Useppa Island Cruise


       Where exactly is Useppa Island one might ask? It is a fair enough question. Useppa is one of the barrier islands in Pine Island Sound that separate it from the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s Southwest Coast. It is just South of Boca Grande, sitting about 100 yards across the intra coastal waterway from Cabbage Key. Both of these islands in addition to Cayo Costa State Park, North Captiva, Captiva and Sanibel are the barrier islands for Pine Island Sound. Useppa is a colloquial shortening of the name Joseffa, a Colonial Spanish Lady of note for whom the island had originally been named. Pirates, adventurers, fishermen and sportsmen had called the island home. Names like Baron Collier, Rockefeller and Ford had visited here frequently. Even the C.I.A had used the island briefly as a training base for the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba circa 1960.

       Pine Island Sound itself is a shallow expanse of water off Southwest Florida’s coast, stretching from Pine Island to the Barrier Islands and running from Sanibel Island  to the Boca Grande Sound in the North. Why would you want to travel to Useppa one might ask, as did we when we first researched the island? We were about to find out.

      Early one day, on a very sunny and warm morning in early November, we set out from the airport area of Ft. Myers, Florida and drove towards the Gulf of Mexico. We crossed the new Sanibel causeway, paid our six-dollar toll and then drove the 30-mile length of Sanibel Island to Captiva. Naturally when you are in a hurry, you get behind the slowest delivery truck on the island for the entire length of the drive. We had left Fort Myers at 8:20 A.M and it was now 9:30 A.M., as we turned right onto Andy Bosse Lane at the only intersection on Captiva Island. A short way down the lane we came upon McCarthy’s Marina. For a five-dollar fee we parked in the busy lot and then walked up to the small ticket office of the marina. Thanks to the turtle like delivery truck, we stood in a good-sized line and purchased our tickets for the Cruise to Useppa Island. We had snagged a $25 discount coupon from the Florida Weekly Newspaper, so our trip tickets cost only $45 for the two of us.

      We and our friends, Deb & Tony Blanchard, then  walked to the nearby dock and stood in line to board the double decked “Lady Chatham” for the one hour ride out to Cabbage Key and Useppa Island. I should mention that Useppa is a private island club and only members, residents and passengers on the Captiva Cruises are allowed entrance to the island.

       The Lady Chatham is a good-sized and double-decked ferry. The first deck holds a spacious snack bar that serves coffee, snacks and any spirits that you need to make the journey. There are two spacious restrooms on the aft fantail. We climbed the twin forward gangways to the airy and open top deck. Two thirds of the deck is shaded. The expanse is filled with comfortable plastic chairs spread around small tables. It is a comfortable arrangement for passengers.

Promptly at 10:000 A.M. the crew slipped the Lady Chatham’s lines and we edged off into the Pine Island Sound. The sky was a brilliant blue. The sun was shining brightly and the temperatures were fast climbing towards 80 degrees. It was a great day to be at sea.

        The boat came with a knowledgeable guide who filled us in on the ecosystem of the sea and islands around us. About 30 minutes into the cruise we got our first surprise. Two large Atlantic, bottle-nosed Dolphins and two of their cubs joined us. The sleek grey fish surfed the wake of the boat in a delightful aquatic display that you usually only see at Sea World or Disney. The guide told us that the dolphins respond to noise and encouraged us to hoot and holler. Perhaps it is a private tour boat joke, but the entire passenger compliment proceeded to hoot and holler to beat the band. I don’t know if the Dolphins heard us but they continued to surf the wake to our great entertainment. Cameras clicked and passengers oohed and ahhed at their sleek performance. The Dolphins are capable of swimming at speeds of 30 miles per hour, faster than the 22 miles per hour capability of the Chatham. Each of the fully-grown adults consumes 36 pounds of fish per day. Biologists have estimated that about 100 of the majestic creatures make their home in the Pine Island Sound Environs. If you do the math you begin to realize the enormous wealth of sea life that survives and prospers in the small sound that’s average depth runs only four to six feet.

       When the Dolphins left us, we sat back in our chairs and enjoyed the sea and bird life around us. Pelicans, those  sleek and graceful avian creatures flew in vee formations like some sort of World War II dawn fighter patrol. They skimmed the waves in a perpetual search of fish, diving when they spotted a meal near the surface. I could watch them forever. Other white winged flights of avians drifted overhead and all around us in an impressive aerial ballet.

         We passed Cayo Costa State Park, with its six-mile long beaches where shell collectors spend a day just wandering the pristine barrier island. We were motoring along the inter coastal. Several large and very impressive motor yachts careened by us with their rolling wakes that made our passengers grip the handrails for stability.

Finally, about 70 minutes into the cruise, we approached Cabbbage Key. Mary and I had had the pleasure of spending the night on this charming island and enjoying its wonderful restaurant. The Chatham motored into the dock and about half of our passengers got off. They would have two hours for lunch and exploring the nature trails of the small island.

We pushed off for the short trip across the water and around the headland to the entrance for the Useppa Island Marina. Several of the large, white sided and tin roofed Key West Style vacation homes ring the marina. The island houses around 120 homes, most of which are second homes for club members. Real Estate prices range from a modest $450,000 cottage to a hefty two million dollar tag for the bigger attractive villas. Hurricane Charley had taken a huge toll here in property damage but all that had since been repaired.

        The Lady Chatham tied up at the Marina. We were met onshore by a docent guide who briefed us on the island and its history. We walked along the pleasant Pink Path that straddles the islands spine and enjoyed the abundant and verdant flora around us. Towering Banyan Trees, colorful bougainvillea and other brightly colored flowers gives the island a lush and richly tropical appearance.

       We reached the attractive and old Florida style elegance of the Collier Inn. Because of wait staff limitations the docent advised us that only half of the visitors could head in for lunch. She then led the rest of us through the wonderfully appealing and shaded patio deck of the Inn and past the small pool and cantilevered sun deck. Members were already out enjoying the sun. We passed a large and immaculately groomed Croquet pitch and an outsized open chessboard on our way to the small Useppa Museum. A suggested five-dollar donation to the museum gains entrance. We were given the audio, hand-held tour sets, but you don’t really need them The storyboards and exhibits of the small museum are self-explanatory. We wandered the three small rooms and enjoyed reading about the 10,000-year history of the Island. Various exhibits of the Calusa Indians, Spanish explorers and later a rota of the Islands owners spelled out the history of South West Florida. The small display of the Bay of Pigs Invasion was of interest. The tour only takes 15 minutes or so and is of interest,

From the Museum we walked back past the croquet pitch and chess set to the very attractive and shaded open veranda of the Collier Inn. We were hoping to sit and enjoy lunch in this comfortable and attractive setting. A polite waitperson informed us that this venue was for “members only.” She led us into the airy and open expanse of the Collier inn and seated us near the kitchen in a side dinning room. Instant Bummer. What are we, chopped liver? The lunch wasn’t much better. Mine wasn’t very good. Mary said hers was okay. I would recommend a pass. Bring your own lunch, snack on the boat and do lunch or dinner on Sanibel or Captiva.

        The inn itself is elegant. Several very posh guest rooms occupy the second floor of the Inn. The first story if open and airy with dark woods and nautical regalia on the walls. From its from veranda you look out on the Sound in an eye pleasing exercise in good taste and decor. The “Members Patio” is even more pleasing but banned for the peasants.

          After lunch, we walked back along the Pink Path, enjoying the lush foliage and brilliant flowering shrubs. Two large gopher turtles slid in the sand by the path. These large and ungainly creatures tunnel some 30 feet into the sand to create their nests. At the appropriately named Banyan Cottage, we admired a huge Banyan tree that towered over the path and cottage. Everywhere around us the senses are tickled with the attractive surroundings. It really is an elegantly and eye pleasing tropical venue that rivals Bora Bora and Tahiti in the far away Pacific.

Our two-hour visit was coming to a close, so we quick marched to the Marina area. They have a smaller tavern/restaurant here named the Tarpon Lounge that feeds the peasants in the Winter Months. There is also a small gift shop and members real estate office.

The Lady Chatham was idling at the dock as we walked along the pier. If you were late, you either had to swim for shore or call a water taxi.

All the passengers made it back on time and we boarded the sturdy craft. An elderly woman lost her balance topside and fell on the deck, giving her noggin a good crack. We settled her down and after finding no real damaged helped her up to a chair. Though embarrassed at her fall, she appeared to be unhurt. 

The Lady Chatham slipped her lines and motored from the marina enjoying the scenic visage of the Key West Homes on this very attractive Island vacation spot. The skipper entered the Inter coastal and cranked up the boat to cruising speed. The guide gave us an interesting narration of the effects of local hurricanes on the ecosystem and contours of the islands around us. We espied a complex of three fish houses sitting alone out in the sound. It is a southwest Florida oddity well written about by local author Randy Wayne Wright.

        About half way back to Captiva, a small pod of dolphins joined us. They surfed the ship’s wake off the port fantail in a delightful aquatic ballet accompanied by and elderly chorus of tourists hollering to beat the band. We enjoyed their antics for the brief performance and then sat back in our chairs to enjoy the gorgeous afternoon. The sea and the sky and water around us are a visual medley of eye candy that relaxes the senses and make you want more.

We motored past Cayo Costa and North Captiva, another semi private island accessible only by watercraft. Then we nudged on inward toward Captiva and Sanibel and the McCarthy’s Marina. It had been an enjoyable and pleasant five-hour excursion that I would recommend to anyone on a sunny day in Southwest Florida. As we tied up at the dock, one young couple exited the boat unsteadily. The young lad was smashed to the gills. He must have had an interesting cruise. His significant other told every one loudly that they weren’t driving. Thank goodness for that. The lad could hardly stand let alone drive. We exited the craft and reclaimed our chariot and then drove back along Captiva and Sanibel for home. It had been a pleasant and interesting day.

For reservations of the Captiva Cruise Excursions try their website at  Captivacruises.com or call 239-472-5300. Bring a light sweater for early morning cruises and leave at least an hour for the dive to Captiva during rush hour traffic. The McCarthy’s are gracious hosts. You will enjoy their hospitality.

          

-30-

                                (2,,126 words)

                            Joseph Xavier Martin

                             Ft. Myers, Florida