CHECKING IN: Tarpon Lodge: A Taste of Old Florida & Life Along Pine Island Sound
Driving onto Pine Island is like stepping back in time to Old Florida. There’s still just one way on and one way off this largest of Florida’s barrier islands, passing through the tiny fishing hamlet of Matlacha with its funky shops, galleries, and open air bars, then over a draw bridge - affectionately nicknamed “The World’s Fishingest Bridge”.
If you sail in on your yacht, you might never know you're just a stone's throw from the bustling coastal city of Ft. Myers, but the rest of us will navigate the bustling traffic over bridges, causeways, and through Cape Coral to get here. That's OK, the better to appreciate the slower pace.
We were on our way to Tarpon Lodge, Pine Island, one of the last remaining Florida-style sportsmen lodges in this part of southwest Florida. And as we headed north on the island’s one main road, I had the feeling I’d been here before, with fleeting memories and treasured photographs of my grandfather on his annual fishing trips to Florida coming back to me. Pine Island is 18 miles long from Bokeelia at the north end to St. James City at the southern end, and just 2 miles wide, and is close to Sanibel and Captiva Islands as the crow flies. We drove miles of mango orchards and palm tree nurseries before arriving at Tarpon Lodge just after lunch.
We were guests of Tarpon Lodge during our stay, however as always, all opinions are ours alone based on first hand experience.
At check-in the staff made us feel so welcome, and appeared to treat everyone coming in like they were old friends. They were full of helpful information about the lodge and the other islands in Pine Island Sound. Here's what you'll find here:
Accommodations at Tarpon Lodge
Tarpon Lodge has several types of accommodations: quaint rooms in their original 1926 Historic Lodge or comfy rooms in the Island House. For a little more privacy, there’s the Boathouse and Cottage near the adjoining Pineland Marina, two individual bungalows set away from the main lodge. It's not luxury, but anything you’re missing you'll find you don't really need.
Our room in the Island House was lovely and bright and overlooked the pool, marina, and the beautiful Pine Island Sound. The elevated Island House is built on stilts, with 12 guest rooms on the second floor and shaded open-air seating areas on the ground level below. The entire area around the building and pool was well-groomed with lots of pretty flowers at this time of year.
Both the main building and the Island House had a charming authentic feel to it. Our room had a small balcony with two chairs and a side table, an in-room fridge, a very nice bathroom with a generous-sized tub, a makeshift closet and TV cabinet with several drawers. The queen bed was firm and super comfy, and the room was impeccably clean and comfortable. Overnight stays at Tarpon Lodge include a self-served continental breakfast in the main lodge. It’s a leisurely way to start the day, with coffee and tea, cinnamon toast, bagels, yogurt, cereals, and fresh juices.
Dining at Tarpon Lodge Restaurant
Our first afternoon at Tarpon Lodge, we enjoyed a late lunch after we arrived (fortunately the restaurant serves lunch until 4pm). The screened dining room was quaint and spotless, with an open ceiling and the most gorgeous view across the lawn to the marina and Pine Island Sound. The tables were set with crisp white linens (always nice and higher end), and the staff was friendly and well-trained. The menu had plenty of great selections for lunch and dinner, and dessert was even better (the Key Lime Pie isn’t always on the menu but was delicious), and the price point was reasonable and what we’d expect from this level of resort. Service was always excellent, and thankfully we were never rushed. The food at Tarpon Lodge Restaurant was just as good as the presentation, and the sunset views at dinner are gorgeous, so ask for a table with a view. The wine selections are also quite good and there were more than enough to choose from to match anyone’s pairing preferences. Prepare to be tempted with our lunch and dinner selections:
Things to Do in Pine Island, Florida
Tarpon Lodge may seem remote at the northwestern tip of the island but there's a lot close by, and even within walking distance. Set out on foot, grab a bike, or drive. All of the following things to do in Pine Island, Florida are just minutes away.
Hike the Calusa Heritage Trail
Now fairly late in the day, we wanted to catch some of the sunset after dinner so we didn’t wander far. We didn’t have to. Right across the street is the entrance to the Calusa Heritage Trail Randell Research Center. We couldn’t pick up a brochure or information as it was now after 5:00pm and the visitors center closed at 4:00, but we were able to explore part of the trail. The Research Center covers more than 60 acres of a 100-acre archeological site and it's a nice light hike. A visit here is to learn about the native Calusa culture and how they lived in this environment. Even without a brochure, the trail is easy to follow, and marked with excellent signage along the way to help to understand the site. There are benches along the trail and bridges over the low wetter areas, but the high point is the panoramic view from the observation platform on Randell Mound. There's plenty of parking along with public restrooms and picnic areas. This is an interesting day hike to add to your visit to Tarpon Lodge and Pine Island.
Visit Cabbage Key
Tarpon Lodge Owner and General Manager Rob Wells makes frequent trips to their sister property, Cabbage Key, which makes a perfect boat day trip for Lodge guests. This particular morning, his boat was also the supply boat and we were accompanied by 11 flats of hamburger buns for the anticipated lunch crowd at Cabbage Key Restaurant. Boats leave the marina through Wilson Cut, a narrow channel created in 1925 which connects the shallow waters of Pineland with Pine Island Sound. We started out with a short ride and a slow pass by Useppa Island near the northern end of the Sound.
The 1 mile long by 1/2 mile wide island is private and only accessible by boat, with around 115-120 homes on the island including the private membership Useppa Island Club. There are also room and cottage rentals if you're looking for a remote getaway. No cars are allowed on the island to protect the fragile ecosystem and eliminate noise pollution, and transportation is by golf cart, bike, or your own two feet. It’s not a big place. Burial mounds and middens of mostly oyster shells are scattered around the island, and there’s a huge old Banyan tree estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old which you can see from the water - if only trees could talk. There’s even a fire department supported by the residents through donations and an annual fund raiser.
Stopping for lunch at Cabbage Key was so much fun. This 100-acre island is accessible only by boat and features the hugely popular Cabbage Key Restaurant and its funky Dollar Bill Bar. Everyone in southwest Florida on a boat must have had the same idea for lunch that day because business was booming. There are rooms for rent at the Cabbage Key Inn along with larger cottages, transient boat slip rentals, and kayak rentals. It’s a bustling happy place with tour boats bringing visitors throughout the day and adirondack chairs set on the hill where you can sit back and watch it all happen. The whole experience here is true old Florida charm with a very laid-back vibe.
Our lunch here was excellent - we tried the Smoked salmon, Black beans and yellow rice with Blackened Mahi mahi on top, and Fresh steamed Florida Pink Shrimp with homemade potato salad and cole slaw. And be sure to work off calories after lunch by climbing the old water tower behind the restaurant for a panorama of the surrounding area. There's also a well-marked nature trail for hiking through the underdeveloped island, complete with resident gopher tortoises.
We cruised around several other small islands on our way to Cayo Costa State Park. Cayo Costa Island is also accessible only by boat and arguably the most pristine of these islands with its raw natural beauty. Boats can anchor just off the beach for fishing, picnicking, birding, hiking the trails, rustic camping (with a reservation), snorkeling and shelling. Or maybe just sitting and listening to the waves and watching for manatees or pods of dolphins from the beaches of this barrier island is your perfect way to pass the day.
Bike to Bokeelia
Three miles north of Tarpon Lodge lies the the small town of Bokeelia at the northernmost tip of Pine Island. The road bends sharply left and the beautiful water of Charlotte Harbor comes into view. There are a few local joints to grab drinks and island-style fare, and a nice little gallery called Crossed Palms Gallery, featuring some beautiful artwork of local artists. From here you can pick up the 16-mile bike path that runs the length of the island from Bokeelia to St. James City and peddle as little or as much as you want. Don't have your own? Rent some from Pine Island Cycles.
Chill Out in Matlacha
We love exploring the quirky places in southwest Florida, like the Koreshan Unity Settlement in Estero and the Smallest Post Office Building in the USA down in the Florida Everglades, but Matlacha takes the quirky cake. Pronounced Mat-la-SHAY, the tiny spit of land nestled between the mainland and Pine Island is dotted with seasonal cottages, funky bars, and colorful art galleries. It's a literal riot of color as you drive through, so allow yourself a few extra hours to get out and walk around on your way to or from Tarpon Lodge. Spend the afternoon here shopping, grab a fresh fish sandwich and a beer for lunch (it's fine, you're now officially on island time!), and hang with your new friends at Berts Bar & Grill. Matlacha is the place to buy yourself those tropical paintings, tiles, or sculptures that'll adorn your home, and forever remind you there really IS that place in Florida with that much salt and color.
Historic Pine Island Sound Fishing Shacks
A highlight of the day was slowly cruising past six of the remaining historic fishing shacks and ice houses that still stand in Pine Island Sound, remnants of what was once a thriving fishing industry that began around 1920 but slowly faded after WWII. These basic one story structures built by the Punta Gorda Fish Company are built on stilts in the relatively shallow water of Captiva Rocks, a shoal between Cayo Costa and Pine Island. It had to have been a tough existence working with no electricity, telephones, plumbing, and rain water collected from the metal roofs and rain gutters.
Rob stopped the boat as close as he could so we could take photos, and we were in awe of the rugged individuals who chose this way of life. Sadly, many of the houses were deemed hazardous to navigation and burned down by the State of Florida, while others have been lost under questionable circumstances. We saw only six houses although 10 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some are now privately owned and some are available as rentals. What an incredible experience it would be to spend a night or two in one, romanticizing the past!
We can't recommend visiting Tarpon Lodge highly enough. They offer essential amenities and tick plenty of boxes for a relaxing getaway. Fabulous food? Check. Scenic views? Check. Comfortable accommodations? Check. Fish jumping? Everywhere! Friendly service? Yes, that too, in spades.
But after all the pleasant descriptions and boxes ticked, here's the real reason you should go. Tarpon Lodge isn't a big place, and it's not a resort. It's a small, family-friendly lodge that reminds you in short time of the truly important things in life. Family. Fishing. Boating. Fun. In any order. It's one of those places that's not only reminiscent of Old Florida, but of a time before we all had too much to do. Something at Tarpon Lodge reminds you that it's OK to turn off your phone and run around with the kids. You can linger over dinner because there's absolutely no place you need to be except here. It's truly a multi-generational gem with a loyal clientele who return again and again. Sitting on the dock enjoying the sunsets here is as good as it gets.
You can't beat Tarpon Lodge for the laid-back charm you rarely find these days, and we can’t think of a more relaxing place.
IF YOU GO
Tarpon Lodge and Restaurant is open year round for dinner and overnight stays. The Lodge is a popular venue for weddings and group events as well. 13771 Waterfront Drive, Bokeelia, FL
Cabbage Key is 100 acres of tropical vegetation surrounding an historic restaurant, inn and rental cottages, and accessible only by boat. For more information, visit their website. ICW Channel Market 60, LAT. 26° 39' 24.162" LONG. 82° 13' 20.635"