Useppa -- a place to slow down and fish


After you've collected shells on Sanibel beach, another delight of west Florida awaits: Useppa, tucked like a pearl in an oyster shell between the mainland and its barrier beach islands.

The 100-acre islet is surrounded by mangroves and by Pine Island Sound, the body of water that separates the mainland from North Captiva and Cayo Costa islands. You can't reach Useppa by car. If you don't have your own boat, there's a launch from Pine Island.

When I think of what makes southwest Florida attractive, I think of storied, unspoiled Useppa, a virtually private enclave of the 600-member Useppa Island Club. The island is home to about 100 residences, most of them classic, white-frame seaside dwellings with porches and widow's walks.

Only a few Useppans live here year-round. The rest settle into this old-fashioned, slow-lane place from Christ-mas to Easter.

A pink paved path connects their homes to a full range of resort facilities: a marina, tennis and croquet courts, small pool and hot tub, and two bars and a restaurant with a formal dining room and a more relaxed terrace, shaded by a huge banyan.

The Useppa Garden Club has devised a walking tour of the island's botanical treasures, including orchids and gumbo limbo trees. There's a history museum where the displays are devoted to tarpon fishing, the region's native Calusa people and the island's role in the Cuban missile crisis, when the CIA rented Useppa to prepare volunteers for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

High-jumping tarpon, which stream through Boca Grande Pass just west of Useppa, helped turn the island into America's premier sportfishing resort. In 1912, advertising and real estate tycoon Barron Collier founded the island's Izaak Walton Club, named for the author of the 17th-century fishing classic The Compleat Angler.

Collier welcomed tarpon hunters to the white, three-story, neoclassical hotel, now called the Collier Inn. It has seven rooms decorated to recall a bygone era. I stayed for two nights in the third-floor Izaak Walton Suite, which features a preserved tarpon and vintage photos of frocked Victorian fisherwomen. The room also has a double-size tub with jets, and a little balcony.

Rates at the inn (239- 283-1061; range from $180 to $356, including breakfast. If you don't want to stay over, you can take a day trip to the island by way of Captiva Cruises at South Seas Resort (239-472-5300).

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