Useppa Island – Try to Get There Once in Your Lifetime
We have been visiting Southwest Florida for over 30 years and have always chosen Sanibel Island as our place of refuge from the interminable Canadian winters. During our stays on the Sanibel we have always made a point of visiting the other barrier islands including Captiva, North Captiva, Cayo Costa and Cabbage Key. But one island was always off limits, the mysterious and very private Useppa Island, owned entirely by the Useppa Island Club. At one time in its history the Club was so exclusive that even children were not permitted to visit. Useppa Island has approximately 100 permanent homes whose owners who can, if they choose, live in almost complete seclusion some 20 minutes away from the mainland. Over the years we didn’t give Useppa Island much thought as a destination, until recently when a friend mentioned that the Collier Inn on the Island did accept guests who were not members of the Useppa Island Club.
The first step was to select accommodations by visiting the club’s website. Here you can choose from seven rooms in the former winter home of the legendary Barron Collier or a variety of suites in smaller buildings on the island. We chose the Gasparilla Suite which featured a fire place (not required needless to say), a four poster bed with a mirrored canopy and cathedral ceiling. The price was surprisingly affordable given the exclusive nature of Useppa Island. The next step was to reserve a spot on the water taxi that leaves the marina in Bokeelia at the northern tip of Pine Island three or four times a day for Useppa Island. Arriving at Southwest Florida International Airport, it was an easy one hour drive to the marina where, for a reasonable fee, the rental car was to be parked while we journeyed to Useppa Island.
While the trip to Useppa Island takes only 20 minutes we could imagine ourselves journeying back in time as the modern houses of the mainland quickly slipped from view, replaced by mangrove forests inhabited only by birds and alligators that haven’t changed in appearance since time immemorial. Then, almost suddenly there is an inhabited island, Useppa, with its entirely old Florida elegance. The buildings are either over a hundred years old or constructed in a manner to resemble old Florida. As the launch approached the landing jetty, no telephone wires or other modern appurtenances were apparent to diminish the illusion that the time has stood still and left Useppa Island behind.
The first thing we noticed on disembarking was the quiet. The click clack noise made by the wheels of our small suitcase as it was being pulled over the wharf planking seemed out of place, making lifting and carrying it the only option. At reception we were provided with our own 24 hour membership in the club and a personalized card to prove it. There is no need for cash or credit cards on Useppa Island as long as you have that little card. The only forms of transportation on Useppa Island are electric golf carts or bikes, which helps explain the quietness. Transported a short distance to our suite by golf cart we found it exactly as described on the website.
It was now time to explore Useppa Island by walking the Pink Promenade which originally started as a shell and pink sand path along the central ridge of the island over 100 years ago. Today it is pink concrete and has a total length of about a mile, however, don’t let that fool you, there are quite a number of other paths to explore so that exploring the island can easily take up the better part of three or four hours.
The first thing that becomes obvious on walking any distance is that Useppa Island is not like the other barrier islands; it is incredibly lush and definitely has a more tropical Caribbean feel. It was explained to us that Useppa’s somewhat unique location between the barrier island of Cayo Costa and the large mangrove lined shores of Pine Island creates a micro climate that makes for tremendous growing conditions. Whether this is correct or not it was amazing to see centuries old banyans, live oaks and other very large trees that had clearly weathered the hurricanes that occasionally strike the area.
In places the Pink Promenade is completely canopied by vegetation. There are dozens of varieties of palm, orchids everywhere, some wild, some potted, wonderfully colourful and fragrant frangipani and a distinct lack of invasive species like Australian pine. The whole island is really one giant garden with both wild and exotic tracts. As wonderful as the vegetation is, its splendour is outdone by the clear, warm and inviting ocean water surrounding the island. Unlike most other mangrove forested island in the area, Useppa Island does have some very good sand beaches, particularly in front of the Collier Inn.
Protected by Cayo Costa on one side and Pine Island and other barrier islands close by, the island has very little surf, but does have lots of powdery white sand on its beach on the west side. And while waves may lap the beach, they are so gentle the foot prints of the nocturnal foraging raccoons left in the tidal zone the night before, are still visible the next day under six to eight inches of the incoming waters. The shelling is not as good as on Sanibel but there is an abundance of live king crowns, and lots of little silver fish. As we trolled along in the shallow water on the beach looking for shells, we noticed small schools of the tiny little silver guys trailing along behind, apparently sifting through whatever we stirred up in our footprints. As we turned they turned, and so it went. We could also see small schools of six to ten inch silver fish darting about, not much interested in us our gang of tiny followers.
The Island is also home to a small but precious museum. A self guided audio tour is available acquainting visitors with the island’s habitation history for years. Useppa Island is home to one of the earliest archeological sites in North America. The Calusa Indians were the first to make their home here some 10,000 years ago, followed by the Spanish, the British and eventually the Americans. The museum tour is rich with the story of the island’s transitions geographically, and from the time of the Calusa’s reign of dominance, through to the first European contacts, to the sad chapter of Calusa decline.
Lunch was at the main lodge of the Collier Inn. The Inn was built as the summer home of Barron Collier, who developed much of Southwest Florida. Its architecture is of the pure old elegant Florida style, inside and out. Located on what appears to be the island’s highest point, the views of the green blue ocean below are magnificent. Within the well manicured grounds of the Inn we found a clay tennis court and to our surprise, an exceptionally green and well cared for croquet pitch. Perhaps more surprising, was the fact that there were players on the course some of whom were under thirty. The Inn’s interior is much of what you might expect from a once grand Floridian mansion, space, light and beautiful views of gardens and the ocean. Rooms are available for rent in the Inn itself.
Some of the famous guests who stayed at the Collier during the “Golden Years” included the Vanderbilts, President Herbert Hoover, the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds, Gloria Swanson, Shirley Temple and Zane Grey to name a few. The island was later abandoned and used by the U.S. government as a base for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
After a day of exploring Useppa Island, we resolved to watch the sun go down. Our deck had both east and west vistas. But not wanting to miss any of the magic of sunset, we took our camera and our glasses of chilled white wine and headed to one of several gazebos on the beaches to sit and watch the transformation of daylight to twilight. We were not disappointed. The calm of the waters at sunset and the golden light of that part of the world made an already picture perfect setting that more magical. It was a romantic way to set the mood for dinner at the Collier Inn main lodge.
The meal was pleasant and we didn’t have expectations of the service so we really enjoyed ourselves. We did make the acquaintance of some of the locals and struck up a conversation with the bar keep, who was a delightful young man. We headed back to our suite satisfied and relaxed, under the cover of a moonlit sky and only the sounds of the night at surf side to accompany us.
The most serious detraction from our Useppa Island experience was the fact we had only a day there. We would have loved to have taken a kayak tour of the bay or an evening sunset sail, or explored some of the other islands nearby as day trips by kayak for a picnic or shelling expedition. Before we knew it we were speeding back to Pine Island abroad our water taxi. It had been 24 hours of doing the things we like best; exploring, enjoying nature, appreciating the world around us and each other, in peace and quiet surrounded by nature’s beauty. What more is there to say but, when can we go back? Useppa Island is truly one of Florida’s hidden gems.
For more pictures visit the Useppa gallery.
If you are intrigued by Useppa you will also want to check out this post on three more great Florida gulf coast islands.
For more things to do on Pine Island Sound check out the great fishing with Saltiva Salt Water Fishing.