how long they have been here – only that tortoise races were a favorite pastime of the previous owners. Florida’s manatees swim directly off the coast, as do playful dolphins. Schools of a dozen animals are a common sight here. If you want to enjoy a bird’s eye view of this tropical island, you should climb the old water tower.
You fell in love with Cabbage Key’s laid-back atmosphere and want to stay the night? No problem. The marvelously decorated cottages will provide you with all the "Old Florida" charm you can think of. Peace and quiet await you when the other visitors have left. But of course, thanks to TV and internet, you are not cut off from the outside world.
Situated east of Cayo Costa, Pine Island is Florida’s biggest island. Despite this, only 9.000 people live here. No big hotels or even traffic lights disturb the scenery. Instead, Pine Island features charming wooden houses, art galleries and idyllic nature in abundance. There is no shortage of marinas here, making Pine Island the perfect place for a little shore leave.
A popular mooring spot is Pineland Marina, the biggest one on the island. Here you can stock up on bait and fuel, and even have your vessel repaired. The marina’s stores are also a life saver in case you forgot your sunscreen at home. Just 1 mile to the north stretches Big Jim Creek Preserve, an area consisting of extensive mangrove forests. Fully grown boats are not allowed here. But luckily, you can easily rent a kayak at the Pineland Marina to explore the waterways – just like the Calusa Indians did hundreds of years ago. Speaking of which: History buffs should visit the Randell Research Center next to the marina. There you can see the shell mounds that were created by the Calusa to better overlook the area.
Afterwards, hungry time travelers get their fill at the Tarpon Lodge Restaurant next to the marina. This 4 star gem not only amazes with its elegant building from the 1920s, but also serves freshest fish and seafood dishes. High-quality steaks and comfort foods like cheeseburgers and Cuban sandwiches are on the menu as well. The adjacent Tarpon Lodge is your perfect accommodation option. The 3 star hotel features lush gardens lined with palm trees, comfortable rooms and a swimming pool overlooking the water. The romantic sunset is a free extra.
At the northern end of Pine Island lies the Four Winds Marina – a perfect place to buy fuel, boating equipment, rods and baits, as well as clothes and sunglasses. Culinary treasures await you at the Lazy Flamingo Restaurant. Here, the pork loins are smoked on-site, and the shrimps come straight from the ocean – not from the can. Delicacies like grilled Grouper and Hogfish further add to the popularity of this place.
Feasting on such culinary delights is the perfect way to end your unforgettable boat trip. But of course, there is so much more to see, so it pays to visit Cayo Costa, Cabbage Key and Pine Island again and again.