Pine Island lies just west of Cape Coral. In addition to the excellent fishing, talented artists, and ancient archaeological sites… there are also several utterly unique “Old Florida” experiences not to be missed. Chief among these is the Tarpon Lodge Sportsman Inn, Restaurant, and Bar located on the northwest coast of Pine Island in Pineland.
From Cape Coral, the ride to Pineland is scenic and relaxing. A straight shot down Pine Island Road takes me past thick native vegetation. Fishermen and artists magic mushroom Chocolate Bar. bump shoulders with photographers and eco-tourists amidst the hallucinogenic colors of Matlacha. Then it’s a quick and quiet jaunt through the stark alien landscape of the Little Pine Island wetland restoration area.
From the four-way stop sign at the center of Pine Island, I turn right onto Stringfellow road. Grand entrances to half-built subdivisions encroach on the scenic space, threatening the future of long enduring roadside vegetable vendors and the lush, desolate labyrinths of palm tree nurseries. The onward push for bigger, better, faster, more is visible, even here.
A fish-emblazoned sign at the corner of a side street points the way to the Tarpon Lodge. Magnificent shell mounds raise the ground on the right side of the road. Sparkling Pine Island Sound soon comes into view on the left. A short distance ahead stands the stately Tarpon Lodge Sportsman Inn and Restaurant. It’s right across the road from the Calusa Heritage Trail and practically next-door to the home of New york Times best-selling author, Randy Wayne White.
The main building was originally built in 1926 by the Wilson family. Later on it was owned and operated by I. B. and Mary Hunt Jones as the Pine-Aire Lodge. In 1986, an additional dormitory building was added to the former Pine-Aire Lodge property. For the next ten years the property was known as The Cloisters, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. It wasn’t until 2000 when Robert and Phyllis Wells (who also own the restaurant at Cabbage Key) purchased the complex. They renovated the main building and dormitory into a restaurant and hotel… the present day Tarpon Lodge. It opened for business in June of 2001. When Hurricane Charley made landfall on Pine Island on August 13, 2004, it severely damaged the roof of the main structure, flooding the main dining room. Most of the windows were shattered and all of the docks were destroyed. After the storm, work ensued, and the property was restored again. The restaurant reopened on December 15, 2004. The Inn reopened during the New Year’s holiday and immediately hosted a family gathering for former President Jimmy Carter and his family.
Royal palms and banana tree leaves shade the front entrance. Red flowers and green leaves come alive in the soft breeze as i walk by them on my way to check in to an overnight room. A quick tour and gracious hospitality are immediately offered by the kind woman behind the desk. After my Tarpon Lodge orientation, it’s out to the car to gather the wife and belongings… we’re officially on Island Time.
Pineland is as laid back as it gets. This isn’t glitzy-neon Florida. This isn’t sweaty South Beach, or posh Worth Ave, or tacky Panama City, or plastic Orlando. Even Sanibel and Captiva look overpopulated and hectic when compared against Pineland. People who visit the Tarpon Lodge don’t end up here on accident… they usually come here looking for one of a few things: fishing, history, nature, romance or solitude. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a mixture of them all.
There are several types of rooms available at the Tarpon Lodge, but space is limited… especially during the tourist and tarpon seasons. The small number of rooms available adds to the allure of the lodge, and allows the staff to accomplish their goal of hands-on, personal service for each guest they host.
The 1926 historic house has nine rooms. Even though this building has been renovated several times, you’d never know it. A lot of antique materials still exist. Most rooms even still have the original hardwood floors. Some of the rooms in the main building have water-views. All of them have convenient access to the restaurant and lounge. Another major selling point is that these rooms offer the distinctive opportunity to become a part of Pine Island history by staying overnight in one of the oldest buildings on the Island.
There is one cottage and a restored 1926 boathouse. Both have kitchenettes, porches, and fantastic water views. These options are perfect for those planning extended stays.
Our room is in the Island House, a stilt building behind the main building. There are twelve rooms in this building. Six of them have a water-view. All of the water-view rooms in the Island House have small balconies facing west, allowing a one-of-a-kind vantage point to mind-blowing, Pine Island Sound sunsets. We’re lucky enough to have snagged one of the water-view rooms even though our visit is halfway through tarpon season.
The room is comprised of a comfortable bed, a lamp, an armoire with a small television and a private bathroom. The most important feature is the balcony overlooking the pool, the tropically-manicured grounds and Pine Island Sound. There’s no phone in the room. There’s no wireless internet access, either. Both of those can be had in the main building… but I’ve come here to disconnect from the electronic ties that bind me everywhere else.
Once every thing’s lugged up from the car and we’re settled, it’s out to the balcony with a freshly popped bottle of red wine and two glasses. A couple wicker chairs and a table await us, along with all the glory of unspoiled Southwest Florida.
A steady, cooling breeze caresses our skin and flirts with our hair. Alternating patterns of bright sunlight and cloud shadows intermingle on the well-kept lawn stretching towards the water. A few errant seagrape leaves blow across the grass. Love bugs mate mid-air. A green anole extends its brightly colored dewlap and bobs up and down. Our entire view is of an unhurried and idyllic paradise… swaying palms, huge watercolor skies, and the wide expanse of Pine Island Sound.