Darkness has descended over the southwest Florida swamps as I ease my rental car into the parking lot of Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island. Grabbing my bag, I head for the marina to meet up with Capt. Jack La Plante, whose boat will be my ride over to Cabbage Key.
As we skim across Pine Island Sound on a moonless night, I let my imagination run wild and think how easy it would be to dispose of a body in these murky, black waters. If you’re wondering why I’m thinking such lurid thoughts, it has nothing to do with La Plante, who is the very picture of geniality, and everything to do with Randy Wayne White, the New York Times best-selling mystery author, who has created a memorable fictional character in his Doc Ford novels.
Doc, a onetime government operative in Central America, now lives a (somewhat) off-the-radar life studying marine specimens at his laboratory in a stilt house on Florida’s southern Gulf Coast. Trouble, however, is never far away in the multi-book series.
I’m not looking for trouble, but I am looking to follow in Doc’s footsteps in this area of mangrove swamps, remote islands, and numerous bays and inlets.
Twenty minutes later, we tie up at the pier at Cabbage Key, an island owned by the Wells family, which operates a historical restaurant, inn and assorted rental cottages, and that’s pretty much all there is on the 100-acre island. If you want solitude, this is the place.
My accommodations are in Osprey Cottage, a newly remodeled house at the end of a secluded walking trail shrouded in vines and vegetation.
My first stop, however, is the focal point of the island, the open-air restaurant, built atop a 38-foot Calusa Indian shell mound. Nestled among moss-draped trees and offering a panoramic view of Pine Island Sound, the restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner 365 days a year, reeks of atmosphere.
The décor consists of ceiling fans, antique fishing gear, classic photos and obligatory fiberglass replicas of Florida game fish, plus thousands of one-dollar bills signed and taped to the walls by previous guests.
The adjoining bar, which has served fishermen and boaters for 60 years, boasts original hardwood floors, cypress walls, a working fireplace, and a bartender who knows where the bodies are buried — literarily speaking, of course.
The bar is a favorite watering hole for Doc Ford, who pilots his skiff over to enjoy a beer and a baseball game, and occasionally, a bout of fisticuffs (“The Heat Islands”).
If Cabbage Key seems straight out of “Gilligan’s Island,” its neighbor, Useppa, could be “Fantasy Island.” Useppa has been a resort for the privileged set since the latter part of the 19th century, and today is home to a private club, the Collier Inn, as well as elegantly appointed villas set in manicured gardens.
Listed on the U.S. Register of Historic Places resulting from its archaeological significance, access is by a resident’s invitation, or on a daily cruise offered by Captiva Cruises. Do sign up at Captivacruises.com as lunch at the picturesque Collier Inn is a must. The food is first-rate and the upper-class atmosphere is in direct contrast to the rough-and-tumble Cabbage Key.
A tale of two islands
Randy Wayne White has the rugged, grizzled appearance of the fishing guide he once was when he walks into Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille overlooking the marina in Captiva. I’m here to interview White and discover the evolution of Doc.
He settles into a chair and begins explaining how he was simultaneously working as a reporter for the Fort Myers News Press and taking out fishing parties (he has 4,000 charters under his belt) when he came up with the idea of Doc Ford and his crony, Tomlinson, or as he describes them: “Doc, linear and pragmatic and Tomlinson, purely spiritual.”
He published his first novel, “Sanibel Flats,” in 1990, and today is working on his 25th featuring Ford and company. As southwest Florida assumes the role of a character for White in the same sense that Louisiana’s bayou country does for James Lee Burke and California’s Monterey Coast did for John Steinbeck, I ask him what places he most associates with his novels.
“Well, there’s (semi-fictional) Dinkins Bay,” he says, “standing in for the real Tarpon Bay, a distinctive tapestry of mangroves, estuaries and prolific Calusa remains, mostly ancient shell mounds.
“He also knows Pineland Marina on Big Pine Island well,” White says. “This is the gateway to the islands of Boca Grande, Useppa and Cayo Costa.”
White says he used the few remaining stilt houses in the waters of the Sound (which can be seen on boat excursions) as a model for Doc’s combination home and laboratory.
During our conversation, he is easy and relaxed, intent on explaining the appeal of Doc and the unspoiled Florida landscape he wants to protect.
“There’s a lot about this part of the state that remains a mystery,” he says.
One thing that’s no mystery is what lures customers to Doc’s namesake restaurant: the hope of seeing White, a frequent patron, and getting him to autograph one of the books found on restaurant book shelves, and engaging him in some fishing talk.
But even when White isn’t here, Doc Ford is — in the form of souvenir baseball caps, T-shirts, and dishes on the menu named for principal characters. To get in the spirit of things, try Tomlinson’s tacquitos or Doc’s favorite, shrimp with cilantro, chili paste and lime, washed down with a rum punch or a cold beer.
Of course, there’s plenty to see on Captiva and neighboring Sanibel even if you don’t know Doc Ford from Doc Martin. Captiva is renowned for South Seas Island Resort, where activities range from communing with manatees to snorkeling crystal clear waters.
Sanibel Island is famous for the colorful shells that wash up on its beaches (shell-lovers can check out the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, one of the best small specialty museums I’ve ever seen).
Sanibel Island Lighthouse and Sanibel Historical Museum and Village are also worth a look, and don’t miss the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
A vast area interlaced with lagoons, swamps and mangroves, it’s a reminder of what Florida looked like before unchecked development. There are some 250 species of mammals, birds, crustaceans, reptiles and amphibians. You can spot everything from American alligators to anole lizards, bald eagles to belted kingfishers, bobcats to bottlenose dolphins.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing to observe up close are thousands of tiny crabs that adhere to trees lining the mangrove swamps. It might put you in mind of a B- horror movie, but it’s a sign of just how healthy this ecosystem is.
All too soon, it was time for Capt. Jack to arrive and ferry me back to Pine Island for a final night at Tarpon Lodge. The waterfront hotel, operated by the same Wells family that owns Cabbage Key, is in a 1926 fishing lodge adjoining the Calusa Heritage Trail and about 15 minutes from the funky town of Matlacha, with its shops, boutiques and galleries housed in buildings that seem to have sprung from a psychedelic fantasy.
On my last night, I walked out on the balcony overlooking the marina and sound to watch the sunset. A slice of orange bisected the sky, while a chorus of cicadas and frogs began tuning up for their nightly symphony.
As orange became purple and then black, two thoughts crossed my mind — first that, thankfully, old Florida still does exist, and second, that I need to read another Doc Ford book very soon.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.