It’s fascinating how urban legends are born — even those birthed not in urban areas. Facts or partial facts mix with fiction and fantasy, then are fueled by word of mouth — or today, by the nanosecond powers of social media — into tales that become truths often overnight because, after all, it has to be true, it’s on the internet.
Such is the case with one urban or, better put, island legend that has resided in Southwest Florida for decades. It’s one part Cabbage Key Inn, one part singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffet, and one very large part ubiquitous tropical melody — “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
So it is that the COASTE investigative team of ownership and its three kids set powerboat out of Beach Bum Boat Rentals at ‘Tween Waters Inn and charted our course for an altogether pleasant treasure hunt across the waters of Pine Island Sound northerly, to the “upper islands” of Lee County that include North Captiva, Cayo Costa, Useppa Island, Gasparilla Island and the proverbial x-marks-the-spot for our purposes, tiny Cabbage Key.
Rob Wells and his brother Ken are the second generation owners of Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant, a resort of sorts that’s actually in its entirety a 100-acre island that features a 150-seat restaurant (“the Old House”) open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 365 days a year; the historic “Cabbage Key Inn” with its six charming, contemporary rooms with private bathrooms and air conditioning (less televisions, phones or refrigerators); plus an added eight stand-alone cottages that date to 1944 and provide the apex of escape from the rat race. In fact, the Cabbage Key Inn is currently in consideration for admission on the National Registry of Historic Places. The only nod to today’s technology: basic TV in the cottages and wi-fi in the Inn.
More than 35 years ago, their parents — Robert and Phyllis Wells — purchased Cabbage Key in late 1976 and called it not only a career, but home. Rob and Ken were raised on Cabbage Key and boated to school daily. “We were from North Carolina and my dad just fell in love with Southwest Florida,” Rob Wells recalls. “I was three years old at the time and my brother and I grew up on the island. It was just a really unique and fun way for two boys to grow up.”
Wells is quick to point out that while he grew up in a unique setting, he’s ventured off the rock — only to return. “I went to school at the University of Florida, took a position in Orlando, moved to New York City — but eventually moved back to the area, because there are so many beautiful parts to Southwest Florida. It’s such a great lifestyle for the people who live here and vacation here. I love meeting all the people who visit us.” And given that the Cabbage Key marina is accessible to both larger tour boats as well as private crafts, that’s a lot of people each year.
As you pilot your boat into the harbor, you’re first taken by the sheer natural beauty of this small enclave just a port turn off Channel Marker 60 — highlighted by a grand, “Olde Florida” private residence built in the 193os, rising (an amazing for Lee County) some 20-plus feet above sea level upon a 500-year-old Calusa Indian shell mound.
Upon approval of the Harbor Master, you’ve docked — and a moment later, the pursuit of “Cheeseburger in Paradise” begins as you climb 15 long and wide stairs to the legendary Cabbage Key Restaurant.
One step inside, and you immediately feel transported to a different place and time — a more casual, rustic, lazy, unpretentious, welcome-all destination where it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a delicious meal, laughloudly and, if you dare, margarita the day away. There’s clearly no stress about the place, no hurry, no one’s expectations to meet and no timeline to adhere to. You can dine indoors in two screened locations front and rear, outdoors overlooking the beautiful marina and Useppa Island, or simply park yourself at the very intimate (maybe six seats) and very dark bar in the middle of it all. Stay an hour, or stay the day, but be sure to enjoy every moment.
A must-do at Cabbage Key for thousands of patrons is a tradition begun in the early days of Southwest Florida fishing — and watering holes. The tradition saw fisherman scribble their name on a dollar bill (on a good day) and tape it to the wall of said watering hole; should the next day’s catch be poor, at least they’d have monetary reserve to purchase a beverage. Today, visitors continue the tradition and have papered every square inch of wall space in the Cabbage Key bar and rear restaurant with dollar bills and masking tape. All the dollar bills that fall off are donated to local charities.
Full disclosure: the COASTE team is made up of pecto vegetarians, so no cheeseburger whatsoever (unless veggie, not on the menu) will be had on this excursion. As substitute, the smoked salmon, peel and eat shrimp and mahi-mahi were superior. But Rob Wells is well aware of the cheeseburger rumor, and brilliant marketer that he is, he neither confirms nor denies its authenticity as his kitchen serves up one after another. “Jimmy Buffett’s sister had a place on Boca Grande, and Jimmy would occasionally fly his seaplane in to Cabbage Key. Well, one trip Jimmy was playing a concert in Lee County and was nice enough to invite some of our staff members. At the concert, he gave a shout-out to our staff as he dedicated the song to them. So, does that make it us? Who knows? Now, it’s grown to countless ‘rumored to be’ locations around the world, from the Caribbean to Gainesville.” At publication, Mr. Buffett’s agent would not comment on the location inspiration of the song.
“We think a trip to Cabbage Key takes you back to an earlier Florida,” Wells says. “Our goal is to have you experience true ‘Olde Florida’ the way it was. We want parents or grandchildren to bring grandparents here and have them remember their once-upon-a-time vacations, and discover that they still exist.”