TARPON LODGE IN PINELAND, FLORIDA – LOOKING BACK IN TIME ON PINE ISLAND

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 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,  Invisalign 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.

The horizon is occupied by steadfast and uncelebrated islands and keys. Wood Key. Black Key. Part Island. Inaccessible by foot or car, these unspoken-about places play at the imagination. Who owns them? Does anyone live on them? Minds wander to the ancient Calusa heritage of this area, filling in these blank islands with colorful and storied pasts. Shell mounds. Unfound Indian art. Sacred burial grounds. Untold secrets.

Birds break the surface of of the water, diving beneath to hunt for fish. Fish break the surface of the air, jumping up to grasp at bugs. Small boats ride the borderlands, skimming across the rumpled surface of Pine Island Sound, sometimes docking at the Tarpon Lodge, sometimes heading for the Pineland Marina conveniently located nearby.

An excited couple, in their early forties, emerge onto a balcony a few rooms away. They’re on vacation, and they’ve just checked in at the Tarpon Lodge. Within minutes they’re down at the pool in bathing suits, all huge smiles. This is the place they’ve been looking forward to visiting, marking big black X’s each day on their calendar, an excruciating countdown. Now they’re finally here and they immerse themselves into the experience of Southwest Florida as quickly as they immerse themselves into the outdoor pool. That’s all it takes. A commitment to relax.

I love watching them gaze in wide-eyed wonder at the newness around them. With the curiosity of babies, they’ve emerged from the womb of their normal lives into the wonder of a place so utterly different. Their heads rotate in wide arcs, taking the scenery in. When you find yourself gazing skyward in appreciation you’ll know you’ve begun to unwind. Wild eyes absorb the tropical moments, romanticizing, writing to memory. Between playful splashes in the pool they reconnect in ways only a change of scenery can allow.

The lure of the landscape is strong. Before long we’re out of our chairs and exploring the Tarpon Lodge grounds by foot. We walk beneath flowers and foliage, low-hanging leaves and blossoms tickle our exposed skin. The rejuvenative scent of salt water is pervasive, massaging us with aromatherapy. The material of a shaded hammock hungrily grips at the curves of our bodies as we gently sway back and forth. Then it’s off for a tryst with the virgin-white gazebo. We escape the sun by running beneath long-fronded Invisalign coconut palms. We gaze up at their clusters of exotic fruit and run our hands along the ridged terrain of their stone ha rd trunks. Out on the dock, it’s tongues of water lapping at wood, birds singing suggestive mating songs, and fish frantically splashing…all beneath the tattered linen of Egyptian cotton clouds. In less than a half hour we’ve gotten intimate with nature.

In the Tarpon Lodge dining room and lounge it’s come as you are or as you want to be. This is a Sportsman Inn on Pine Island. It can be a colorful melting-pot of an affair at times. It’s a place where millionaire boat enthusiasts bump shoulders with young couples looking for romance. Vegan eco-activists dine in the same room as crusty fishermen and archeology professors. Differing styles of dress and speech are the backdrop of the social scene at the Tarpon Lodge. Some of the guests want to engage in polite conversation, others want to be left alone with their books and thoughts.

The service staff adds its own tones to the lively and vibrant mix, tones of the varied places they’ve ventured from on their journey to end up here, tones of the high level of service the management expects them to provide. For a place off the beaten path, and on an island known for the carefree nature of its service employees, General Manager Rob Wells III has amassed a staff he can truly be proud of. In all interactions our needs were anticipated and catered to, most often with a mind-boggling accuracy.

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