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Bokeelia: Heaven near harbor on charming Pine Island
Sanibel and Captiva are not the only islands worth your time west of Fort Myers. There's Pine Island, anchored by Matlacha at the center, St. James City at the southern end and, 18 miles distant on the only road on the island, Bokeelia on the northern tip facing Charlotte Harbor. Definitely not Sanibel or Captiva and still blessedly free of the glitter and glam, the gated golf course condominiums and the strip malls.
St. James City was established in 1885 by a group of sun-seeking New Englanders who brought their spruce-and white pine from Maine to construct enough buildings to create one of the most popular escapes in South Florida. Bokeelia competed for attention from snowbirds and adopted its Spanish name, meaning "little mouth," when early settlers started building their homes away from home.
The oldest survivor in Bokeelia dates from 1904 and today houses a restaurant, Cap'n Con's.
A two-story survivor from 1914, known as the Poe-Johnson house, was rescued from a half-dozen years of neglect and very carefully restored to bring the heart of pine floors and walls back to life. The fireplace was restocked and new paddle were fans installed.
Lots of wicker from Indonesia was added to the main floor and porch areas, and some was used in the six guest rooms, which have individual temperature control units, private baths, louvered shutters and comfortable queen-size beds, telephones but no TVs.
The dedicated midwife responsible for the rebirth of this historic property is Chris Dejarlais-Luerth, who opened for bed-and-breakfast business two years ago.
A retired librarian from Brown University, and possibly the only retired university librarian ever to do something so completely different as opening a B&B. At least in Florida.
Especially one that caters to happily to fisherfolk. The waters around the Bokeelia Tarpon Inn teem with tarpon, redfish, snook and sea trout and there's a fly-tying room where a local fishing guide demonstrates the fine art of tying lures. There's the only television in the inn, and it has a library of fishing videos, including instructional ones on fly-tying.
The inn will make arrangements for fishing boat charters and advise on the various tour boats that afford the only access to the state park on Cayo Costa and to the famous Cabbage Key Inn, where mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart wintered and got away from the cold.
Noontime visitors stream over from Captiva to marvel at the rusticity and isolation while eating their simple meals in rooms that are papered with dollar bills. Only McGuire's Irish Pub in Pensacola has more legal tender tacked up as a major part of the decor.
Other places to sit and snack on the island are The Waterfront Restaurant in an old school in St. James City, the Lazy Flamingo at the Jug Creek Marina and Lovey's on Stringfellow Road, the sole north-south strip of asphalt. The servings are down-home generous and you can stack up on sticky buns and various croissantwiches to tide you over as you explore the island,
A must first stop is MOTI, the locals' shorthand for the Museum of the Island where various artifacts have been preserved explaining the origins and geology, the effect of the 1955 gill net ban on local fisheries, and the culture of the Calusas, a remarkable people who thrived on the island for some 2,000 years until the Spanish introduced them to European diseases and the English slave-raiding parties swept in from the sea.
For a fuller history of those traders, netters and canal-builders, make sure to visit the Randell Research Center, named for the family that donated 53 acres to the archaeologists and historians from the Florida Museum of Natural History, who have been working a 200-acre site on the western edge of the island, scooping and sifting earth to find fish vertebrae and animal bones, shells, science beads and glass. It's known as "salvage archaeology," an important introduction to an exacting science, and you can learn more about it by signing up for volunteer digs during the January-March season, or by taking a more passive role by going on one of the walking tours, designed for small groups and held every Saturday morning at 10. To reserve space contact the Center at 239-283-2062.
Of course you don't have to do any more at the Bokeelia Tarpon Inn than kick off your shoes and sit back on the porch, gazing out at Boca Grande and the panorama of giant Charlotte Harbor. There's plenty of snack stuff plus complimentary wine for an afternoon attitude readjustment at sunset time.
You start your day at Bokeelia Tarpon with a hearty breakfast built around fresh squeezed grapefruit and orange juice, sticky buns, choice of cereals and freshly brewed coffee, plus a healthy portion of good ole biscuits and gravy. And you end it with the comforting confidence that you have in fact stepped back in time and found a simpler form of Florida.