Islands and Lighthouses
Much of southwest Florida’s earliest, most colorful history can be found on and around
the barrier islands that dot its coastline.
Because their beauty can be enjoyed by land or water, these islands are popular among boaters
They also have long been a Mecca for explorers, including Ponce de Leon who discovered Sanibel and Captiva in 1513. It is believed that Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar lived in Pine Island Sound during the early 1800s. Legend has it that the central location enabled him to establish headquarters on Sanibel Island (Santa Isybella Island) and bury his ill-gotten gains on Gasparilla Island. Further, it’s been said that Captiva Island (translated from Isle de los Captivas) was so named because
Gaspar kept his ransomed female prisoners there.
By 1900, sea captains and farmers were homesteading the islands.
And in 1925, inventor Clarence Chadwick converted Captiva into a key lime plantation.
Today, Chadwick’s plantation is the 330-acre South Seas Resort.
This tropical, resort paradise is a prime vacation destination, complete with a marina,
golf course and upscale restaurants.
While some information is based on oral history, most of the background on
the area’s most noteworthy people and places can be verified.
Carbon dating, for instance, reveals that southwest Florida was the cultural center of the Calusa Indians.
Evidence of the now-extinct tribe remains in the shell mounds and other artifacts found
on several islands along the coast.
Impressive historical proof of the Calusa Indian’s shell mounds reside on Mound Key,
a state-designated historical site in Estero Bay behind Fort Myers Beach.
Accessible only by boat, the key is a favorite with history buffs and archaeologists.
One of the best ways to learn about the tiny island and its first inhabitants is on a boat tour.
The area’s historical archeological records start 12,000 years ago, including the period from 1513,
when the first Europeans arrived, until the mid-1700s, when the Calusa Indians vanished.
Randell Research Center on Pine Island
The world of the Calusas is the focus of tours offered at the Randell Research Center at Pineland,
part of the 200-acre Pineland Site Complex on Pine Island.
For more than 1,500 years, the Calusa Indian tribe occupied this 200-acre,
internationally-significant archaeological site, leaving behind enormous shell mounds,
remnants of an ancient canal and artifacts of daily life.
Standing historic structures
represent Florida’s early pioneer history and have earned the Pineland Site Complex a listing
on the National Register of Historic Places.
The center allows both a walking tour of the Pineland site and a kayak trip to Josslyn Island,
offering informed insight to the archaeology, history and culture of the Calusas.
The Calusa Heritage Trail at Randell is a 3,700-foot interpretive walkway that leads visitors
through the mounds, canals, and other features of the Pineland archaeological site.
Signs along the trail provide visitors with detailed information regarding the Calusa Indians.
The trail also features observation platforms atop the site’s tallest shell mound.
Guided tours are offered to the public during peak season (January – April) on Wednesdays at 10 a.m.
The site is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. For more information, call (239) 283-2062.
Cruises & Boat Tours
For an "island experience" and to learn more about the wildlife and history of the area,
Tropic Star of Pine Island offers a variety of on-the-water adventures from Pineland Marina on Pine Island.
The 59-passenger “Tropic Star" offers full- and half-day narrated nature cruises to Cayo Costa
and Cabbage Key.
On the way, guests encounter two natural bird rookery islands, along with dolphins, manatees
and other wildlife. During the cruise, passengers learn about the ecosystem, mangrove
islands and history of the area. Tropic Star departs daily at 9:30 a.m. and reservations are required.
Rates are $29 for a full day, $25 for half a day for adults and $17 for children under 8 years.
The passenger ferry, the "Cayo Costa Star," transports visitors for a
day or overnight to Cayo Costa State Park to enjoy the beaches, shelling, nature trails and swimming
in the Gulf of Mexico. The “Cayo Costa Star" departs daily at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Rates are $23 for adults same day, $29 for adults overnight and $17 for children under 8 years.
Reservations are required.
Two-hour cruises on the Calusa Star, a 32-passenger pontoon boat, features Calusa mound
viewing on Pine Island Sound in conjunction with Randell Research Center.
For more information, call (239) 283-0015 or visit www.tropicstarcruises.com.
Cabbage Key is a near-famous local island that offers a variety of riches, including an inn with restaurant
walls, beams and ceilings plastered with $1 bills.
Although the island is accessible only by boat, and the inn has only a few guest rooms and cottages,
its restaurant and lounge accommodates thousands of visitors each year.
Inn at Cabbage Key: renowned for the "dollar bill wallpaper"
The Inn at Cabbage Key is the former estate of Alan and Grace Rinehart, built in 1938.
It sits atop a Calusa Indian shell mound 38 feet above sea level, offering outstanding views of
the 102-acre island and surrounding Pine Island Sound.
As for the dollar bill wallpaper, it’s a tradition that began in 1941 when a fisherman signed and taped
his last dollar to the wall.
That way, when he returned, he’d have money to buy a beer.
Visitors continue the custom.
At about the same time that the Rineharts discovered Cabbage Key, other wealthy settlers also
were discovering The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.
In 1912, advertising entrepreneur Barron Collier bought the nearby 100-acre Useppa Island and developed
it as a resort for the rich and famous.
Meanwhile, the duPont family had founded Boca Grande, renowned for being rich in fish, on Gasparilla Island.
Today, the island’s well-heeled visitors and fishing aficionados range from movie stars and moguls to
political heavyweights like the Bush family.
During the winter, several generations of Bushes (including the former and current U.S. president,
and Florida’s governor) often gather there for the holidays.
Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum
One of the island’s main attractions is the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum, built in 1890.
Features include exhibits of the Calusa Indians and the Native Americans who preceded them at Boca Grande.
Other displays talk about the first Spanish settlers, the development of commercial fishing,
the advent of the railroad and evolution of Boca Grande.
Stories of the island’s development highlight Port Boca Grand and its two lighthouses,
shining across the waters of “The Tarpon Capital of the World."
There’s also a gift shop in the museum, which opens daily November through May, and Wednesday
through Sunday from June through October, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Christmas Day.)
Although tours are free to the public, Gasparilla Island State Recreation Area charges $2 per vehicle
to enter the park where the museum is located.
Sanibel Lighthouse Boardwalk
Additional insights to old-time island life can be found to the south
at the Sanibel Lighthouse Boardwalk.
Built in 1884 on the island’s southern tip, the lighthouse has provided a wildlife refuge since 1950.
In recent years, the boardwalk was extended to give visitors easy access to the lighthouse and
surrounding cottages, connecting this beachfront landmark to a city fishing pier.
Call (239) 964-0375 or 964-2965.