Monday, April 08, 2013

[Travel] Heat Islands

Heat Islands: (photos on smugmug) I increasingly have an ulterior motive for my trips to Florida and that is to scope out retirement sites. Yes, yes, I know. I am still many, many years away, and it's a presumption to even think about affording retirement of any kind. (At age 80 I may be greeting you at WalMart or serving your Egg McMuffin.) Still, when it comes to retirement I seem to be zeroing in on Florida which I probably shouldn't do with a jerk of the knee. I've been to many places that appeal for the golden years. With all the time I've spent in the Southwest, I've spotted probably dozens of little places mostly in Arizona that would work well. Sedona comes to mind (pricey). Tucson for convenience (but rather big city-ish). St. George, Utah seems almost ideal (although it does have an actual winter).

So I ask myself, why do I keep zeroing in on Florida? Wisdom of crowds perhaps? Familiarity? Proximity to Michigan? Ah ha. At retirement time, why would I care about proximity to Michigan? I will have permanently decamped. But the subconscious motivation reveals itself. Evidently I have in the back of my mind a wish for a vacation home -- somewhere to escape to coldest months of the northland. In that case proximity counts -- a 2 hour flight to FL beats a 4.5 hour flight out west. Then perhaps if I ever find myself actually able to retire, I can use said home for that purpose. I suppose visiting my 88-year-old mom in Sarasota might have something to do with my thoughts rambling in this direction.

First, I flew into Tampa and made my way to Dade City for a swamp run. Dade City is inland Florida -- not a beach for a hundred miles. Folks are occasionally surprised to learn that away from the coasts and far from Orlando, Florida is the rural South -- cypress trees and swamps and pulled pork. I pulled into my motel and asked at the front desk where I might be a able to grab a decent dinner. I was direct to three different barbecue joints. And there's a Wendy's down the street if you don't like barbecue.

In a nearby State park, Withlacoochee River Park to be exact, folks were about to Dance with Dirt. Dances with Dirt is a quarterly series of trail running events that is distinguished by the fact that they use the word "trail" very loosely. Over the course of the weekend, numerous events are held, from ultra-marathons down to 10Ks, including a unique 50-mile team relay event that involves a fair amount of time dealing with being lost in the wilderness. This being my first, I chose the shortest possible event -- the 10K.

The trail wound through the park along dirt roads and then into the swamp proper -- pushing through reed fields and ducking around low hanging moss. My time was abysmal, which I attribute to running with soaked shoes. And I nearly got lost twice but was redirected by one of my fellow runners both times, lest I disappear into the jaws of Brother Gator. Remarkably, I finished third in my age group. This achievement was mitigated by the fact that there were four people in my age group, but still, you gotta take the victories as they come.

And there was free beer at the finish. Dances with Dirt was a good time. Almost hippie-ishly low-key. Recommended.

The next stop was Sarasota where I got little time to explore but then there is little left in Sarasota for me to explore. Most of the time was spent with visiting my Mom and family welfare and such. Private matters, etc. I did manage to make a brief run down Longboat Key to Anna Maria Island and I have to note that, while still stunningly beautiful, the volume of traffic in season put me off a bit as far as considering them as a vacation/retirement target.

The next move was further south, to the islands around Ft. Myers. There are a slew of islands off the coast here, the most famous of which are Sanibel and it's sister Captiva. I've been there a couple of times and they are wonderful places, but they are expensive. And there is one main road along their spine and, in season, it resembles a parking lot. It can be the better part of an hour to travel the eight miles to the far end of Captiva. It's also $8 to get on the island by car (although I understand residents get a break on this in the form of a discount and an annual cap). Off season it's wonderful, but I skipped it this time.

Further to the north, accessed from the other side of the bay is Gasparilla, another barrier island, renowned for powdery beaches and seashells. It is loaded down with condo/resorts, very tastefully done, in the same completely understated and integrated style of Sanibel. It is smaller than Sanibel -- in fact the best thing to do is find your self a parking space and rent a golf cart to get around the island (or a bicycle of you're in reasonable condition). There's a smallish, walkable central area with shops and a handful of restaurants. At the south end is the State park/beach which is the main attraction. It can stand with best of the gulf, which means it can stand with the best in the world.

Gasparilla is a nice spot. Not as large or as busy as Sanibel, but still crowded. Getting a table at lunch in town could be an effort. In fact, I slid out of the center of town to a little tiki bar in strip mall where I was one of four lunch patrons for tacos with fresh grilled fish. Gasparilla is also at least a half hour closer to points north since you avoid the busy roads around the bay and the heart of Ft. Myers, meaning it's an easier shot to my Mom in Sarasota. But still -- it's high-end as far as real estate and, like Sanibel, it cost money to get on the island -- in this case only $6.

Aside: I don't know why I am getting so fixated on the these island access tolls. They really aren't that significant. Like I said, I think they are capped at something like $400 / year for residents, but even if they aren't, let's say I lived on Gasparilla year round and wanted to get on and off the island 300 days a year. That' s $1800. It seems like a lot but when you factor in the fact that there is no income tax in Florida and property taxes are significantly lower than anything here in Michigan, it actually starts to sound like a deal. It's just the niggling of getting dinged for the act of crossing a bridge that's causing me psychological issues. Lesson for life: Mind the bigger picture.

Next up, Pine Island. Pine Island is a channel island, not a barrier island. It has no beaches. It is fairly large, free to access, and pretty much entirely devoted to fishing. It is comparatively low-end -- there are a fair number of mobile homes and Old Florida fishing bungalows, but there are enclaves of better residences. One gets the impression that it is the back-of-the-house for the on-the-water industry in the area. Lots of marina space and services, and endless fishing charters. Peppered with open air casual fish restaurants. I don't fish, but I'd learn if I lived here.

Between the mainland and Pine Island sits Matlacha (pronounced Matt LaShay) Island -- a narrow strip of shabby chic shops, on-the-water restaurants, and classically run-down looking motels. It's a pinch point for traffic as you pass all these colorful places while crossing "the World's Most Fishingest bridge" and then you are on to Pine Island, no charge.

There are a couple of notable resorts -- one is the Useppa Island club, essentially a country club that does maintains a highly respected B&B. The other is the Tarpon Lodge, where I stayed. Tarpon Lodge is some pretty sweet digs. There is a very nice restaurant -- probably the best on the island. Nicely manicured bayside grounds. Standard hotel rooms are in the lodge building with a few cottages sprinkled over the grounds. Built in 1926, they advertise themselves as a place "frozen in time" and that strikes me as accurate. It's not just that the buildings are maintain to keep the same old world charm (including paper thin walls), but the seem to have only grudgingly brought their technology up to about 1970 (with the exception of included wi-fi). There is no facility for billing your drinks to your room. Credit cards are through those old manual sliders. Your TV is a 26" trinitron from the last days of Jimmy Carter. You get actual keys -- big square brass keys. The windows open. You also get a friendly personal greeting and a chat about any special needs you might have when you check in (rather than a cold stare from behind a big desk). You get amazing sunsets. Tarpon Lodge is a good spot.

Using Tarpon Lodge as a base, I proceeded to check out a couple of other, smaller islands, that you can only get to via the water.

Cabbage Key is an island full of curiosities and is the place to go if you really want to escape the world, but still have water and power. No cars, no paved roads, not even a convenience store. It is dominated by the Cabbage Key Inn where you can rent a room and eat in the very nice restaurant, or you can rent a house (there are a handful of rental homes on the island), and there are actual private homes (snowbirds I would guess). There is a lovely, winding nature trail that at one point of termination has a tree on which are hung numerous pairs of panties. There's an water/observation tower (not too high) from which you get a 360 view of the world. That's it. You can pretty much cover the entirety of the island in a couple of hours, which is what I did, including lunch in the restaurant.

And that's what most people do. You take one of the ferries over to the island and grab some lunch -- wander around a bit, then skedaddle. So, as you might guess, the Inn is hopping during lunch time. Waitlists, and so forth. It's worth it. The food is very good, but the atmosphere is the best. The place is nearly entirely covered walls to ceiling with taped-on one dollar bills. That's a thing here -- you sign a one dollar bill, maybe add an obnoxious little comment, then tape it to the wall or ceiling somewhere. It's quite a sight. Estimates range anywhere from 30,000 to 65,000 dollars is taped to the walls and ceilings -- including one signed by JFK and another one signed by Jimmy Buffett, from before he was famous.

I have to take issue, though, with another claim of the Cabbage Key Inn. They seem to be under the impression that Jimmy Buffet either wrote or was inspired to write Cheeseburger in Paradise here. That is bollocks. Cheeseburger in Paradise was conceived of while sailing in the British Virgins (per interviews with Jimmy). But I can't be too harsh, there isn't a burger joint in South Florida that doesn't make the same claim.

I don't know how long I could stay on Cabbage Key. The idea of serene isolation is appealing in principle, but in practice it gets really boring after a couple of days. And it would take me ten lifetimes to afford a house there. But I would make a lunch trip a must-do for any visit to the area.

The last island on my itinerary was North Captiva. There is Sanibel, which is famous, and its sister island immediately to the north, Captiva, connected by a short, barely noticeable bridge. North of that is North Captiva, which is not connected to anywhere by bridge. You boat in, or there is a small dirt landing stirp for planes that, were they any smaller, would be radio controlled. The north side of the island is filled with rental homes, quite sizeable, and vacation clubs (timeshares). The south is state land -- more fabulous beaches. Like Gasparilla, transportation is golf carts. As far as facilities go there are two restaurants, two gift shops, and a small grocery store, although the individual clubs often have their own private facilities.

It's quite lovely from what I saw, which wasn't much. I got off the water, found that all the golf carts were rented at the moment, and without a map or guideline in my head, started walking in the wrong direction. Eventually I got myself righted but with little time to explore. I did walk through the main community and it was pretty sweet. But it's important to remember that anything you need you are probably going to have to get by boating to the mainland or ordering it to be shipped. One guidebook claims that most people who visit bring too many clothes and not enough food.

It's very family oriented from what I saw. I suspect there are packs of families who visit every year, probably meet up with others who share their schedule. But that's what North Captiva is -- it is entirely dedicated to vacationers and snowbirds. And although there are a handful of shops, it strikes me as another place where after a day or two you'll be aching to spend some time off island.

And that was my trip. If I had to pick a sport right now, it would be on the northern end of Pine Island, but it's all still a way off. I still have an excuse to visit the gulf many times before settling in.