I walked the nearby nature trail. (Everything on the 100-acre island is nearby.) "Keep your head up," an employee had told me. "The other day I saw a bald eagle carrying sticks." I saw mangroves, buttonwoods, live oaks, strangler figs, gumbo limbos, the eponymous cabbage palms, geckos, but no eagles.
Then I went to my room to get ready for dinner.
This is the paradox of Cabbage Key. It's no longer the Hemingwayesque hideaway accessible only by boat. (A lot of guests now are silence-seeking suburbanites — though they too must come by boat.) But the increasingly high-speed connectedness of the outside world steadily magnifies its gift of isolation.
The bar was warm, dimly lit, wallpapered with money — a rebuttal to the man (Eric Weiner) who wrote that hot climates are death to coziness. Taking a seat, I felt like a figure in a nesting doll, cocooned in a snug bar in the heart of an old inn ensconced on an island surrounded by islands. One of Florida's great watering holes, ringed by water.
A couple from Brooksville was talking to a man I assumed was the owner. The assistant manager had told me that Rob is a great fisherman, a man who knows the currents, the spots, the feeding habits. "We have a fishing tournament," the man had said, "and the young fishermen come and gather 'round him. It's like he's holding court."
Rob talked about Buffett, and how he'd perform in the bar. "People still come in and play impromptu." He downplayed the story about Cheeseburger in Paradise, saying that Buffett had invited him and his wife to a concert, given them seats up front, and then dedicated the song to them. He didn't know if that meant the song was about his burger.
He said it was hard to keep the place unique. He didn't advertise, though his sons — both now in the business — believed he should. Still, word got around. "Europeans come," he said, "in the summer. And it's hot here in the summer — hotter than in Fort Lauderdale."
I mentioned he'd been able to keep out development, keenly aware that there wasn't that much land to develop.
"It's not about that. It's about how much you can charge for a cheeseburger."
He said he hosted a Christmas party every year, attended by fishermen and assorted characters. Homage, I thought, to the old Cabbage Key spirit.
The dining room was nearly empty. The day-trippers had been taken away in boats, leaving me and two couples. It was the slow season, a few weeks before Christmas. I sat at a table next to the screen that looked out on two Cuban laurels. My waitress, Christy, was the same from lunch, though her green T-shirt had been replaced by a white blouse. I ordered grouper and a slice of the frozen Key lime pie.
After the meal I walked outside and climbed to the top of the water tower. The tank platform hid the firmament, but in all directions islands stretched in dark, watery sleep.
Thomas Swick can be reached at email@example.com . GOING TO CABBAGE KEY Yes, getting there is a little tricky, but that's the point, right? We've got everything you need to know on Page 6.